Q: Why can’t I just grow my own marijuana at home?
A: You can. Colorado law allows people 21 and older to grow up to six plants, provided it’s done in an “enclosed, locked space.” Some cities have limited the number of plants that can be grown in a single house — Denver’s cap is 12 — and some cities have imposed other zoning or code restrictions on home-growing. Even without those hurdles, experts say that, just because it’s called weed, don’t expect marijuana to grow as easily as one at home. That difficulty is the main reason why the recreational marijuana stores are expected to be so popular.
Q: How many people are expected to shop in Colorado recreational marijuana stores in 2014?
A: It’s really anybody’s guess. The state’s nonpartisan voter guide — in estimating the revenues from marijuana tax measures — projected nearly $400 million a year in recreational marijuana sales. Considering that medical-marijuana stores, alone, did almost $330 million in sales in fiscal year 2013, that number might be low.
Q: What happens to the medical-marijuana industry now?
A: It’s still here. A number of places that allow medical-marijuana dispensaries — like Colorado Springs and Englewood — have banned recreational pot shops. Furthermore, the state still has a medical-marijuana registry of 112,000 people who are eligible to shop in medical dispensaries. That number may go down after recreational sales start, but it has actually increased since marijuana was legalized for everyone in the state.
Q: Why would anyone stay as a medical-marijuana patient?
A: If you’re buying marijuana regularly, there are some benefits. Medical-marijuana patients don’t pay the extra sales and excise taxes that are on recreational sales. And they can possess up to two ounces of marijuana — sometimes more, if their doctors recommend it — instead of the one ounce that regular adults get. What’s more, the state is looking at dropping its patient registry fee, to $15, which could tip the balance in favor of staying on the medical registry for more people. Plus, there will still be a market for people under 21 to buy medical marijuana.
Q: Kids can legally use medical marijuana?
A: Yes. There are some extra requirements for kids under 18 to become registered patients, but Colorado now has 128 registered medical-marijuana patients under 18. The state has seen an influx of families moving here to seek treatment for children with severe seizure disorders, after a family of brothers developed a non-psychoactive marijuana extract that parents say greatly reduces their children’s seizures.
Q: Are all the medical-marijuana dispensaries changing to recreational stores in places that allow them to?
A: No. There have actually been very few applications for a total conversion. Most stores are going recreational while keeping their medical sides, too. In Denver, if the stores agree only to sell to medical-marijuana patients over 21, it’s as simple as just keeping the books separate. Stores can also have an all-ages medical-marijuana side and a 21-and-over recreational marijuana side, so long as they build a wall between the two sides.
Q: Then what big impacts has the first step of marijuana legalization had on Colorado?
A: For the most part, it’s too soon to tell. Comprehensive numbers on use, emergency room visits, treatment admissions, and stoned driving are not yet available for 2013. The data there is shows it’s a mixed bag: The number of prosecutions for all marijuana crimes, especially minor marijuana crimes, plummeted — including for people under 21. But citations for public use of marijuana rose.
Q: Are schools seeing more problems with kids using marijuana?
A: In the 2012-13 school year, the state reported that 32 percent of the state’s expulsions were related to marijuana. But, because it’s the first time marijuana-specific numbers have been kept, it’s impossible to tell whether that amount is higher or lower than in previous years. And, because the numbers don’t reveal the precise infractions, it’s hard to gauge what kinds of problems schools are seeing. (Dropout numbers, for instance, are actually down.) But suspensions and expulsions for all drugs in Colorado schools have been rising, and education and law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned about marijuana at school.
Q: Do marijuana stores cause increases in crime?
A: It depends on what you consider an increase. Certainly there are more crimes being committed at marijuana stores compared to five years ago — if for no other reason than there are lots more stores. But police in Colorado have never demonstrated that marijuana businesses make their neighborhoods less safe. The slight increase in crime near medical-marijuana dispensaries in Denver in the first half of 2013 was in line with overall crime trends in the city. A three-year-old Denver police analysis showed that marijuana stores were robbed at a lower rate than banks.
Q: Is Colorado going to become a source state for black-market weed?
A: Some would say it already is. Law enforcement officials say marijuana is flying (and driving) out of Colorado like never before. In Oklahoma, officials say Colorado-grown pot has gained a special reputation for potency. And, because of the numerous legal ways there are to obtain marijuana in Colorado, law enforcement concerned about the problem say they have little hope of stopping the out-flow.
Q: State officials also worried that legal marijuana would hurt economic development efforts. Did it?
A: It doesn’t appear so. A state economic development official told a legislative committee in November that, “so far the information we get anecdotally is that it hasn’t impacted our ability to be competitive.” But, the official cautioned, he doesn’t know how many businesses didn’t even consider moving to Colorado because of the marijuana laws.
Q: Will legal marijuana sales lead to more people using pot in Colorado?
A: It seems likely but how much of an increase is up for debate. Studies have shown that states with medical-marijuana laws are likely to have higher rates of marijuana use. But that doesn’t mean there is more use because of the laws. It could be that states with already elevated use rates are more receptive to liberalizing their marijuana laws. Furthermore, some of the country’s leading drug-policy thinkers have shown that — as America’s marijuana laws have softened in recent years — the number of people using marijuana has increased some but the amount that heavy marijuana users consume has increased much more. So it’s possible that legalization won’t lead to a large ripple of new people sparking up but will instead entrench marijuana more strongly in the lives of those who already use.
Q: Would increases in marijuana use rates be a big problem for Colorado?
A: In the sense that increased use could lead to increases in stoned driving, marijuana at schools and marijuana dependence, yes. Treatment professionals report that their case loads are skyrocketing with legalization. “Inside of our treatment program, it is very rare to see someone who comes to us who doesn’t have marijuana as an issue,” said Ben Cort with the Colorado Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation.
But there are other factors to take into consideration when evaluating the overall impact of legalization. If using marijuana more frequently causes people to consume less alcohol — and, thus, reduces alcohol-related problems — it could be a net win for Colorado, according to researchers like Mark A.R. Kleiman. If marijuana and alcohol are used together, it could compound the problems of both. It’s something we’ll just have to wait to find out.
Q: When will we actually have answers to all of these questions?
A: Both marijuana advocates and skeptics agree it will be years. Colorado Attorney General John Suthers says it will be at least a couple of years before clear answers arrive. Allen St. Pierre, the head of the national pro-marijuana group NORML, predicts it could take up to a decade. So, sit back Colorado. Like it or not, this is a long, strange trip we’re all on together.
John Ingold: 303-954-1068, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/john_ingold