DENVER, Colo. — As the state of Michigan moves one step closer to putting recreational marijuana on the 2018 ballot, the I-Team traveled to Colorado to speak with experts about what has happened in there since the decriminalization of recreational marijuana in 2012.
In Michigan, as of Monday, more than 360,000 signatures collected by the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol campaign were submitted to the Secretary of State’s office.
In Colorado, those involved in the recreational marijuana industry said treating marijuana like alcohol was the right move.
“I’ve had doctors, lawyers, nurse, teachers, construction workers, and pro-athletes come in here,” said Chad Drew, a sales manager at Colorado Harvest Co. in Denver. “I’ve had customers that range from 21-year-olds who want to try and get their first experience with it, all to way to an elderly lady that comes in.”
Drew’s boss, Colorado Harvest Co. CEO Tim Cullen, said the positive economic effects of marijuana legalization have gone above and beyond his expectations.
“These were all vacant warehouses,” he said while walking through the grow house where Colorado Harvest cultivates marijuana. “Now, they’re all at capacity and all the store fronts are filled downtown."
Cullen, who employs 85 people at his company, said Michiganders should expect a similar economic boom if voters get the chance to decriminalize marijuana.
“The job market is just absolutely booming, unemployment is among the lowest in the nation here in Colorado,” he said.
In a different building, miles away from the Colorado Harvest, sits a different man with a different opinion on how things have changed in Colorado.
Thomas Gorman is Director of the Rocky Mountain High Drug Intensity Trafficking Area, a group that works with law enforcement to combat drug trafficking and drug related violence. Gorman said the legalization of marijuana has led to more marijuana-related traffic crashes, more fatalities, and an increase in illegal use among minors.
“We’ve seen an increase in hospitalizations, an increase in emergency room admissions, and those statistics aren’t made up,” Gorman said.
Gorman agrees with Cullen about one thing, that’s the undeniable economic boom created by marijuana legalization, but he cautions that the boom isn’t taking into account other costs that should be factored into the equation.
“You still have to have a marijuana enforcement division and that’s going to cost you, ... and Denver is contemplating tripling the number of cops, so you have to figure all that in as well,” Gorman said, referring to the taxpayer money used to subsidize those elements.
Gorman said the economic numbers fail to show the societal costs in the form of emergency room expenses, and loss of life from crashes. Using statistics from the Colorado Department of Transportation and Colorado hospitals, among other places, the Rocky Mountain research group publishes what it describes as the effects of legalization in a yearly report.
Back at the Colorado Harvest Co., Cullen points out that drunken driving crashes and deaths still far outnumber crashes and deaths caused by marijuana use.
“They have very different effects on someone who takes them home and uses them. Someone who uses marijuana is much less likely to feel like they should jump in the car and go drive somewhere,” Cullen said, addressing Gorman’s concerns. “You’re much more likely to go to the kitchen and make a funky sandwich and watch a funny show.”
Because Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, it remains to be seen if Michigan could replicate the size of the economic boom if voters chose to decriminalize marijuana, but the numbers compiled by the Marijuana Policy Group show that Colorado has benefited in terms of marijuana-related jobs, an increase in tax revenue, and a significant overall economic impact.
In some ways, however, even those who supported marijuana legalization efforts say there have been some unintended consequences in the form of higher rent.
“I think cannabis is definitely part of the picture with the rising housing prices,” said Nathan Darragh, a longtime Colorado resident.
Darragh said he is now considering moving out of the state, due in part, to the increased housing costs.
“Rent control used to be a pie in the sky idea, but now it’s being floated more and more here,” he said.
Darrah acknowledged, however, that marijuana legalization is just one of a few factors driving up rent.
Back at the grow house, Cullen agreed that housing prices have gone up, but said other factors are also at play, such as Amazon and Google moving to Denver, among other companies.
Cullen said there’s only one group he can think of that has suffered primarily due to the legalization of marijuana.
“The negative side of the legalization has been for the black market marijuana dealers,” he said. “If you want to buy in Colorado, you’re not going to go to Craig’s List or something underground. You’re going to go into a store and purchase it.”
Also, he said, Colorado made sure to set the legal age for marijuana consumption at 21, similar to alcohol, and bans on certain types of advertising have calmed some pre-legalization fears within the state. Cullen also said that contrary to what many believe outside the state, you cannot smoke marijuana in public.
As for Michigan, Cullen said policy makers might want to keep an eye on how other states have chosen to tax marijuana.
“I think Washington State crossed that line and put the taxes so high (37 percent), so people there still go to the black market to buy it,” he said, noting that Colorado set the tax rate at approximately 23 percent.
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