Republican victories across the nation may dominate the headlines, but the biggest winner of the 2014 midterm elections is cannabis. Oregon and Alaska, the two states considering recreational legalization measures, both voted to end prohibition, as did our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. While voters in Florida clearly support medical marijuana (with 57.6% voting yes), patients there will have to continue to wait as Florida requires a 60% majority to pass a ballot initiative.
Successful legalization in Colorado and Washington seems to be spreading support for legalization elsewhere as similar measures previously failed in both Alaska and Oregon. Colorado’s experience in particular demonstrates the sensibility of ending prohibition in a thoughtful but deliberate way. Colorado’s economy is continuing its recovery and improving faster than many other states’, while its coffers are flush with cannabis-tax revenue. Meanwhile, the catastrophic predictions of opponents of legalization such as sky-rocketing teen use of marijuana and dangerous roads full of stoned drivers are simply not materializing. In fact, the opposite is occurring. Colorado has experienced a 5% drop in teen use since 2009 and crime has dropped. It is too soon to know what the final effects of marijuana legalization will be, but we at least know that the chicken little syndrome inspired by prohibitionists is not justified. And as Alaska and Oregon begin to realize the benefits of the new cannabis economy, there is little doubt that other states will follow suit in 2016 and beyond.
As voters continue to choose personal freedom, economic growth, and improved financial stability, they can learn from the mistakes and successes of Washington and Colorado in implementing their cannabis regulations. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for implementing recreational or medical regulatory environments: each state has different populations, cultures, values, needs, and goals, and a state’s regulations must reflect that. However, looking to the experiences of Colorado and Washington is a no-brainer. Regulations should be goal-oriented with clearly articulated and understandable criteria. Rather than attempting to entirely control the size of the market or the locations of dispensaries, states should allow market forces to help guide their efforts. Seed-to-sale tracking can help ensure that cannabis is safely sold to adults, while local communities are often best situated to craft and enforce zoning and sale regulations.
Just as states must craft appropriate regulations, the cannabis industry must itself adapt to operating in a white market. Giving consumers the information they need to inhale, ingest, or imbibe safely is imperative, as inexperienced consumers may be tempted to experiment. Abiding by regulations and providing a safe, quality product that is grown in an environmentally responsible way will ensure continued access to the benefits of legal recognition. Efficiencies of scale, access to research and technology, and increased legal protections are already serving the industry well, and will only continue as more states embrace legalization.
An interesting question is what effect Washington, D.C.’s legalization will have on the federal government’s approach to cannabis. On the one hand, it might provide legislators with a realistic understanding of the benefits of legalization, but on the other, it might force the issue before many legislators are ready to accept recreational cannabis. Those of us in this market should pay attention to what is happening in congress and make our voices heard. Access to financial services and markets is critical, but security from selective, unjustified criminal prosecution is paramount.
Here’s to hoping that the new Republican majority recognizes the benefits of cannabis legalization and works across party lines and with the industry to develop a responsible plan to end the prohibition of the 20th century.
Graham Gerritsen is Surna’s Associate General Counsel. He is a member of the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations and is hoping to help create the first Cannabis Law Committee within any U.S. Bar Association. He earned his law degree from the University of Texas School of Law in 2013 and his bachelors degree with honors in Economics from the University of Colorado at Boulder. A long-time ally in the fight to end the war on drugs, he became an avid supporter of the movement in 2008 when he studied and wrote his undergraduate honors thesis on the effects of drug prohibition (spoiler alert: they’re not very good). Outside the office, Graham enjoys the outdoors as well as brewing and drinking good beer.
Tae Darnell is the VP and General Counsel for Surna. Tae Darnell’s career in the cannabis industry includes being a co-founder of the Cannabis Law Center where he played a pivotal role in Colorado’s rise from operating under a Constitutional Amendment to outright regulated legalization. Tae’s clients represent the definitive leaders in the Cannabis industry.