A decade after cannabis was legalized for adult use in Colorado, stigma is subsiding and the industry is booming. But continued federal prohibition and limited opportunities for social consumption continue to challenge the industry.
By Matt Maenpaa
When Colorado voters approved Amendment 64, a ballot measure legalizing adult use of cannabis in 2012, Terrapin Care Station founder Chris Woods knew it was a pivotal moment that would shape the future of cannabis throughout the country.
“We knew we were making history, and indeed, we did,” says Woods, one of the largest individual donors to the Amendment 64 campaign.
A decade later, cannabis is a billion-dollar industry in Colorado ($2.2 billion in 2021, to be exact). Since 2012, when Colorado and Washington both passed adult-use legalization, 18 states have followed suit. As a green wave of pro-cannabis lobbying emanates from legal states, the stigma is lifting slowly but surely.
“They say, ‘The days are long, but the years are short,’” says Woods. “It’s hard to imagine that it’s been almost ten years since Colorado voters legalized adult-use cannabis. But it’s also not shocking at all. Some days, it feels like a hundred years since Colorado paved the way to end prohibition.”
Boulder-based Terrapin started selling medical cannabis in 2009, in what Woods calls the “Wild West days” before licensing was truly established in Colorado, and now has six stores in Colorado (two in Boulder, one in Longmont, two in Aurora and one in Denver) and three stores in Missouri. It also sells branded cannabis products in Pennsylvania and Michigan.
But even as more states pass medical marijuana laws, the federal government continues to deem cannabis a Schedule 1 substance through the Controlled Substance Act, putting it in the same category as heroin and making it difficult for cannabis companies to do business because they’re forbidden from working with federally funded and insured banks.
Moving to a Normalized Future
In addition to pushing for full descheduling and legalization, multi-state businesses like Terrapin and advocacy groups like the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) are lobbying Congress for safer banking and social equity reform.
The hope, echoed by both Bethany Moore, NCIA communications director, and Peter Marcus, Terrapin’s vice president of communications, is that the cannabis industry will continue to be normalized and treated more like alcohol when it comes to safety and prohibition.
“Amendment 64 used the talking points that [cannabis] should be regulated like alcohol and was, in fact, safer than alcohol,” says Moore, who wants to see the balance shift so “thousands of cannabis companies across the country, including Colorado, can be treated like any other industry in America.”
As more and more companies from outside Colorado enter the market, Marcus sees a lot of similarities to how the beer industry evolved. Though companies like Coors and Anheuser-Busch have dominated the industry for decades, craft brewing saw a revolution that continues to this day. Marcus predicts that, as more states legalize and the industry expands, craft cannabis will have a place in a market alongside more industrial flower.
“I think it’s going to take some evolving and pushback, but eventually, over the next ten years, it will land in a place where there’s quality cannabis out there and room to compete,” Marcus says.
If cannabis is indeed to be treated like alcohol, tokers will need to be allowed to congregate. The Colorado Legislature passed a law in 2019 creating a licensing program that provides a structure for small-scale cannabis sales and public use, making it possible for establishments to host social smokers. Denver opted in last year, and Tetra Lounge was the first indoor cannabis smoking lounge to open its doors earlier this year.
Colorado also introduced regulations for cannabis delivery during the pandemic, increasing adult-use accessibility for people who did not want to or were unable to visit dispensaries.
Limited delivery services are available in Boulder County, but social consumption is still prohibited.
Cannabis in Colorado:
1917: Colorado Legislature makes cannabis cultivation and possession a misdemeanor.
1929: Colorado Legislature makes cannabis cultivation and possession a felony.
1937: Moses Baca and Samuel Caldwell of Denver are the first people in the United States to be arrested for violating the newly passed Marihuana Tax Act launching federal prohibition.
1970: Colorado Legislature downgrades cannabis cultivation and possession to a misdemeanor.
1975: Colorado Legislature decriminalizes cannabis possession and use.
2000: Colorado voters approve Amendment 20, making medical marijuana legal.
2005: The University of Colorado Boulder and Colorado State University pass resolutions making penalties for cannabis offenses no worse than penalties for alcohol offenses on campus.
Denver voters approve an initiative reaffirming cannabis decriminalization
in the city.
2007: A Denver District judge removes limits on the number of patients medical marijuana caregivers can grow for and allows them to dispense cannabis, paving the way for early medical marijuana dispensaries.
2009: After U.S. Deputy Attorney General David Ogden issues a memo telling U.S. attorneys to take a hands-off approach to medical marijuana businesses, dispensaries start opening across the state.
2010: Colorado Legislature establishes operating and security regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries and creates the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division, a branch of the Department of Revenue.
2012: Colorado voters approve Amendment 64, making adult-use of
2014: After the first legal cannabis is sold at 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, adult-use cannabis dispensaries begin opening throughout Colorado.
2019: Colorado allows investors and public companies from outside the state to own cannabis businesses, launching a wave of acquisitions. Ω