We're only a few hours into the New Year, but one thing can be said with a high degree of certainty: 2014 will go down in history books as the year that marijuana began its official nationwide trek toward legality.
As you read this, lines have formed at hundreds of marijuana dispensaries throughout Colorado, which, along with Washington, became the first states on Wednesday to allow the sale of cannabis for recreational use. Smoking a joint is now legally indistinguishable from drinking a beer in these two states -- absent, of course, federal law.
For those of you that have decided to partake in this watershed event -- for better or for worse -- here is a list of nine things that you should know before lighting up in Colorado.
1. Is marijuana really legal in Colorado?
The answer to this is both yes and no. From a state law standpoint, it is now legal to buy, possess, and consume marijuana for recreational use in Colorado. From a federal standpoint, however, all of these activities are still illegal, as cannabis remains a Schedule 1 drug (meaning that it has "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse").
The good news (at least for those of you interested in partaking in this newfound freedom) is that the federal government isn't likely to get involved. In August, the U.S. Department of Justice published the so-called Cole memorandum (link opens PDF), laying out eight "enforcement priorities," beyond which it will defer to state and local law enforcement agencies to "address marijuana enforcement of their own narcotics laws."
As a result, so long as you don't distribute it to minors, transport it across state lines, drive while under the influence, possess it on federal property, or run afoul of the other priorities laid out in the Cole memorandum, then it seems safe to assume that adherence to Colorado's laws (covered below) will likely shield you from legal problems.
2. Who can buy weed in Colorado?
Starting Jan. 1, anybody over the age of 21 (with a valid government-issued photo identification) can walk into a licensed dispensary and purchase marijuana.
3. Where can you buy it?
Only licensed retail dispensaries are allowed to sell marijuana in Colorado. Fear not, however, as there are a growing number of these across the state.
According to recent figures, the Marijuana Enforcement Division, the governmental agency tasked with regulating the industry, has issued 136 recreational licenses to retail stores throughout the state.
4. How much can you buy?
This depends on whether or not you're a Colorado resident.
If you are, then you can buy up to an ounce per visit for recreational use -- the limit is two ounces for holders of a medical marijuana card. If you aren't, then you're limited to a quarter of an ounce per visit.
Given that you could make multiple visits in a single day, in turn, the more pertinent question concerns how much you can legally possess. The answer to this question is one ounce.
5. How much does marijuana cost in Colorado?
This is likely to change around the turn of the year as the new recreational laws take effect. If demand soars as some are predicting, then the price will likely rocket higher due to limited supply.
Either way, initial estimates suggest that recreational marijuana will start out selling for between $50 and $60 per eighth of an ounce after taxes. By comparison, because medical marijuana isn't subject to the same 25% in additional excise and sales taxes, it will likely sell for a considerable discount to recreational cannabis.
6. Where can you smoke it?
As a general rule, you're allowed to consume marijuana on private, but not public, property. Beyond that, it's up to local municipalities to dictate consumption rules.
In Denver, for instance, marijuana can be consumed on private property so long as the use isn't done "openly or publicly." This precludes public transportation, schools, sporting venues, parks, playgrounds, sidewalks, and roads, among other places.
7. Can you also grow it yourself?
Yes. Adult residents of Colorado are allowed to grow up to six plants in their home. However, no more than three can be in the flowering stage at any one time, and there can be no more than 12 plants at a single residence, regardless of the number of occupants.
8. What's in it for Colorado?
The short answer is: tax revenue. In the most recent fiscal year, Colorado generated $9.1 million in retail sales tax from the sale of medical marijuana. This figure is bound to surge with the introduction of recreational sales and the additional 25% in excise and sales taxes thereon in 2014.
Beyond this, the industry generates millions of dollars every year for the state from licensing and application fees. To apply for and obtain a license to run a medical marijuana facility serving more than 500 patients, for instance, the necessary application and license fees alone approach $40,000.
9. Where does all of the legal weed come from?
Under the current laws of Colorado, all of the marijuana sold in the state must be grown there as well -- this, as a side note, follows similarly from the federal proscription on interstate distribution of controlled substances. As a result, there's a growing industry of marijuana farmers that's sprouted up throughout the state.
While the size of each operation varies -- ranging from a few hundred to tens of thousands of square feet -- the only thing they all have in common is growth. "We can't grow the stuff fast enough to sell it," a local cannabis cultivator told me during a tour of his facilities.
The Foolish bottom line
At this point, whether you agree or disagree with the decision in Colorado and Washington to legalize the sale and consumption of marijuana for recreational use, the one thing that seems certain is that this trend has only just begun.
"The only thing more addictive than illegal drugs is tax revenue," John Paul Maxfield, a Denver resident and the founder of Waste Farmers (who's also my cousin), told me.
For a look at John's on-the-ground investigation of this booming industry, click here.
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