Last year was another transformational year for the marijuana movement.
Beginning in 1996, California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. Today, there are 23 states with legal medical marijuana programs in place, and there would have been 24 had Florida's vote not come up 2% short of what was required to change its constitution in 2014.
Additionally, we've witnessed four states progressively leading the way with the legalization of recreational marijuana. In 2012, Washington and Colorado legalized the drug for adult use, while Alaska and Oregon voters approved the measure just this past November.
How well are these dual legalizations working? That's been a difficult question to answer because getting accurate data isn't easy. However, a new report from the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division helps to shed some light on the success and failures of the marijuana market in Colorado following its first full year of sales.
Here are seven stunning figures that help sum up what recreational and medical marijuana legalization look like in Colorado.
1. $699 million in combined sales
In 2014, recreational and medical marijuana brought in $699 million in total sales for the state of Colorado. Comparatively, this was 21% higher than the $578 million in marijuana sales estimated before the year began, according to the Legislative Council of the Colorado General Assembly. However, it still represents just 0.25% of Colorado's GDP, which totaled a whopping $273 billion in 2013, the sixth-highest in the nation.
2. $76 million in combined tax and licensing revenue
More importantly, the previously mentioned $699 million in sales translated into $63 million in tax revenue for the state, as well as an additional $13 million in licensing revenue to legally sell the product.
One of the primary reasons marijuana was legalized on both the recreational and marijuana front was to help the state bridge budget its gap. This combined $76 million could ensure that government workers keep their jobs, or it may even be used to help support the state's Obamacare marketplace exchange, which costs an estimated $26 million per year to operate and maintain.
3. Recreational marijuana comprised 36% of total sales
Medical marijuana may have been legal in Colorado since Nov. 2000, but recreational sales are what came out of the gate roaring in 2014. By the end of the year, recreational marijuana comprised 36% of total marijuana sales.
But, here's the interesting thing: Despite an increase in recreational sales, medical marijuana sales weren't affected. In other words, the marijuana market expanded and accommodated this new pathway to purchase marijuana. One thing the number don't tell us is whether these recreational customers are previous customers of the medical dispensaries, but the primary point here is that the marijuana market in Colorado is rapidly expanding.
4. More than 500,000 plants were cultivated each month
Along the same lines as the previous point, the average number of retail (i.e., recreational) plants produced per month skyrocketed eightfold from January to December to more than 200,000. Medical plants grown dropped slightly from February through December, but the total number of marijuana plants grown per month rose steadily throughout the year to finish at more than 500,000 per month as of December.
5. 2.85 million units of edible retail products were sold
One area where retail marijuana crushed medical marijuana was in infused products. Edible marijuana-infused retail products surpassed the sale of medical marijuana-infused products for good in April and never looked back. By the end of the year, edible recreational products had totaled 2.85 million, compared to 1.96 million for the medically infused market.
Legally licensed retailers will likely view this data positively and increase their offerings of edible products in 2015 and beyond.
6. 99.2% retail homogeneity test pass rate
One concern about legalizing marijuana across the state had been the consistency of the product. With so many legal growers, regulators want to ensure that the consumer was getting a consistent product in terms of THC content. Of the 2,261 homogeneity tests performed at the retail licensing level, 99.2% passed, while 98.2% of the potency tests administered on edible retail products wound up passing. The key point here being that legally grown marijuana appears to be adhering to strict regulatory growing standards.
7. 249 jurisdictions still ban marijuana
Lastly, it's an oft-overlooked fact that even though Colorado voters legalized recreational and medical marijuana, it still remains illegal in 249 local jurisdictions throughout the state. Marijuana sales have been robust because highly populated cities such as Denver and Colorado Springs have allowed the sale of the drug, but the reality is that about three-quarters of the state still bans either recreational marijuana, or both medical and recreational marijuana. It's a stark reminder that legalization could be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve nationwide.
The bigger picture
After surpassing sales expectations in its first year, optimism in Colorado among legal retailers and legal consumers (as well as marijuana supporters) is high. But, there's a bigger picture to look at here.
First, the early success of Colorado's marijuana market could spell out similar successes across the country if marijuana were legalized. Obviously, it's difficult to predict if other states would be able to regulate the marijuana market as successfully as Colorado's Marijuana Enforcement Division, but it offers hope that marijuana could be a solution to producing extra tax revenue for states without having to increase taxes on all of its citizens. NerdWallet has estimated that a sweeping legalization across the country could yield $3.1 billion in annual tax revenue, and while that's certainly not enough to close the budget gaps in some states, it could be a critical element to saving government jobs.
Just as important, marijuana's long-term safety is being put on trial with Colorado and three other states' sweeping reform. Biotechnology company GW Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:GWPH) is looking at ways to use more than five dozen internally discovered cannabinoids as a means to treat a number of diseases, including epilepsy, type 2 diabetes, schizophrenia, and ulcerative colitis. The company's most promising product in development is Epidiolex, which is being tested on two rare forms of childhood-onset epilepsy known as Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. In midstage studies, the CBD-based drug reduced seizure rate frequency by 56% in Dravet syndrome patients, and by 52% for Lennox-Gastaut patients.
Yet, testing marijuana-based drugs, even those not using cannabinoid THC, on children has always been somewhat taboo. For that matter, the use of any cannabinoid-based drug has been viewed with skepticism since the long-term use of marijuana on the mind and body are still being studied. This real-world legalization experiment in Colorado, Washington, and a handful of other states could go a long way to telling us as consumers, and investors, how much of a future legal marijuana really has in terms of safety.
Although the data is very young in Colorado, recreational marijuana is looking strong. Unfortunately for investors, there just isn't a smart way to take advantage of this growth -- at least not yet.
Most marijuana stocks aren't listed on major exchanges, and thus aren't required to report their quarterly results to the SEC. This makes finding pertinent financial info on marijuana stocks practically impossible. Even GW Pharmaceuticals, which arguably has a broad cannabinoid-based pipeline, isn't likely to be profitable this decade.
So while marijuana's momentum continues to grow, your best bet as an investor is still to stick to the sidelines.