Colorado Stories: The Impact of Recreational Marijuana Legalization

Two years into Colorado’s recreational marijuana legalization policy, its effects are just starting to emerge, giving us a glimpse into how the dismantling of prohibition is impacting both individuals and communities. While pro-legalization activists are celebrating and anti-legalization groups are fighting against what they see as the dangers of legal pot availability, it is time to look at how the challenges and triumphs of Amendment 64 have affected the lives of real people.

The Death of Levy Thamba

Levy Thamba was 19 years old when he died. Last March, the college student from Wyoming was visiting three friends in Denver on spring break. The group purchased four THC-infused poppy seed cookies from the Native Root Apothecary and were given explicit instructions to only eat 1/6th of the cookie each, which they did back at a Holiday Inn hotel room. But Thamba wasn’t feeling the effects, so he decided to eat the rest of his cookie, a decision that would leave him sleepless, shivering, and incoherent. His friends tried to calm him down, but eventually he became agitated and started trashing the hotel room, including the lamps and television. From there, he ran out of the room and fell over the 4th floor railing overlooking the lobby. His friends ran after him, but it was too late; Thamba was gone.

Thamba’s death is one of a number of incidents that vividly demonstrate the need for increased awareness of the effects of legalized marijuana edibles amongst inexperienced users. Eating THC-infused foods is a very different experience than smoking pot; the effect is not immediate and it is easy to believe that you have not consumed enough, leading you to eat much more than the recommended amount. In response, Colorado regulators have created emergency rules requiring scoring of edibles to indicate serving size in pot treats containing between 10mg and 100mg of THC.

A Dealer Returning to the Black Market

More regulations, however, are precisely what are driving some pot dealers to remain in or return to the black market. One such dealer is working out of his car just a stone’s throw from Denver’s retail marijuana shops. With the scent of pot in the air and baggies on display, he spoke anonymously with the International Business Times, fearing backlash from both the criminal justice system and the legal marijuana industry. He has been selling marijuana since high school and moved from an illicit business to a legitimate, above-board operation with the advent of legalization. But legitimacy brought with it tight restrictions on where, when, how, and to whom pot can be sold, as well as high taxes and rapidly rising overhead costs in Denver’s hot rental market. He soon “grew disillusioned following what he saw as excessive regulation, uncertainty and taxation,” and shuttered his legal business to return to his black market roots, selling out of his car. He says that he now makes 2-3 times as much profit as he did when operating legally and doesn’t have to deal with government oversight.

The Difference for Schools

The persistence of the black market is one of the factors limiting public benefit from legalization. A major selling point of legalized recreational marijuana for voters was the promise that taxes raised by legal pot sales would go toward building and improving schools. However, many have been frustrated to realize that while the total amount available for schools is an impressive $40 million, that money may not go far once it is allocated amongst the 178 schools competing for funding. This past year, only 22 districts were approved for cash grants and the funds may only be used for particular projects, primarily capital improvements. Sen. Pat Steadman (D, SD-31) recently spoke with Denver Post marijuana editor Ricardo Baca to discuss how the money will be spent:

“The very first priority is addressing health and safety needs. If a school needed a new sprinkler system for fire suppression, that would be prioritized. That’s the kind of thing a school district would apply for and receive a grant from these monies.”

Despite not being the cash cow some envisioned, the money is making a real difference to some recipients, particularly those in rural and high-poverty school districts where need is high and funding is scarce. This year, three Colorado Springs districts received $2.28 million each to “hire nurses, psychologists, social workers and counselors to address behavioral health and substance abuse in their schools.” These added health workers provide much-need support to improve the lives of students in meaningful ways, directly linking marijuana legalization to enhanced services and resources. Other schools will be replacing roofs, upgrading health and safety infrastructure, and expanding overcrowded schools to accommodate students.

Which Way Forward?

Recreational marijuana legalization in the United States is in its infancy and there are real challenges to be addressed, from the safety of products themselves to the persistence of the black market to optimizing tax revenue benefits. As other states follow in Colorado’s footsteps and legalization increasingly becomes an election issue, it is vital that we remain conscientious observers of Colorado’s changing landscape. Through a clear, nuanced understanding of the realities of legal pot availability, we can gain a greater awareness of how to meet the evolving needs of individuals and communities and create meaningful change for a healthier, safer society.