DENVER, COLORADO —
Colorado's grand experiment with legalizing marijuana hasn't resulted in mayhem as some feared, and instead has led to a decrease in drug-related crimes, according to federal data.
In addition, legal pot has made significant money for the state.
Colorado collected an estimated $70 million in taxes on legal pot, according to Time magazine. Plus, some evidence suggests the availability of marijuana is having a positive impact on tourism.
But, not surprisingly, the most recent statistics also suggest, post legalization, more people are using the drug. Fourteen percent of Coloradans now report using the infamous weed.
Is that good or bad? It might depend on what you think about pot, but it's all part of a spirited debate about legalization and its impact on public safety.
Pot and crime, different views
On one hand, you have a non-profit group called “Law Enforcement Against Prohibition” that says Colorado’s “experiment” has been a huge success and should motivate state and federal authorities end the decades-long War on Drugs by legalizing all drugs. The group, known as LEAP, is made up of current and former law enforcement officers, judges and prosecutors. They point to the success of businesses like Local Product, a local cannabis dispensary.
Buying marijuana in Colorado is an ordinary and legal transaction
At the low brick building in the heart of downtown Denver, "Ryan" only has to show his ID to prove he’s over 21. At the sales counter, which displays dozens of pot strains, extracts and edibles, he leans forward and sniffs palm-sized "nugs" of dried marijuana like a connoisseur smelling the bouquet of a fine wine.
“...This one has a little more piney... Some have citrus smells. Fruity...”
The ounce of “nugs” that Ryan buys complies with complex state and local rules, including health department regulations. Ryan will carry them home in a Colorado-mandated, childproof container.
For the long-time user, the impact of legalize recreational marijuana has been overwhelmingly positive. “In the past I would have to go to the black market. But now I can freely go to any shop that I please and I can really pick someone that I feel comfortable with as opposed to calling a random number and I have no idea where it’s going.”
Federal data show that arrests for possession and distribution of pot in Colorado have dropped by nearly half since before sales became legal.
That has led LEAP to urge that the federal government legalize all drugs. Jason Thomas, a former Colorado law enforcement officer, is now a spokesperson for the group. He envisions a nation where some drugs are sold at a store front while others are more regulated.
“We’re not going to do away with our pharmacies" Thomas says. "The system’s not going to go to a full recreational hoo-hah, here’s all the drugs in one store. It’s more that each drug has some merit one way or the other. We need to look at that drug and treat cocaine differently from marijuana, possibly from a medicinal side but as well as from the legal side.”
As for the overall crime rate, there's been little change.
And that's the other hand. An undercover commander for the Boulder County Sheriff’s Drug Task Force, who agreed to speak to VOA anonymously, agrees that marijuana stores can be good neighbors. “They’re like any other business as long as they’re following the regulations.”
But he says there are plenty of people who aren't following the regulations, and that's stretching his department's limited resources. “That’s what we get inundated with," he says, "...phone calls from our citizens about people growing marijuana next door and just the odor’s out of control and we just don’t have the enforcement to go in there.”
Skylar Hall prepares marijuana buds for sale at the Botana Care store ahead of their grand opening on New Year's day in Northglenn, Colorado, Dec. 31, 2013.
While most of Colorado’s marijuana users are law-abiding, this commander says his task force is often overwhelmed with those who illegally smoke in public, drive while high and sell to teens. Plus, he says organized criminals are smuggling marijuana out of state.
“People are coming out to Colorado, renting four to five houses, turning them into marijuana grows and then shipping the marijuana out of state," he points out. "Because they can grow it here, there’s not a lot of enforcement, and they can double their money on the east coast compared to what they can buy marijuana for here, or grow it for here.”
He says all of these enforcement issues related to marijuana add to similar violations already taking place among street drug users, plus people who abuse alcohol and “legal” drugs.
Time to end the war on drugs?
Jimmy Gould, co-founder of Responsible Ohio, a pro-marijuana legalization group, speaks to the crowd after a concession speech delivered by executive director Ian James, right, at an election night event at the Le Meridien hotel, Nov. 3, 2015.
But for Jason Thomas from LEAP, the decades-long War on Drugs has always been problematic because the system unfairly punished non-violent users and sellers.
“Does it seem fair," Thomas asks, "that for a low-level drug crime, possession or distribution, that you’d be incarcerated for decades?”
And he says the post-legalization drop in pot-related crimes is proof that legalization of drugs and an increase in crime don't go hand in hand.
The Colorado experience is being closely watched by a dozen states, where activists are working to get out the vote for marijuana legalization there.