In this Aug. 2013 file photo, Cody Park exhales a cloud of marijuana smoke after taking a hit on a bong at the first day of Hempfest in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson, AP)

Colorado and Washington: 7 differences in state pot laws

After voters in Colorado and Washington passed historic initiatives to legalize cannabis in 2012, regulators in both states spent a year drafting guidelines for a newly legal pot industry. But legal cannabis rules will differ greatly in many ways from state to state.

Of course Colorado pot shops opened on Jan. 1 while Washington state stores aren’t expected to open until late-spring or summer. But here are some of the core differences between the legal pot experiments moving forward in Colorado and Washington.


1. Vertical integration

Colorado allows entrepreneurs to produce cannabis and sell it at retail, and such businesses are actually required to produce the majority of the pot they sell. But Washington state maintains clear separation between pot growers, processors and retailers. In part this is because Washington alcohol laws historically required separation between alcohol producers, distributors and retailers.

2. Home growing

Will small-scale home cannabis production help undercut the black market or simply contribute to it? Colorado allows adults to grow up to six cannabis plants at home (or 12 plants per household), while Washington still forbids home production. Regulators in Washington State recently suggested reducing the number of pot plants medical cannabis patients may grow.

3. Medical cannabis co-opted

Colorado provides a path for medical cannabis businesses to convert to the recreational market, incorporating an existent industry into the new law. In fact, all initial recreational pot shops in Colorado must have previously been licensed as medical shops. But though generally tolerated, Washington treats medical cannabis shops as illegal, and state regulators have recommended shuttering hundreds of dispensaries across the state that have flourished in the past three years.

4. Barriers to entry

License fees for pot businesses are lower in Washington state, which charges $250 to apply and $1,000 per year for all cannabis licenses. Meanwhile, Colorado charges between $2,750-$14,000 with a $5,000 application fee for new businesses. Colorado requires two years of state residency to qualify for a license, while Washington requires three months of residency.

5. Local opt-out

Colorado law allows local jurisdictions to opt-out of the pot law and disallow cannabis businesses from their towns — and most jurisdictions have done just that. Washington, on the other hand, pre-empts municipal marijuana laws, and though dozens of cities have passed temporary moratoria to buy time to create cannabis zoning, state regulators are clear that local jurisdictions may not ban pot shops outright.

6. Zoning setbacks

Both Colorado and Washington require cannabis businesses to be 1,000 feet away from schools and child care centers, in part to appease the federal government, which doubly penalizes pot crimes in kid-friendly areas. Colorado includes drug treatment centers and other pot businesses in its setbacks, while Washington includes parks, libraries, video game arcades and transit centers — leaving a tiny patchwork of pot-friendly land in urban areas. Neither state aligns their setbacks with federal statute, still allowing licensed businesses to open in federal school zones.

7. Guns

Colorado loves the Second Amendment, and The Denver Post recently noted it is the only state with a U.S. Attorney that tolerates armed security at retail pot shops. But in Washington, prosecutors say guns and pot don’t mix. Dispensaries in the state — cash-only businesses that are prime targets for robbery since they can’t legally bank — are advised against hiring armed guards, and federal prosecutors recently charged a medical cannabis patient for shooting armed robbers who invaded his home, tied him up and tried to steal his pot.