There was Gov. John Hickenlooper standing on the steps of the Colorado Capitol last week, making a speech holding a live baby goat calmly resting in his arms. And before you even ask: No, it had nothing to do with legal marijuana. But it was one of the few things, frankly, taking place around the building in the final week of the legislative session that didn't.
Inside the Capitol, more than a dozen marijuana lobbyists were busy following last-minute legislation: one bill dictating how the state will spend the first $24 million in tax revenues from its new recreational marijuana industry, another creating a first-of-its-kind credit co-op to give these businesses, still barred by federal law from using the banks, a way to better manage their money—and the state a better way to track it.
Across the street at the Denver Post, a team of reporters follows the legislation and pretty much every development related to legal marijuana for the paper's new blog, aptly named The Cannabist. Every night, Coloradans tune into local newscasts offering the same marijuana-focused "investigations" (and my station is no exception) during May sweeps: One recent jaw-dropper involved a reporter urging parents to "have the edibles talk" with their kids after demonstrating that a four-year-old couldn't tell the difference between a snickerdoodle and a snickerdoodle baked with hash oil. However facile the on-camera theatrics, these stories are timely, particularly with local hospitals reporting a big increase in the number of children rushed to emergency rooms after accidentally ingesting cookies and candies containing THC.
This is the brave new Colorado, where life is often far stranger than fiction—and those are just the headlines. Four-plus months and counting into the Rocky Mountain state's bold weed experiment, it's clear that marijuana legalization has led to some unanticipated problems, from a lethal overdose to cash-flow issues and some crime. But on the whole, it hasn't been the disaster its opponents predicted. I remember a California sheriff's prophecy to a Denver TV station of where legalization would lead: "Thugs put on masks, they come to your house, they kick in your door. They point guns at you and say, 'Give me your marijuana, give me your money.'" Not so much, as it turns out.
"I think it's gone more smoothly than we thought," says Lewis Koski, the former cop-turned-gaming investigator now serving as Chief of Colorado's new Marijuana Enforcement Division, an office of nearly 40 people monitoring every plant from seed to sale, poring over every requested business license, checking up on every complaint.
That assessment—that Colorado's marijuana experiment is working—is widely shared by those within the industry and those tasked with regulating it. And the most recent poll shows that 56 percent of Coloradans think legalizing pot has been a good thing.
And yet, there are those headlines. Emergency rooms have seen an uptick in teenagers getting sick from "Spice," the synthetic marijuana-like drugs classified as a controlled substance last year but still sold in gas stations and convenience stores. Synthetic marijuana, also referred to as bath salts or "K2," can be between three and 800 times stronger than real marijuana and cause severe hallucinations, elevated heart rates and fatal overdoses—it's responsible for one known death in Colorado and more than 200 hospitalizations so far. Just last week, DEA agents busted a "Spice" trafficking ring, arresting hundreds of people across 25 states. Houses are exploding seemingly daily from failed attempts to extract hash oil from dried, tightly packed marijuana leaves by pouring butane over them—"the meth labs of the 90s," in the words of one local police chief. In western Colorado, police were lucky to discover a homeowner's hash oil operation before it exploded last week only after the homeowner's dog bit his genitals, leading him to call 9-1-1. And edible marijuana has already been blamed for two recent deaths—a college student leaping off a hotel balcony, a husband shooting his wife, both after eating pot.
Every day, growing numbers of Coloradans are getting high, a handful of entrepreneurs are getting rich, police are investigating various crimes related to the industry (or, more often, a persistent black market), lawmakers and public health experts are examining the early returns and revamping policy. And, for the most part, life continues just as it did before here in a state that is now—for better or worse—America's marijuana policy laboratory.
Chris Christie, the voluble New Jersey governor, is not waiting for the results to come in. Last month, Christie got Colorado's collective dander up when he went on talk radio and lashed out at a caller asking about legalizing marijuana and promised: Not on my watch.
"Go to Colorado and see if you want to live there," Christie said. "See if you want to live in a major city in Colorado where there's head shops popping up on every corner and people flying into your airport just to come and get high. To me, it's just not the quality of life we want to have here in the state of New Jersey and there's no tax revenue that's worth that."
A New Jersey paper ridiculed Christie's comparison ("Pity the poor saps who live in the beautiful Rocky Mountain State…" began a Star Ledger editorial), as did Colorado lawmakers. "When you're counting your electoral votes, I guess he doesn't think he needs Colorado's nine," said State Rep. Dan Pabon, a Denver Democrat who helped write the state's new marijuana laws.
Hickenlooper offered a more subtle rejoinder, releasing a slew of statistics showing Colorado ranking far ahead of New Jersey in economic development, job growth, population health status and a host of other categories. It was the closest Hickenlooper, a Democrat facing reelection in November, has ever come to embracing Colorado's newest boom industry – and yet he offered no rebuttal to Christie's main point that legalizing marijuana has been a negative.
I remember sitting in Hickenlooper's office the day legalization passed in 2012. "Don't break out the Cheetos just yet," he said—very much the cautious opponent. Still, the quirky, calculating governor, who's made a career out of restoring the public's faith in his vision of good government, has directed his administration to implement legal recreational marijuana in a responsible, effective manner. For the most part, that's happened, aided in large part by an industry eager for legitimacy.