What’s Happening in Colorado?

Officials say the sky has not fallen and the system is working

In November 2012, Coloradans voted on a ballot initiative to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol. Leading up to the election, opponents claimed that passage of the measure would cause more problems than it would solve. Voters were not fooled. They approved the initiative, marijuana became legal for adults on December 10, 2012, and licensed businesses began legally selling marijuana to adults on January 1, 2014. Since then, opponents’ dire predictions have proven to be unfounded, the state has experienced significant benefits, and polls show voters’ support for the law has not wavered.

Below are some facts that address several of the concerns we keep hearing from our opponents. At the bottom of the page, you can find out what Colorado officials are saying about how things are going in the state. 

Public Opinion

  • Amendment 64 was approved 55-45 in 2012. A November 2015 Quinnipiac University poll found support for the law has held steady (55%) and opposition has decreased (41%).
  • A Public Policy Polling survey conducted in September 2016 found voters are still upbeat about the state’s new marijuana law and few would support repealing it. More than half said they think the law has been good for the state (47%) or had no real impact (9%), and only about one-third said they would support a repeal measure if it were on the 2016 ballot.

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Good Government

  • In July 2014, the Brookings Institution’s Center for Effective Public Management published a 35-page report titled, “Colorado’s Rollout of Legal Marijuana Is Succeeding.” According to the report, “[Colorado] has made intelligent decisions about regulatory needs, the structure of distribution, prevention of illegal diversion, and other vital aspects of its new market. It has made those decisions in concert with a wide variety of stakeholders in the state.”

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Regulation, Local Control, and Criminal Justice Savings

  • In 2015, more than $996 million in marijuana sales took place in legitimate, taxpaying businesses instead of in the underground market. These state- and locally-licensed establishments are subject to strict testing, packaging, and labeling requirements, which are enforced through frequent compliance checks by state and local authorities. State officials believe 70% of the estimated demand for marijuana is now being met by the legal market, according to a February 2016 report in The Economist.
  • Colorado localities have the authority to prohibit marijuana establishments or regulate them and determine the time, place, manner, and number of establishment operations. More than 40 cities, as well as unincorporated areas in more than 20 counties, have established regulations.
  • Marijuana-related court filings dropped 81% from 10,340 in 2012 to 1,954 in 2015, according to the Colorado Department of Public Safety.

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Tax Revenue and Job Creation

  •  According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, the regulated marijuana market generated more than $156 million in state tax revenue and license fees in FY 2015-2016, including $40 million in tax revenue for school construction projects — fulfilling the promise of Amendment 64 — plus an addition $2.45 million also earmarked for public schools. These figures do not include local taxes and fees. For example, Denver generated more than $33 million in marijuana-related tax revenue and application fees, leaving it with a surplus of approximately $26 million after covering costs of regulation, education, and public health.
  • Marijuana taxes and fees are covering the costs of regulation and enforcement, and the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division depleted only 7.15% of available marijuana revenue in FY 2014-15.
  • As of September 2016, there were 28,847 individuals with valid occupational licenses to work directly in Colorado marijuana businesses, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue. Marijuana businesses also retain workers and utilize services from a wide variety of collateral sectors, such as construction, engineering, security, legal, insurance, real estate, and retail. According to a statewide poll conducted in September 2016 by Public Policy Polling, more than one out of four Colorado voters (28%) said they have a friend, family member, or acquaintance who has worked either directly for a marijuana business or for non-marijuana businesses that provides products or services to marijuana businesses.

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Economy, Business Climate, Tourism, and Real Estate

  • Opponents of the Colorado initiative said it would interfere with employers’ drug-testing policies and create hazardous workplaces, but employers have been able to maintain existing policies and create new ones as they see fit, and there have not been any new or increasing marijuana-related problems. Loss costs — the average cost of lost wages and medical expenses associated with on-the-job injuries — did not increase following the first year in which the initiative was fully implemented, then decreased in the second. There has been no increase in the rate of lost-time workers compensation claims, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, and the Department of Public Health and Environment reports there were fewer fatal occupational injuries in 2013 and 2014, the years following legalization, than in 2011, the year prior to legalization.
  • Colorado tourism broke records for number of visitors and amount of dollars spent for the fifth year in a row in 2015, and recovery of the state’s tourism economy is nearly double that of the national rate, according to reports from the Colorado Tourism Office. Opponents of the 2012 initiative said legalization would damage the state’s skiing and resort industry, but the number of visitors and the amount of money spent reached all-time highs in each of the past three ski seasons, according to a July 2016 Denver Post report.  Denver’s convention and tourism bureau reported that the city hosted a record-high number of conventions in 2014, and the number of people who came to Denver for conventions and business increased 9% from 2014 to 2015, whereas business travel remained flat nationally.
  • Colorado home prices saw the largest increase of any state in 2014, according to housing trend tracker CoreLogic, and they increased at some of the fastest rates in the nation in 2015. In 2015, Denver’s retail vacancy rate dropped to the lowest it has been since 2006, and its retail lease rate increased to the highest it has been since 2009, according to the Denver Business Journal.
  • A September 2016 poll conducted by Public Policy Polling found that three out of five Colorado voters (61%) think Amendment 64 has had a positive impact on the economy, whereas only 19% think it has had a negative impact.

