We once had alcohol prohibition in North America. The arguments that promoted it are depressingly similar to those that maintain cannabis prohibition today. Both revolve around the notion that mind-altering plants harm children and families. But there, as they say, the similarity ends. Alcohol prohibition, for all its faults, was attended by widespread public dialogue. Moreover, it didn’t last long. Within half a generation, it was over and life returned to normal. Cannabis prohibition, by contrast, arrived with no discussion. It arrived instead on the spearhead of Reefer Madness, a campaign of forbidding imagery that is hard to exaggerate. This imagery has gone hand in hand with waves of suppression: imprisonment, forfeiture of property, loss of children, loss of livelihood. Both—campaign and suppression— have lingered for four generations. It has to be said, thus, that we no longer have a normal to which we can return. After eighty years, we have lost the experience of freedom. Whatever it is, we will need to create it anew.
It is only to be expected, thus, that life after legalization will be iffy and at times, snarly. We have barely begun a real conversation with the tribes of opposition. Furthermore, if 55-60% of North Americans support cannabis, then 40-45% oppose it. That’s a lot of opposition. In what follows, we will explore that opposition by looking more closely than we sometimes do at Colorado’s experience. We celebrate every step on the road to legalizing cannabis. We’d like to be next. But we need to look at the stumbling blocks too. Ours might look similar.
An Activist. Let me begin by introducing Colorado cannabis activist, Michelle LaMay. In 2008, inspired by Oaksterdam University and President Obama’s promise to end DEA interference with states’ rights, LaMay founded Cannabis University (CU). CU is one of six practically oriented Cannabis Schools in Colorado, and one of the only two focused on recreation. Ideal for beginners, it offers a full day program on cannabis law and cultivation, one Saturday each month. Currently, eighty percent of its students are from out of state. The school has no fixed location. Students register online, pay the fee, and at some stage are told where to show up. This practice preserves the students’ anonymity, and prevents the classes from being, as LaMay puts it, “invaded.”
On other days, LaMay travels about Colorado with a fifth wheel trailer that houses the LaMay Cannabis Bookstore and Museum. Like CU, it too pops up here and there almost unannounced. It seeks attention, but only from those interested in learning. In addition, last spring LaMay wrote, proposed and organized an initiative to be placed on the ballot for Colorado’s upcoming November elections. The plan was to remove all restrictions on cannabis possession. Currently, adults over 21 can carry an ounce. In LaMay’s view, this restriction results in fines that fall disproportionately on minorities. The initiative failed, but the activism continues. Here’s why it has to.
The System. In November 2012, 55.32% of Coloradans voted for Amendment 64 (A64), which permits adults over the age of 21 to possess up to one ounce of dried marijuana, and to grow up to 6 plants. A64 followed A20 in 2000, which permitted medical use and state licensed dispensaries. In July 2011, Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division (MMED) tightened regulations. It required the industry to account for every ounce of pot produced by or for dispensaries. All such plants are now tracked from seed to sale. When sets of buds are dried and trimmed they must bear the label of their original plant. If dispensaries have multiple outlets, they must flag plants to indicate their final destination. If patient Joe S. selects a dispensary to grow his allotment of plants, dispensary owners need to be able to show inspectors which plants are Joe’s. Inspections are random and unannounced. Employees do drills to prepare for them. Dispensaries must produce 70% of their own cannabis. They can buy the rest from a licensed grower or another dispensary. Colorado’s has to be the most stringent system this side of Mars.
Problem One. When A64 was signed in to law, medical dispensaries were permitted to apply as retail outlets for the recreational market. Undoubtedly, the tight controls gave licensers a sense of security. Thus far, the state has licensed 136 of these, 75 of which are in Denver. This is a problem. A64 contains a provision that allows local jurisdictions to opt out of the retail business. They can ban dispensaries, growers, producers and marijuana testing facilities. They are required to allow only personal possession and personal plants, both well hidden. Thus far over 100 cities, towns and regions have issued such bans. Indeed, of the 10 largest cities in Colorado, only Denver remains free. Colorado is 300 miles wide and 380 miles long. There is a delivery system for patients, but if you are a recreational fan, you might have to drive a very long way to find a legal outlet. If you are unable to travel or grow a few plants, you can abstain or continue with the illegal market.
