Denver Relief co-owner Kayvan Khalatbari, right, talks with his employee Jeff Botkin at his medical and recreational marijuana shop in Denver. (Brennan Linsey, Associated Press file)

The cat’s already out of the bag on legal marijuana

Denver Post op-ed: Coloradan responds to potential federal crackdown on recreational cannabis

We were the first… although it didn’t last long.

Colorado voted to legalize recreational marijuana more than four years ago, as did the state of Washington (our law took effect before theirs). Recreational marijuana now is legal in eight states and Washington, D.C., and will be on the next election day ballot in several more. (Medical marijuana, by the way, is legal in 28 states now, more than half.)

So the cat’s out of the bag. Or you’d think so anyway. But on Thursday the president’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, declared the Trump administration will try to stuff it back in, announcing that since marijuana is still illegal under federal law, “I do believe you will see greater enforcement of it.”

Four years ago I’d have said hallelujah. I voted against legalization. From what I’d seen over the years, supported by some studies, for the vast majority of users marijuana might be just a stress reducer, a relaxant, even an effective sleep aid, but for some it is a stepping stone to harder drugs.

But my side lost. And in retrospect, that’s fine.

For the record, Colorado was woefully unprepared when we stepped into the uncharted waters of legal recreational marijuana. We lacked such basic guidelines as a DUI standard, and clear labeling about marijuana’s potency, and healthy growing rules, and safe recommended doses in marijuana’s edible forms. In the saddest case of the state’s shortsightedness, early this month Richard Kirk, a Denver family man, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for shooting his wife in 2014 after consuming marijuana-infused candy he had legally bought. He has lost custody of his three children and faces up to 30 years behind bars.

But those issues, those inadequacies in law and policy, have been addressed. In fact, state officials including Gov. John Hickenlooper are called upon as experts to share the Colorado experience with other states either stepping into these waters themselves or thinking about it. Colorado has invented the wheel. There is no reason for others to reinvent it.

What we now tell others is, although the learning curve was painful, marijuana usage hasn’t dramatically increased since legalization, not even among teenagers. According to the state’s Retail Marijuana Public Health Advisory Committee, only about 6 percent of Coloradans even use marijuana on a daily or near-daily basis.

Also for the record, a significant portion of Coloradans who voted for legalization weren’t looking to use marijuana themselves. They supported legalization because they saw it as a boon for the economy. Not just jobs, but taxes. And they were right. In a recent report, The Denver Post said that our state “recorded $1.3 billon in medical and recreational cannabis sales in 2016.” Two-thirds of that was recreational. Tax revenue last year, which is based on the price of every purchase, was about $200 million. With shortfalls at the statehouse for everything from schools to roads to health care, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

The bottom line? If I knew then what I know now, in 2012 I might have voted to legalize. Which brings us back to the federal government.

The president has been pretty consistent when it comes to states’ rights. Of course that’s his rationale for stripping away sensible federal systems that protect the quality of environmental safety and accessible health care and public education. But it also locks him into respecting the decree of states that have legalized recreational marijuana.

However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who ultimately must choose between enforcement of federal law and benign neglect, is an outspoken opponent of legal marijuana. He should study a brand new Quinnipiac poll showing almost three-quarters of Americans opposed to a federal crackdown, on top of a fairly successful experience here in Colorado, as well as the near certainty that a crackdown will invigorate a treacherous black market.

He will have a fight on his hands if he, and President Donald Trump, try to go against the people’s will.

Greg Dobbs of Evergreen is an author, public speaker, and former foreign correspondent for ABC News.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com