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What Have I Done?

The former Colorado "Cannabis Czar" looks at the landscape created by Colorado Amendment 64, for better and worse.

My dinner conversations changed forever the day Gov. John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff asked me the strangest question I’d ever been asked: “Would you become Colorado’s first cannabis czar?”

Until then, I had been a passive observer in the cannabis legalization debate. I was intrigued by the implications, worried about the impacts, and wondering how we’d implement what the voters had approved. But I never anticipated that I would be asked to take the driver’s seat. The questions became relentless. People from all over the political and socio-economic spectrum are fascinated by legalization. What is hash oil? What about banking? Are the kids smoking more pot? Who was making it rich? Could it somehow be me?     

These were just a few of the many thorny—and mostly important—questions my team and I tackled over the first years before the first dispensary opened. Looking back now, I see many smart choices—and some wrong turns. We were pioneers in Colorado, so I’m often asked where we succeeded and what we could’ve done differently. Here’s what I think.     

I am proud of the work done to set up a regulated market in Colorado. Five years after the start of legalization, evidence suggests the vast majority of sales of cannabis inside Colorado occur in the regulated market. That is not the case in other states that have attempted legalization, and it speaks to our commitment to do the thousands of policy and technical tasks required to start a billion-dollar industry that can compete with an illicit market.

Colorado has managed to make progress in the public health and safety arena. Public health surveys suggest we have been able to largely keep legal cannabis out of the hands of teenagers (usage rates have generally held steady or even dropped); we have kept supply and demand in balance, so we’ve avoided the price collapse seen in other states that attempted legalization (you don’t want cheap cannabis flooding the market, ever); and we made certain that the crop grown here didn’t contain dangerous pesticides that could harm users. And as an economic engine and job creator, it has been a boon to Colorado.   

But there have been downsides.

We didn’t fully understand the problem of “naive users.” Some people call it the “Maureen Dowd Effect,” based on a June 3, 2014, column she wrote in The New York Times. She consumed way too much of a cannabis-infused chocolate and caramel bar, lost her mind for 12 hours, then sobered up enough to write about the experience. And the internet exploded. She admits that she simply didn’t read the label and overindulged past the recommended 10 mg of THC. Many make that mistake. But it underscores one of the challenges to reintroducing cannabis to new users: If you’re ingesting more than 10 mg of THC (check the label, wait three hours) at a time, your high might be hell. 

We need to learn how to use cannabis responsibly. For years, our message to youth and adults alike was “just don’t do it.” Now we have trouble creating language around what responsible use even looks like. We have a long way to go before we can claim people know when they have had too much or are a danger to those around them.

We have only begun dealing with the larger challenges for drug policy: substance abuse and social equity. The larger public concern should be how we address those that tend to become addicted to substances—those who will let them affect their jobs, family, and well-being. Legalization brings about a promise to treat this public health issue with a public health solution instead of a criminal solution. Clearly, throwing people in jail for substance abuse has only perpetuated the cycle. But have we created the right guardrails to ensure that cannabis companies don’t target excessive users to grow their market share? Twenty years from now, when we look back on whether legalization was ultimately successful, it will be this population we will use to grade ourselves. 

We haven’t gotten anywhere close to addressing racial inequity either for criminal justice or for economic development. Cannabis prohibition was legislated nationally in the 1920s, then morphed into The War on Drugs, which was always a thinly veiled war on brown- and black-skinned people, who were being incarcerated in nearly a 4:1 ratio compared to whites.

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With the legalization movement, those numbers are going down across the board, but the arrest disparity continues. And as the cannabis market blooms, it has been primarily whites who benefit financially. The situation will only worsen as big business enters the cannabis market.

Clearly, it’s not time to claim victory. But here’s my hopeful take from our so-far successful experiment in Colorado: We were able to unite competing businesses, fractious government, and tetchy voters in a mission to create a safe new business from a notoriously divisive weed. It may be the most surprising thing about legalization. Government worked. At a time when Red and Blue can barely have a conversation with each other, we’ve shown a model where government can navigate a positive outcome even when dealing with a wide variety of people with a wide variety of opinions. I can think of a few areas—guns, immigration, and global warming— where that kind of sweeping change is desirable.