(Associated Press file)

Colorado marijuana an economics point for GOP candidates

As Republican presidential candidates prepare to debate economic issues in Boulder, the sweet smell of success for the state’s legally sold marijuana industry seems impossible to overlook.

Nationally the legal industry brought in about $3 billion in 2014 but is projected to grow to more than $8 billion by 2018, if current politics stay the course, according to the Marijuana Industry Factbook.

Colorado racked up $700 million in sales of recreational and medical pot last year — nearly $76 million in tax revenue, including $13 million in licenses and fees. The industry is expected to top $1 billion this year.

Combined sales in Colorado topped $100 million in August, compared with about $47 million in August 2014.

That economic impact could explode as 11 states consider joining Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska in legalizing recreational marijuana.

The question remains whether the economic argument comes in louder than Republicans’ concerns about the moral and public health implications, as well as a view that the 10th Amendment gives states the right to decide.

“There is no argument that marijuana is having a huge economic impact,” said Michael Elliott, executive director of the Denver-based Marijuana Industry Group. “When we started out, the top concern was safety, but I think almost everyone recognizes that this hasn’t had an impact on traffic safety, crime rates or teen use, and it’s safer than alcohol on a lot of fronts.

“Economically, Business Insider has said Colorado has the fastest growing economy. We had record tourism last year and home sales are through the roof. I don’t know how much you can attribute that to marijuana, but you can’t say it’s hurting our economy.”

President’s power

And there’s a lot that a pot-friendly president can do to help the economics of pot grow and spread, advocates say.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank hasn’t been willing to risk involvement to help extend banking services to marijuana businesses, even after Colorado set up its own credit union.

A supportive administration could urge declassifying marijuana as a Schedule I drug, a classification that deems it as having no medical value, under the Controlled Substances Act to allay bankers’ fears about an industry they’re not sure about, said Art Way, the Colorado state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports legalization.

In July, the Federal Reserve Bank denied an application from Colorado’s Fourth Corner Credit Union, which aimed to serve marijuana businesses. Credit union backers are suing.

None of the candidates — Republican or Democrat — have gotten specific on banking, regulations or taxation — issues Colorado lawmakers have had to figure out on their own.

Pot in politics

Talking philosophically or economically about pot sells the issue short, said Gina Carbone, co-founder of Smart Colorado, a group that advocates for protections for children.

“We feel like kids have been sold down the river with all the shops they see and how this is becoming part of mainstream culture,” she said. “But there’s not nearly enough discussion on guardrails to protect children or educating children about the effect on a developing mind.”

Daniel Rees, an economist at the University of Colorado Denver, has written a series of academic papers on the social and health costs of marijuana. For instance, legalization of medical marijuana coincides with a 9 percent to 11 percent drop in suicide rates for men under 40. The data is less precise for women.

“It’s difficult to get a handle on all the social costs associated with legalizing recreational marijuana, but I think there’s a good case to be made that, on net, the public health consequences are positive,” Rees said Friday.

Politically, pot probably won’t make or break any candidate, said state Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Democrat from Longmont who sponsors most of the marijuana bills in the legislature.

Constituents in his district haven’t rewarded or punished him politically, but they expect marijuana to be regulated responsibly, he said.

“Any candidate who chooses to overturn what voters in Colorado, Washington and other states have done, I think, do so at their own political peril,” he said. “I think the war on drugs is over, and I don’t think there’s a broad interest out there to re-litigate the past.”

“Stuck it to feds”

Tyler Henson, president of the Colorado Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, said a continued pro-business approach is crucial on the issue.

“We simply cannot allow bureaucrats and special interests to dictate the winners and losers in the industry,” he said. “Rather, we should be standing up for all Americans, no matter their race or socioeconomic status, to have the opportunity to partake in Colorado’s fastest growing industry and soon the nation’s newest economic driver.

“Colorado voters took over the job of the GOP and stuck it to the feds. The result? 18,000-plus jobs and millions in revenue; take note candidates, take note.”

Joey Bunch: 303-954-1174, jbunch@denverpost.com or @joeybunch

Pot positions

Here’s where candidates in both parties stand on marijuana.

Enforce federal law: Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump,

Medical use only: Ben Carson, Marco Rubio.

Let states decide: Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, George Pataki, Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb.

Watch Colorado: Lincoln Chafee, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley.

Updated Oct. 20 at 7:47 a.m. The following corrected information has been added to this article: Because of a reporting error, incorrect figures were provided for Colorado’s 2014 marijuana sales and revenue. There were $700 million in sales and $76 million in state revenue from taxes and license fees.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com