Going to pot: A history of the effect of legal cannabis in the US

While federal law says possession and sale is still illegal, you can now buy recreational marijuana in four states

Last year, on New Year's Day, I spent two hours queuing in the bone-chilling cold of a Denver January to be one of the first few people in the world legally to buy recreational cannabis over the counter. The drug has traditionally been tolerated in the Netherlands, but never truly legal. Portugal decriminalised it more than a decade ago. California legalised medical marijuana in 1996, and has since been followed by 22 other US states and Washington, DC.

But when Colorado's recreational marijuana dispensaries opened their doors on the first day of 2014, it was the first time the drug had been legal to buy for anyone over the age of 21, anywhere in the US, since the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. After the dispensary staff checked the age on my driving licence and handed me a complimentary commemorative T-shirt, I picked out a bar of cannabis-infused chocolate and a premium, pre-rolled joint called a "caviar stick".

I kept the receipt for posterity and pulled it from my files this week. My purchases came to an almost round $30.54 (£20), of which $5.53 were taxes destined for the state's coffers, to be used for schools and public building projects. One customer complained about the prices: $400 per ounce of cannabis, plus that hefty tax. The man muttered that he could buy the same quantity for $250 on the street, tax-free. But in the end he took his free T-shirt and paid for his goods like the rest of us.

 

Everyone I spoke to in Denver then seemed happy about legal pot. A year on, they're still happy – whether they've been smoking it or not. Colorado collected more than $60m in taxes, licences and fees for marijuana in the first 10 months of 2014, a figure that doesn't include the harder-to-gauge savings made from not enforcing the defunct drug laws. Opponents of legalisation have disputed FBI data that appeared to show a significant drop in crime in the state, but reports suggest legal weed has at least had an impact on the criminal trade in Mexico, by undercutting the price of cartel cannabis.

Colorado's pioneering experiment has proved successful enough to inspire other states, and in November Alaska and Oregon both legalised marijuana for recreational use, while Washington DC opted to legalise the growth and possession of small amounts of the drug. With the movement gaining momentum, as many as 10 further states may be asked to vote on the issue in 2016.

Legalisation has gone less smoothly in Washington state, which, like Colorado, voted to create a legitimate recreational weed market in 2012. Unlike Colorado, however, it lacked an existing, regulated medical marijuana system to provide a framework for the recreational marijuana trade. Washington opened its first dispensaries in July, but prospective pot-business proprietors have faced an interminable licensing process, a supply shortage and major competition from the black market, yielding only around $15m in taxes in the second half of 2014.

There have been bumps in the road for Colorado, too. Its marijuana tax revenues may sound impressive, but they're modest in the grand scheme of a state budget. The pot tourism boom promised by advocates of legalisation has so far failed to mat-erialise. And the state is now looking at extra legislation to govern the production and sale of popular but potent pot-infused food.

So-called "edibles" may be a more practical alternative to smoking the drug – the law prohibits smoking pot outdoors, and few hotels allow it on their premises – but many consumers have complained of uncomfortable experiences after mistakenly ingesting too much marijuana too quickly. Others fear that children will confuse colourfully packaged cannabis products for regular sweet snacks. A decision on new rules for edibles will be made by Colorado legislators this year.

And yet, strip away all the peripheral details of legalisation – social, financial, digestive – and you are left with the simple fact that Colorado residents and visitors can now use marijuana in all its forms without fear of legal consequences. In a society that also permits people to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and drive cars, that only seems right.

Last January, in an interview with The New Yorker, Barack Obama suggested as much, when he said he believed pot was less dangerous than alcohol "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer". The President, who smoked marijuana as a young man, said he saw weed, "as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life".

Marijuana possession and sale remains illegal under US law; and while the Obama administration has allowed legalisation to spread through several states unhindered, the chances of federal legalisation are still far off. A push for national reform would mean doing battle with several government agencies built especially to wage the War on Drugs, not to mention the mighty US prison-industrial complex, almost half of whose inmates are incarcerated for drug offences.

So it is up to the states, not all of which are pleased about the new legal trade. Last month, Nebraska and Oklahoma brought a lawsuit against neighbouring Colorado, claiming they were being inundated with cannabis from across state lines. There is, of course, a much cheaper option than taking legal action – and that would be to legalise the drug themselves.

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