What will legalisation in Washington and Colorado actually look like?

On the night of the 6th of November 2012, when it announced that the referenda were successful, people in Washington and Colorado came out onto the streets and got as high as they could. The laws hadn’t even been signed by the Governors, but there was very little that either the police or the state lawyers could do. The People had spoken, and that was enough.

But clearly this anarchy was not going to last, and both states soon started considering what regulations there would be. And this process is still going on – the referenda had given them the mandate to have a legal, regulated market for cannabis, but what this actually meant was still up for debate. Not even the Netherlands has a truly regulated market (growing cannabis remains illegal, so what you buy in a Dutch coffeeshop is often imported), so Colorado and Washington had no precedent.

And what they decided was going to be very important for the future of drug policy reform: it’s likely that other US states, and maybe even other countries, will legalise cannabis, and they will look to Washington and Colorado for ideas on how to regulate the drug. At the same time, because they’re venturing into unchartered territory, the regulators are experimenting with styles of legalisation. Washington and Colorado are going on different paths, and it will be interesting to see which one will best satisfy the goals of legalisation. 

In Washington, only medical marijuana users can grow plants for personal use. The 25% excise tax on the sale of cannabis (although the effective tax rate will be 30-40%) will go to a “Dedicated Marijuana Fund”. 55% of this will be spent on healthcare; 25% will be spent on drug-abuse treatment and drug education; 1% will be spent on marijuana research; and the rest will go to the state coffers. Vertical integration is forbidden – that is, growers and processors can’t have any financial interest in retailers.

In Colorado, anyone is allowed to grow their own cannabis. You can have up to 3 immature plants and 3 mature plants at any one time. The effective tax rate will be 15-25% (less than in Washington). The Coloradans seem less sure on what to spend the tax revenue, although they have decided that $40 million will go to the public school capital construction assistance fund every year. Whereas vertical integration is forbidden in Washington, in Colorado it will be required, at least at first.  Retailers will have to grow 70% of what they sell until October 2014, when stand-alone producers and retailers will be allowed.

Washington and Colorado’s marijuana policies have some key things in common: it is illegal for someone under the age of 21 to possess or consume pot, or to sell pot to someone under 21; adults can possess up to an ounce; driving with more than 5 nanograms of THC per millilitre in your blood is not allowed; and smoking in public places is illegal.

Neither state has finished deciding upon regulations, and in some areas one state has announced a regulation which the other will no doubt announce as well in due time. For example, Colorado has limited purchases by non-Colorado residents to one quarter of an ounce. Both states are hoping to profit from marijuana tourism, but Washington has yet to decide what this would look like in the Evergreen State.

Colorado has also made it clear that giving up to an ounce of weed to someone else as a gift is legal. Washington has no regulations on this as yet, but it will have to sometime as gifting cannabis will no doubt be common.

Colorado has also declared that cannabis must be sold in child-proof packaging, and that advertising cannot be directed towards children. Washington hasn’t said this yet, although it has stated that it will be illegal to sell marijuana within 1,000 feet of a school.

As you can tell, legalisation is not as simple as it might appear. The authorities have had a lot of work to do, and there’s still more to do. This article is accurate as of the 7th of June 2013. The first legal recreational marijuana stores are likely to appear in Washington and Colorado in early 2014.