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More than a year has passed since Colorado’s “Green Wednesday,” when hundreds of people braved the New Year’s Day cold to queue outside the state’s 24 marijuana retail stores.
Colorado became the first jurisdiction in the world to legalize marijuana for commercial production and sale. Washington state followed six months later and Oregon and Alaska are expected to open retail shops in 2016. Other states like California, Massachusetts, Nevada and Maine, where medical marijuana and small amounts of recreational pot are legal, are expected to pass measures in next year’s elections that broaden those allowances.
Meanwhile, policymakers and advocates on both sides of the legalization debate are watching closely to see if what Colorado’s governor called “the greatest social experiment of the century” is worth the fiscal and social risk.
With one year past, it’s too soon for policymakers and health experts to draw reliable conclusions on the costs versus benefits of marijuana legalization. Tax revenues from legal sales were $86 million less than projected and the social costs on public health and safety remain largely unknown. Despite the uncertainty, state officials and policy analysts don’t anticipate the setbacks and numerous unknowns of Colorado’s experiment to deter the spread of legalization to other states.
“Oregon and Alaska voted to set up commercial markets for marijuana, but the voters in Washington, D.C., passed an initiative just to allow home production. They didn’t vote for a tax and regulatory system,” said Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Corp’s Drug Policy Research Center. “If you’re a jurisdiction wanting to do something else other than prohibiting marijuana, turns out you have a lot of options.”
The option Colorado voters approved — to license the manufacturing, cultivation and commercial sale of marijuana — was revolutionary compared to policies legalizing pot in other countries.
For example, the Netherlands’ policy doesn’t allow “marijuana stores” like Colorado and Washington. Instead, limited amounts of cannabis are sold per person in select, 18-and-over coffee shops. Production, possession and selling of marijuana is still illegal, “but they have a policy of not enforcing the law against small-scale transactions,” Kilmer said.
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