The Straight Dope on Straight Dope

Creating a legal marijuana industry in Colorado from scratch.
By Seth Masket ,

(PHOTO: ATOMAZUL/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Over the past year, while many policy enthusiasts have been rightly focused on the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (one of the most substantial changes to domestic policy in decades), a possibly more dramatic story has been unfolding in Colorado as the state seeks to create rules for the legal sale of marijuana, set to begin on January 1.

This has been a particularly interesting story because the state is essentially creating a legal industry from scratch. The front pages of the Denver Post have been fascinating (and occasionally hilarious) in recent weeks as cities, counties, and the state government struggle with how to regulate a business that, until very recently, was a criminal enterprise. What kind of bags can you use to hold marijuana, and must they be childproof? How many plants should individuals be allowed to grow in their home? How much can you smoke and still drive legally? Is it OK if you're smoking pot on your front lawn and a neighbor sees you? Or what if you're in your backyard and someone smells you? With this? And you probably don't want it near schools or sold to children.

Even while the federal government isn't cracking down on marijuana sales, it is preventing banks from doing business with pot sellers.

Another interesting but important wrinkle: According to the federal government, marijuana is still a schedule 1 drug, just like heroin! The Obama administration has given the impression that it won't interfere if the state seems to be running things professionally and the place hasn't turned into a giant Grateful Dead concert. But what if the feds are unhappy with the way things are going after a year? And what will a new president's attitude be come 2017?

Relatedly, even while the federal government isn't cracking down on marijuana sales, it is preventing banks from doing business with pot sellers, which are, in the eyes of the feds, criminal entities. This creates a very dangerous situation for pot sellers, who are largely doing business in cash and stuffing the proceeds in mattresses. How does the state address this issue?

For a great rundown of these and other key issues, I strongly urge you to read this Slate article by law professor Sam Kamin and writer Joel Warner, and be sure to follow their series in Slate as it develops over the next two months. In this first piece, Kamin and Warner discuss the creation of a regulatory framework for legal marijuana, and they note how complicated it is. For example, advocates of Amendment 64, which legalized pot statewide, very straightforwardly argued for regulating pot like alcohol. Sounds simple, right? Well....

[D]o we really want marijuana to be treated like alcohol? On the one hand, alcohol is carefully controlled, which would prove helpful for marijuana. Sellers have to be licensed, manufacturers must list their products’ potency, and rules are in place to prohibit sales to minors. On the other hand, there’s no single alcohol distribution model for marijuana to emulate. For example, liquor stores operate independently of alcohol manufacturers, and shoppers aren’t allowed to consume purchases on site. But at some breweries, the opposite is true—the beer is produced, sold, and consumed at a single location. So which should it be: pot package stores or pot brewpubs?

The authors nicely note the bizarre series of headaches that arise when a newly legal product enters the market, including rules on advertising, sales locations, and even the appropriate choices of labels and symbols used to scare away young children.

This should only get more interesting with the first legal over-the-counter sale of marijuana in the United States now just a mere two weeks away. Stay tuned.