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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Colorado's cannabis industry is enjoying an era of prosperity as national attitudes toward marijuana become more relaxed.

Driving the news: 17 states have legalized recreational marijuana sales and pot enjoys its highest popularity ever with 68% of adults backing legalization, according to a recent Gallup poll.

What's next: Congress is discussing legislation to legalize marijuana.

What they're saying: "It's not a done deal, by any means, but it's the closest we've gotten in the last couple years so we are obviously excited about it," said Nancy Whiteman, CEO of Wana Brands, a Colorado-based marijuana edibles company now in 12 states and expanding to Massachusetts soon.

Why it matters: Federal legalization is the final step in the effort to legitimize Colorado’s marijuana industry.

  • It would allow the industry access to the financial sector (such as loans for small businesses) and remove any doubt about potential enforcement actions to crack down on sales.

Zoom out: The broader acceptance comes at a time in which the industry is grappling with serious challenges, from how to build equity into the business and address the legacy of the war on drugs to questions about health effects and potency.

Expand chart
Data: Colorado Department of Revenue; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

State of play: The challenges don't seem to be slowing the cannabis industry in Colorado, where marijuana is part of the state's fabric.

  • The state boast's America's first pot governor who declared dispensaries re an essential business during the pandemic lockdown.
  • Total marijuana sales topped $10 billion in January with annual numbers posting growth each year since their start in 2014.
  • The state's marijuana tax revenues are expected to reach near $459 million in the coming fiscal year.

The industry's growth came as other states opened doors to marijuana and it's one reason why local leaders aren't worried about competition from broader legalization.

  • "As other states roll out legalization, it helps to destigmatize cannabis even more," said Lisa Gee at Lightshade, an independent dispensary company with nine locations.

Between the lines: The industry has evolved significantly since voters legalized recreational adult-use marijuana with Amendment 64 in the 2012 election.

  • The initial laws to keep the industry small and controlled were relaxed to allow outside investors, public consumption and delivery.
  • The tax revenues no longer go exclusively to education and the industry's regulation but help cover the cost of various government programs.
  • And bud — the traditional form of marijuana — now represents less than half of sales after an explosion of new products.

Of note: Livwell Enlightened Health is debuting the first Colorado TV ads for a cannabis company this week.

  • "There's a much stronger sense this is an industry like any other industry," said Mason Tvert, a longtime marijuana advocate in Denver.

Yes, but: The commercialization and growth of the industry is exactly what critics feared when Colorado legalized marijuana because it normalizes the behavior for children and makes it easier for them to get their hands on higher potency products, said Kevin Sabet, the president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group critical of marijuana.

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Go deeper

Apr 20, 2021 - Axios Denver

Colorado pushes for social equity in the cannabis industry

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

White business owners overwhelmingly dominate Colorado’s cannabis industry, but the market’s lack of diversity could soon change.

What’s happening: New efforts at the state and local level are moving forward to foster industry opportunities for communities of color that have been disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs.

Driving the news: Tuesday — on 420 —Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is signing the most sweeping set of changes to the city’s marijuana regulation since recreational pot sales were legalized in 2014.

House approves cannabis banking bill

A worker gathers hemp flowers for processing at a farm in Milton, New York. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The House voted 321-101 Monday to approve a cannabis banking bill that would allow banks to "provide services to cannabis companies" in states where marijuana is legalized.

Why it matters: In the past, banks have been hesitant to do business with companies involved with cannabis for fear of violating federal laws. If passed, this bill would remove one of the barriers to developing a national cannabis industry.

John Frank, author of Denver
Apr 20, 2021 - Axios Denver

Potency limits are the next frontier in marijuana debate

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Marijuana is no longer just a crumbled green plant rolled into a joint. It's concentrates, wax, gummies, sodas, shatter and more.

Why it matters: The newer products can boast higher levels of THC — the psychoactive component in cannabis — and lawmakers in a handful of states are exploring whether to put caps on potency.