Apr 20, 2021 - News

What national marijuana legalization would mean for Colorado

Illustration of a cartoon joint on a path to the Capitol Building

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.

Colorado marijuana sales
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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