Colorado’s grand cannabis experiment has captured the imagination of America. After 75 years of marijuana prohibition, the state’s voters amended their constitution and legalized marijuana in all forms. The results have been remarkable.
Denver has surpassed Amsterdam as the capital of the marijuana world. The city has more than 300 stores, called dispensaries, outnumbering pharmacies, liquor stores, public schools and even Starbucks. Still, the demand for legal marijuana and edible products is outpacing supply. Nearly a year after Colorado legalized marijuana, there is still a supply problem for many strains and edible products.
For generations, Americans have been told how legalized marijuana would bring madness, decadence and moral decay. But in Colorado, the reality has been shockingly mundane. Crime statistics are down. Motor vehicle incidents are down. Tourism and marijuana tax revenues are up and the state is nearing total employment. The sky has not fallen. Life as we know it goes on.
The new industry is already becoming normalized as additional cities and towns open up to legal sales. There are roughly 10,000 people who have already become licensed by the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division, working as growers, trimmers and budtenders, but also as bakers and chocolatiers and tour guides. These are jobs, plain and simple.
The biggest challenge for the cannabis industry has been managing all of the cash. All banks are federally regulated, and the U.S. government still says marijuana is illegal. Banks in Colorado can be fined heavily for doing business with “drug traffickers.” That poses a problem at the retail level, where most purchases are in cash, leaving dispensary owners with the question of how to deal with garbage bags full of money.
It would be funny, if it weren’t so dangerous. The cannabis industry projects roughly $750 million in 2014 sales in a state of only 5 million people. Private security firms have stepped in to help transport, store and safeguard marijuana money, but people in the business often say the situation won’t change until someone gets killed.
Another controversy has arisen over the sale and regulation of so-called “edibles”, or marijuana-infused products. They’ve comprised nearly half of total marijuana sales, but have come under fire from opponents for infusing the drug in gummy bears, lemon drops and other products that might appeal to children.
The business media is buzzing with the prospects for the new industry, which analysts project could become a $40-$50 billion dollar national industry. The prevailing wisdom is that many of the early leaders in the game will cash out for many millions, or even billions, when the big money arrives. Whether the investors come from Big Tobacco or Wall Street, industry watchers are confident of the upside potential.
America is watching, too. In the recent 2014 elections, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C. voters voted to allow citizens to legally buy and smoke marijuana. Colorado’s grand experiment may soon become the new normal.
Gary Cohen is the Executive Producer, Writer & Narrator of MSNBC’s new series, “Pot Barons of Colorado,” which premieres on Sunday, November 30 at 10 pm ET.