How time flies when you’re smoking marijuana.
The drug became legal in Colorado two years ago this month, the first time it was allowed for recreational use under any government in the world. Those years have been packed with developments, most hopeful. And from the vantage point of 2016, there are some important conclusions we can draw about the effectiveness of legalization.
Legalization has been a resounding success
First, we can say unequivocally, without a doubt: Legalization has been a massive, smashing success, flying even beyond the initial dreams of its longtime supporters. Cash is pouring into state coffers, hard drug arrests have dropped dramatically, and cartels are hurting. Police have more resources to tackle real crime. Stoners no longer require the criminal black market. And as of yet, not one person has dropped dead from overconsumption.
The picture is especially rosy when it comes to business and tax revenue. Over the two-year span, the industry hauled in roughly $1 billion in sales. In 2014, Colorado officials reported cannabis tax revenues of $44 million, less than expected. But that number tripled in 2015, reaching $125 million and making up the loss. That amount reflects a hugely successful industry, one that has managed to pull down hoards of cash without access to any traditional banking services.
So how did the state do so much better last year than the year before, considering that cannabis was legal both years? Probably the increase was driven by a combination of more stores and more customers. Colorado’s population didn’t grow significantly during that time, which means the added business came from people who decided to join the party after stores had been open for several months.
“I attribute it to . . . more and more people . . . comfortable with the legalization of marijuana,” said Tyler Henson, president of the Colorado Cannabis Chamber of Commerce. “They don’t see it as something that’s bad for them.”
Reduction in crime and road traffic incidents
There are other victories too, wins that can’t necessarily be measured in cash. Violent crime and traffic fatalities are down, possibly because of legalization. Unemployment has also dropped well below the national average, in part due to a big increase in legal jobs in the marijuana industry.
Money saved on marijuana convictions
But most important may be the fact that police and prosecutors have stopped harassing cannabis smokers across the state. That means a steep drop in arrests and far less money spent on prosecutions. Possession, cultivation, and distribution charges dropped 80 percent since legalization took effect.
“It’s heartening to see that tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding Coloradans have been spared the travesty of getting handcuffed or being charged for small amounts of marijuana,” said Art Way, Colorado director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “By focusing on public health rather than criminalization, Colorado is better positioned to address the potential harms of marijuana use, while diminishing many of the worst aspects of the war on drugs.”
Reduction in charges for all drugs
Equally significant, charges for all types of drugs, including illegal “hard” substances, have dropped by 23 percent in the state’s district court system. Whether because the easier availability of marijuana has led more users to pass up hard drugs or because law enforcement no longer regards these offenses as a priority, this is a positive sign that legalization is having the ancillary effects many supporters have said it would.
Drug cartels are suffering
That includes the hit reform has delivered to Mexican drug cartels. Though Colorado has long had a large homegrown marijuana market, Mexican brick still flowed into the state. Now, the loss of the Colorado market, along with the markets in Washington State, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C., the cartels have been forced to turn to new means of making money, such as pushing more heroin in New England. Though that itself is a bad development, it suggests that ending prohibition is the best way to tackle violent drug crime worldwide.
It’s anyone’s guess what will happen to legal weed in Colorado this year. Lawmakers could pass new legislation to tweak some of the rules. But mostly things appear to be working just fine. Better than fine, in fact – so good that it’s crystal clear now: There will be no going back.