The Complicated Story of Marijuana in Colorado

In 2012, Colorado voters passed Amendment 64, making it legal to grow, consume and sell cannabis. Colorado was one of the first states to legalize cannabis. The drug had been banned across the country since 1937.

Parts of Colorado have had a cultural affinity for marijuana for decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, Boulder, Denver and Aspen were centers of hippie counterculture. Cannabis became popular during those decades, and the pot industry is booming there today. On the other hand, conservative towns, such as Colorado Springs, have banned pot sales.

Colorado’s relationship with pot is complicated. But the drug probably won’t go away anytime soon. Since legalization, cannabis has become a billion dollar industry.

Cannabis Prohibition in Colorado

At the end of the 19th century, cannabis was legal across the United States. Recreational use wasn’t very common, but cannabis was a common ingredient in many health products.

That began to change in the 1910s and 1920s when Mexicans began to immigrate to the United States to work agricultural and manufacturing jobs. They smoked cannabis and called it marihuana. This practice was exotic to white Southwesterners.

The wave of migration prompted a backlash. Newspapers wrote sensationalized stories that accused Mexican immigrants of corrupting young people and committing violent crimes while under the influence of cannabis.

Local and state governments across the country began to restrict marijuana use. Colorado banned cannabis in 1929. The federal government followed suit in 1937, passing the Marijuana Tax Act. The act included a licensing and regulation regime, but no licenses were issued.

Federal officials gradually increased penalties for marijuana possession and cultivation. In the 1950s, first-time marijuana possession became a federal felony punishable by time in prison.

Changing Attitudes Toward Cannabis in Colorado

At the same time that federal officials were cracking down on marijuana use, the drug started to become popular again.

Cannabis use is a consistent theme of Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel “On the Road.” Sal Paradise, a character based on Kerouac, cools his heels in Denver for a while. During the Denver portion of the book, Sal tries to buy marijuana, which he calls “tea,” from a Mexican on the street.

On the Road was a major countercultural document. It inspired many of the hippies who moved to Colorado in the 1960s. Denver and Boulder became focal points of the hippie scene. One of Kerouac’s compatriots, noted cannabis user and poet Allen Ginsberg, occasionally lived in Boulder because of the thriving hippie scene. A library at Boulder’s Naropa University is named after Ginsberg.

One of the authors’ admirers, writer Hunter S. Thompson, moved to Aspen in the 1970s. Thompson ran for Pitkin County Sheriff in 1970 and advocated for complete drug legalization. He placed special emphasis on marijuana.

Thompson didn’t win the election, but his idea slowly gained momentum during the next 40 years.

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How Colorado Legalized Marijuana

Colorado took the first step toward legalization in 1975 when the legislature made marijuana possession a low priority for law enforcement. Possession, use and transport became misdemeanors, and a minor fine was the punishment.

Around the same time, the medical marijuana movement began to make progress. In 1979, the state legalized medical marijuana. However, the law did not actually produce a medical marijuana system. The law required federal authorization, which never happened. The medical marijuana movement continued to lobby for a real medical policy, and medical marijuana was eventually legalized by constitutional amendment in 2000.

After medical marijuana was legalized, recreational legalization became a realistic goal. SAFER, a legalization advocacy group, organized local legalization efforts during the early 2000s. It led a statewide initiative in 2006. In 2007, SAFER lobbied Denver authorities to make enforcement of marijuana possession laws the police department’s lowest priority.

Meanwhile, medical marijuana dispensaries became commonplace across the state. Some Colorado residents got phony prescriptions for medical marijuana from doctors who wrote them for flimsy reasons, and many dispensaries were little more than clandestine pot shops.

Still, momentum for legalization became overwhelming. In November 2012, roughly 55 percent of the state voted to legalize recreational marijuana when it passed Amendment 64. Washington passed a similar measure that year, and the two states became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana since the prohibition push. Colorado opened the United States’ first retail cannabis stores on January 1, 2014.

Effects of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado

Since legalization, Coloradans retained mixed feelings about cannabis. In November 2015, more than half of Coloradans approved of legalization, and 39 percent disapproved.

Liberal areas, such as Denver and Boulder, have booming pot industries. Colorado had 520 medical marijuana dispensaries and 479 retail stores in operation in May 2017, and cannabis tours have become popular attractions.

Meanwhile, conservative areas, such as Colorado Springs, have banned cannabis sales in city limits. The city is battling would-be marijuana entrepreneurs who opened shops in city limits.

The short- and long-term health effects of cannabis legalization remain to be seen. Usage rates have increased, according to a state report, but those numbers could reflect the decreased stigma associated with legal pot. Surveys of Colorado’s youth show no meaningful change in rates of pot use, but young people’s perceptions of cannabis are becoming more favorable.

Disturbingly, Coloradans vulnerable to addiction have started to consume marijuana in greater quantities, which means they have a higher possibility of developing a marijuana addiction. Colorado is one of the top states for marijuana use.

Governor John Hickenlooper described his feelings about cannabis legalization to the Los Angeles Times in 2016.

“Four years ago, if I could have had a magic wand and waved it twice and reversed that vote, I would have,” Hickenlooper said. “Now, if I have that magic wand, I probably wouldn’t — I would wait and see if we can make a better system.

“The old system, the War on Drugs, was a train wreck. It didn’t work, so it remains to be seen whether the new system is actually going to be better.”

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