Problem Two. Over forty percent of Coloradans don’t like A64. Sensible Colorado, which aided in the fight for medical use and spearheaded the 2012 campaign, continues to engage in public education. The organization counts among its allies, the ACLU, American for Safe Access (ASA), The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), NORML, and Patients Out of Time. But Colorado is also home to SMART Colorado (SC), a prohibitionist group whose name is subtitled: Protecting Our Youth From Marijuana. SC wants to see A64 repealed. It quotes the usual studies on marijuana and the teenage brain.1 It argues that individual or states’ rights approaches are wrong because marijuana is uniquely bad. One of its members sat on the state committee that wrote Colorado’s rules for public use.
Problem Three. Colorado does not allow cannabis coffee houses. No one can consume marijuana in a public place, including a cannabis dispensary. Dispensaries, conversely, are forbidden to sell drinks or snacks. Large ticketed events such as ball games and concerts, which normally allow the sale of beer and wine, do not permit cannabis. Last spring the Colorado Symphony Orchestra wanted to host “Classically Cannabis,” an event to which audience members would bring their own bud. The city banned the event. There was much growling. In the end, the Orchestra returned the tickets and transformed the concert into a members-only private party; okay for residents; not good for tourists.
If you visit Denver you may find yourself at a loss. Where do you go to toke? If you have friends, you can go to their house. If you have booked a hotel you may be in for a surprise. Many hotels have banned marijuana. Some are internationally owned and fear the feds. Others just don’t want it, even on a balcony. There is marijuana friendly lodging, but you must find it. There are few private facilities. You cannot go to a bar. There is ongoing discussion on what constitutes public use. What about vape pens, indistinguishable from those filled with tobacco? What about gummies or cookies that look just like ordinary ones? Can you have those in the park? The ‘public thing’ is problematic for locals too. One dispensary owner was cited for putting up a banner indicating that her shop was open….too public.
Problem Four. Then there is the matter of money. Costs of a license to operate a retail outlet range from $7,500 to $18,000. This is not a poor man’s game. License holders must pass a criminal record check. This rule cuts outs many growers and activists. Then there are the taxes. Medical marijuana patients pay the 2.9% Colorado sales tax. Recreational fans are assessed an excise tax of 15%, another tax of 10% to cover the cost of regulation, plus the sales tax. That’s almost 30%. Excise taxes, called ‘sin’ or sumptuary taxes are imposed on items considered morally undesireable. They are intended to discourage use. Canadians pay some of the highest sin taxes on liquor and tobacco in the world. The additional 10% for regulation seems rather unfair, especially in a system that is not so user friendly.
Problem Five. Finally, there is the matter of banks. As long as having cannabis is a federal crime, no bank will deal with it. Neither will the credit card companies. No one can get a bank loan. Bundles of money are stuffed into safes, regularly shuffled off in paper sacks, and locked into the trunks of cars destined for the tax office. Dispensaries have security staff. These are often retired military men with special ops training. In a legalized Canada, this would not be an issue. But had Sensible BC succeeded in 2013, it might have become one.
Michelle LaMay’s classes are beginning to attract more locals. Coloradans are coming specifically to learn home growing. One Colorado School—The Grow School—is dedicated solely to this purpose. Both schools cover legal issues, growing techniques and that touchstone of Colorado policy: how to be ‘private.’
Oregon and Alaska are on the brink of legalizing cannabis. Canadians may be too. But whatever we do, decades of prohibition have left scars not easily removed.
Legalization will come in some form, but the need for activism will remain. Perhaps our biggest challenge will be the quality of dialogue we open up with opponents. However much we dislike their attitudes, this time around, we’ll need to talk. And then we’ll need to keep talking. It’ll be a stretch.