A First-Hand Look at Recreational Marijuana in the Mile High City

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Cannabis on a plate

In recent times, a move towards the legalisation of marijuana for recreational purposes in NSW has been gaining momentum.

Earlier this year, the NSW State Government began clinical trials on the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Even our usually conservative Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, recently announced that he supported medical marijuana.

Some have suggested that making marijuana legal for medicinal purposes is the first step towards legalisation for recreational purposes.

This is what occurred in Colorado, which became the first state within the United States to legalise recreational cannabis earlier this year, following a long period of legalisation for medicinal purposes.

I regularly work alongside people charged with drug offences and have always been curious about whether legalisation would have a positive or negative impact in the wider community.

So, when the chance arose to spend five weeks in the ‘Mile High City,’ I seized the opportunity to investigate and compare Colorado’s cannabis laws with our own.

What the law says

Over the past two decades, Colorado’s drug policy has evolved significantly, with the Rocky Mountain state leading a national movement towards legalisation.

On the first of January 2014, Colorado legalised the consumption of marijuana for recreational purposes.

Since then, several other states have followed suit: recreational marijuana became legal in Washington earlier this year, and Alaska and Oregon have recently passed similar legislation which will legalise recreational marijuana in coming years.

Many other states have legalised cannabis for medicinal purposes, or decriminalised the drug.

The move towards legalisation in Colorado began way back in November 2000, when Amendment 20 was passed.

This amended the state’s constitution to legalise marijuana for medicinal purposes, allowing persons aged 18 and older, with a Medical Marijuana Registry Identification Card, to possess up to two ounces (approximately 28 grams) of marijuana to treat health ailments such as epilepsy, cancer and chronic pain.

Patients were also authorised to possess up to six cannabis plants, with no more than three being mature, flowering plants.

Following years saw the codification of several amendments which rectified deficiencies in the initial legislation.

Among the amendments were new laws which regulated the licensing of dispensaries, cultivation facilities and product manufacturers, as well as codes which required patients to see a doctor face-to-face in order to receive a Medical Marijuana Registry Identification Card.

All of these amendments were implemented relatively smoothly, and naturally a campaign to legalise marijuana for recreational purposes was born.

After many years in the making, Amendment 64 was passed in 2012, although the laws did not come into effect until January 1, 2014.

This allows persons aged 21 and over to legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana for recreational purposes, however out-of-state foreigners are only able to purchase a quarter ounce of cannabis in a single transaction.

Under the new laws, people are also allowed to grow up to six cannabis plants in a private and locked space, and retain all cannabis harvested from plants that were privately grown.

Despite these liberal laws, there are a number of restrictions concerning marijuana consumption.

For instance, Colorado’s approach to cannabis consumption differs significantly from that of Amsterdam, which is renowned for its ‘coffee shops’ – small cafes where cannabis can be purchased and consumed.

Rather, Colorado’s laws prohibit the consumption of marijuana in public places – whether it be in the street, or in cafes, clubs or restaurants.

This means that it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll come across somebody casually puffing on a joint in the street.

In fact, police can prosecute you if they catch you smoking in public, and since the laws were introduced, police have issued around 668 public consumption citations, which represents a 470% increase from the following year.

This essentially means that Coloradans wishing to consume cannabis must do so in the privacy of their own home.

However, a number of members-only ‘cannabis clubs’ have recently opened, which allow for the consumption of cannabis on private premises in exchange for a daily or monthly membership.

Further, the state has developed new laws to deal with driving under the influence of cannabis (DUI).

The legal limit in Colorado is 5 nanograms of THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) per millilitre of blood.

At present there are no breathalysers that can be used to detect cannabis in a similar manner to an alcohol breath test, however Colorado police have the discretion to order you to undergo a blood test if they suspect that you have been driving under the influence.

There is, however, a defence available to persons charged with DUI, who may argue that their driving was not affected or impaired by marijuana.

Despite these legislative changes, it’s important to bear in mind that under Federal law, marijuana is still illegal.

Like in Australia, Federal law takes precedence over State laws.

So how can the State laws survive this apparent setback?

Essentially, the Federal government has turned a blind eye to recreational cannabis consumption in States where it has been legalised.

Federal prosecutors have reportedly been instructed to refrain from prosecuting persons complying with state laws.

This position has been affirmed by President Obama, who stated that ‘it would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal.’

Despite this, the inconsistency between State and Federal laws has resulted in a number of hiccups – for example, employers are able to drug test employees and fire them if they test positive for cannabis, despite it being legal.

Has legalisation changed anything?

So, has legalisation changed Colorado for the worse?

Based on my own experiences, this certainly doesn’t seem to be the case.

Prior to touching down in Denver, I had several misconceptions about how legalisation may have impacted the quiet mountain community.

For one, I expected it to be advertised heavily in a bid to entice tourists and locals to embrace legalisation and ‘light one up.’

I also expected to see people smoking on the streets or in public areas.

Both of these expectations proved to be incorrect.

For one, Coloradan law prohibits the advertisement of cannabis in television, radio, online and in most print publications.

All you’ll find is the occasional dispensary, tucked away inconspicuously by the streets of a busy highway, or nestled in the depths of an office building.

Most dispensaries are discreetly signposted, so that most passers-by probably wouldn’t even notice that they exist.

And inside, they are nothing like the dark drug dens that may spring to mind.

Only persons aged 21 and over are allowed to buy marijuana for recreational purposes, while persons aged 18 and over may do so with a valid prescription.

The dispensaries are very strict in enforcing the law – they check ID as soon as you enter.

Once you’ve been approved, you’re allowed to enter the store itself.

For anyone who has seen or read about dispensaries, it’s pretty much what you would expect – jars of different strains of marijuana line the walls (or tables), as well as other products, such as pre-made edibles, tinctures and smoking devices.

Friendly staff are on hand to explain the pros and cons of each product, or to recommend a particular product to suit your needs.

It’s probably a lot less intimidating than visiting your local drug dealer.

Perhaps the most surprising factor was the type of clientele that these businesses attract.

While some may expect the target demographic to be 20-something college kids, in the twenty minutes that I spent at the premises, a wide variety of people from all walks of life strolled in.

Businessmen in luxury cars, frail old ladies complaining of aching joints – and, of course, a raft of young people keen to stock up before 4.20.

And it seems that legalisation has benefitted the state too – in the first eight months since pot was legalised, Colorado collected $45.2m in taxes from the industry.

Violent crime has also fallen by 5.6%, and property crime has fallen by 11.4%.

This doesn’t take into consideration the positive impact on the tourism industry, as well as the creation of approximately 10,000 jobs – a welcome prospect in a country still reeling from the effects of the GFC.

And, most importantly, it has meant that less people are being prosecuted and locked up for minor offences such as drug possession and small-scale supply.

As time passes and marijuana use becomes more accepted, it’s likely that Australia will look to jurisdictions such as Colorado to determine how the law will be enforced.

Disclaimer: All visits to dispensaries were purely for research purposes and not to purchase or consume marijuana.

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