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GUEST COLUMN What can happen when a state goes to pot?
by Johnny Welsh

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In recent years, many states, including Colorado, have legalized marijuana for medical purposes without much fanfare or controversy. However, when the citizens of Colorado voted to legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational use beginning in 2014, a new industry was created that changed the economy, the culture, and the population of the state.

Anticipating an outcry of opposition, the legislature enacted strict laws and regulations: 1 ) Sellers and growers are required to buy licenses; 2 ) Buyers have to be 21, and are allowed to possess only one ounce; 3 ) Out-of-state visitors are limited to one-quarter ounce; 4 ) Possessing 12 or more ounces is a felony. So is giving marijuana to anyone under 21; 5 ) All purchases have to be in cash; 6 ) Consumption is not allowed in public places; 7 ) Driving under the influence is illegal. So is taking marijuana out of the state; 7 ) Start-up businesses are at risk, since the sale and purchase of marijuana continues to be illegal at the federal level.

Rules didn't prevent thousands of people from taking advantage of the opportunity to profit from the new industry. The "Green Rush" began and local entrepreneurs and hordes of people from around the country and other nations clamored to join the fun. They opened dispensaries and pot farms. In addition to new head shops, retailers of all sorts sold T-shirts, stickers, vaporizers, pipes, cookbooks with marijuana recipes, and a wide range of related paraphernalia. Tourism exploded, and several resorts promoted cannabis vacations.

By the end of the first year of legalization, Colorado had an estimated 1,700 medical and recreational marijuana dispensaries. They created over 18,000 new jobs and added $44 million to Colorado's tax revenues. The state had the lowest unemployment rate in the union, and the increase in sales and ancillary businesses increased the state's economy by $2.4 billion. Last year Colorado collected $200 million in taxes and fees, $138 million going to education.

The excitement and economic advantages have been tempered by the apprehensions of people who were opposed to legalization. They were afraid that more people would be irresponsibly stoned more often, it would be easier to for kids to access pot, and that accidents would increase.

Some of these concerns and others have materialized, but there have been no comprehensive studies that reflect the extent of the damage. So far, the predicted consequences have not been severe, although some people have been hospitalized for eating brownies cookies, chocolate bars and other edibles without knowing how much cannabis they contained.

The most apparent downside is a growing number of newcomers and transients who are crowded into the cities and towns. Housing costs have increased, rents have escalated, and the number of homeless in Colorado is high. Many came to Colorado seeking jobs, but were not qualified for the work available. Also, certain positions require a prospective employee to be a citizen of Colorado for one year before being hired in the cannabis industry.

Several other states are considering legalization of marijuana, and are watching what is happening in Colorado and the eight other states that have decriminalized cannabis.

Johnny Welsh is the author of Weedgalized in Colorado: True Tales From the High Country. He has been a popular professional bartender for 20 years in Frisco, Colorado and he has been a boots-on-the-ground witness to the historical marijuana movement that has captured the imagination of the entire country.

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