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Quality of Life, Public Health, and Safety

  • In March 2016, U.S. News & World Report named Denver the #1 best place to live in the United States. The only other Colorado metro area large enough to be considered, Colorado Springs, was ranked #5.
  • There has not been a significant increase in rates of marijuana use among Colorado adults, and rates of current and lifetime marijuana use among teens have remained unchanged since 2005, according to state and federal government surveys. The Colorado Department of Education reported that high school graduation rates have steadily increased and dropout rates have steadily decreased since 2010.
  • The Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center (RMPDC) received 151 calls regarding marijuana exposure in 2014 — up from 88 in 2013 — including 45 that involved children 8 years of age and under. By comparison, in 2011, the RMPDC received 2,690 calls regarding children 5 and under being exposed to cosmetics and personal care products, 1,495 for exposure to household cleaning products, and 739 for exposure to vitamins.
  • Colorado government and law enforcement officials have repeatedly stated that there is not enough data to draw any conclusions about the impact the state’s marijuana laws may or may not be having on crime rates and traffic safety. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation reported a 2.5% decrease in overall crime in Colorado from 2013 to 2014, and according to the Denver Post, Denver police officials say marijuana is unlikely to blame for the city’s slight increase in crime. Marijuana-related DUI arrests decreased from 2014 to 2015, according to the Colorado State Patrol. The Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area claims there has been an increase in “marijuana-related” traffic fatalities, but its report concedes that marijuana might not have been in any way responsible for the accidents (e.g. they include accidents involving alcohol and/or other drugs; they would also include accidents involving marijuana consumers who were not at fault, as well as those involving unimpaired drivers who tested positive for inactive THC, which remains detectable in the body for days or weeks after use).

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What Colorado Officials Are Saying

“If you look back it’s turned out to not be as vexing as some of the people like myself [thought it was going to be]. I think we are slowly, through hard work, building a regulatory system, making sure we keep it out of the hands of kids, making sure we keep our streets and roads safe, making sure we kill that illegal black market... And we’re getting there."

John Hickenlooper, Governor of Colorado Fox Business, 4/29/15

“There are a certain number of folks, like myself, who were pretty reticent about it to begin with. [But] the sky didn’t fall. Everything seems to be working pretty well.”

Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, Colorado House Speaker Boston Globe, 2/22/16

“We’re asked a lot, what type of impact legalization has had on our community. It’s often hard to provide objective numbers. In this case, we have very hard numbers; and the result is staggering. One could say that cannabis is driving our economic recovery in Pueblo. There is absolutely no industry driving construction more in Pueblo than the cannabis industry."

Sal Pace, Pueblo County Commissioner Pueblo Chieftain, 2/29/16

"Overall we're pretty happy with the regulatory framework. We don't see any significant areas of concern. But I can tell you anecdotally that the average person would say it was much ado about nothing. I would say that the rollout was extremely smooth, the sky hasn't fallen like some had predicted, and we're moving forward and trying to fine tune this regulatory model."

Ron Kammerzell, Senior Director of Enforcement, Colorado Dept. of Revenue Vox, 5/27/14

"Alcohol has always been the No. 1 issue, as long as I’ve been a cop. With marijuana, you don’t see issues of violent behavior or domestic abuse like you see with alcohol or hard drugs.”

Jimmy Tidwell, Buena Vista Police Chief The Mountain Mail, 8/10/15

"We had folks, kind of doomsayers, saying, 'Oh my gosh, we're going to have riots in the streets the day [retail marijuana stores] open.' But it was so quiet. Based on my general understanding in my district, it is becoming ho-hum."

Mary Beth Susman, Denver City Council President Vox, 4/7/14

"I think [the regulated marijuana system] is rearing its head as a significant travel and tourism amenity for visitors coming to Colorado."

Al White, Colorado Tourism Office Director (Ret.) Denver Post, 12/9/15

"The issue is mostly along political lines. There hasn’t been anything remarkable in terms of pot being a law enforcement issue that I’ve seen.”

John Spezze, Chaffee County Sheriff The Mountain Mail, 8/10/15

“These funds [raised by marijuana taxes] have been really enabling some amazing innovation to happen across Colorado, and really promoting nursing and counseling service expansions in schools."

Stephanie Faren, Boulder Valley School District Nurse and Health and Wellness Coordinator Denver Post, 12/28/15

"With greater enforcement and more miles on the road, if anything we would have expected an increase of citations [for driving under the influence of marijuana] over the course of 2015, and we saw a flat line of citations."

Andrew Freedman, Director of Marijuana Coordination, Colorado Governor's Office WPTZ, 3/31/16

"There's really no statistically significant data yet to demonstrate that there is increased use among adults or teens."

Dr. Larry Wolk, Director and Chief Medical Officer, Colorado Dept. of Public Health and Environment Denver Post, 12/27/15

“If people didn’t smoke before, generally they’re not smoking now. So generally the people that were smoking are still smoking, and now they’re paying taxes. And that money, instead of going off sometimes to our enemies, foreign countries, drug dealers, whatever, that money’s now staying in Colorado and creating jobs and generating taxes.”

John Hickenlooper, Governor of Colorado CBS News, 3/25/14

"You can make it illegal, but it’s not going to stop demand for the product. Would you rather have it out in the public and reap tax benefits from it or would you be rather it be forced underground?"

Joe DiSalvo, Pitkin County Sheriff Leafly, 4/4/16

"Colorado is evolving in its handling of marijuana issues. The system of 20 years ago was very expensive and it didn't work. The criminal justice system is about the most expensive and cumbersome arm of government, and it only works if there is wide-based support for the law you are enforcing."

Stan Garnett, Boulder County District Attorney Longmont Times-Call, 3/5/15