Cannabis in Colorado And Washington: 5 Years Later

Indoor nursery for the cultivation of medical marijuana, complete with specially designed lighting and HVAC systems.

It’s been five years since Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize cannabis. Other states that have since passed similar laws have followed the legislative blueprints created by these two pot pioneers.

So how is the cannabis industry affecting Colorado and Washington half a decade later? And what’s next for the influential industries and government regulation agencies in these states?

Here are 5 consequences (or lack thereof) for Colorado and Washington as their legal cannabis industries celebrate five years in 2017.

1) They’re Making Money

As other states legalize cannabis or consider such measures, a primary motivation has been tax revenue. State governments nationwide are contending against budget deficits, and see marijuana as a way to help alleviate these financial shortfalls.

And for good reason. Last year, Colorado raked in $200 million in tax revenue off of $1.3 billion in legal cannabis sales. In 2015 the state added $70 million into its coffers from cannabis taxes, which was almost twice as much as Colorado collected from alcohol that year ($42 million).

Washington has also reaped monetary rewards from legal marijuana. Since 2014 the state has sold more than $1 billion in cannabis, which has brought in more than $250 million in tax revenue.

Without legalization, that money would remain on the black market. Now these new dollars can help patch up budgets or funnel into state programs like public schools.

However, these revenue streams do remain but a drop in the budgetary bucket. Colorado’s 2016 state budget was $26.4 billion while Washington’s 2016-17 biennium budget is $39 billion. For states like Connecticut facing down billion-dollar shortfalls, it’ll take more than legal pot to erase all that red ink.

2) Underage Smoking Has Not Increased

Opponents of pot have feared that marijuana use will skyrocket among youths if the drug becomes legal. But data from Colorado and Washington suggest otherwise.

In Colorado, a state-sponsored survey of 17,000 randomly selected students from 157+ middle schools and high schools found that levels of marijuana use among state teens reflected the national average.

“Four out of five Colorado high school students have not used marijuana in the last 30 days, a rate that remains relatively unchanged since 2013,” the study reports. “Colorado does not significantly differ from the national average in lifetime or current marijuana use” among junior high and high school kids.

Meanwhile, a 2015 study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that “cannabis use and access among students in 6th through 12th grades have changed little from 2002 through the most recent survey in 2014.”

The study also found that the belief that regular cannabis use is harmful was already trending downward among youths before legalization in 2012.

3) They’re Preparing For The Federal Fight

Every time newly appointment Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks about cannabis, it gives the industry new reason to fear.

In the meantime, Colorado and Washington (like other legal-pot states) have taken proactive steps to protect their cannabis markets from federal interference.

Washington’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson pledged defense of his state’s legal marijuana industry. “I will resist any efforts by the Trump administration to undermine the will of the voters in Washington state,” he said in an interview with the Seattle Times.

Ferguson and Democrat Gov. Jay Inslee reportedly sent Sessions a letter in February. The communication defended their state’s industry, and pointed out how a federal crackdown would be a waste of limited resources, with greater issues and threats facing the county.

The governor also reportedly warned that federal intervention would place Sessions and Trump “on the wrong side of history.”

Meanwhile, Washington legislators have introduced a bipartisan bill that would seeks protection from Sessions by “prohibiting the use of public resources to assist the federal government in any activity that might impede or interfere with Washington state’s regulation of marijuana and marijuana-related products.”

The bill further adds that “all public employees in this state are prohibited from assisting . . . any federal action or effort that might have the effect of impeding, obstructing, or otherwise interfering with . . . the laws, regulations, procedures, systems, or public agencies . . . related to the production, processing, sale, use, or possession of marijuana.”

Public employees who do aid the federal government in cannabis crackdowns risk disciplinary action, including the loss of employment.

Colorado is considering perhaps an even more creative measure. It would allow recreational-pot growers and retailers to automatically convert into medicinal-marijuana operations should federal agents appear for enforcement and the confiscation of cannabis materials.

4) Traffic Fatalities Have Not Risen

Another concern among those protesting legalization is that traffic fatalities will increase once more consumers have access to pot.

A study released in 2016 by the Cato Institute refutes the argument. Looking at traffic data from Colorado back to 2004 and Washington back to 2008, the study found that:

“No spike in fatal traffic accidents or fatalities followed the liberalization of medical marijuana [in Colorado] in 2009. Although fatality rates have reached slightly higher peaks in recent summers, no obvious jump occurs after either legalization in 2012 or the opening of stores [in Colorado] in 2014.

Likewise, neither marijuana milestone in Washington State appears to have substantially affected the fatal crash or fatality rate. In fact, more granular statistics reveal that the fatality rate for drug-related crashes was virtually unchanged after legalization.”

5) They’ve Had To Address Pot Clubs

It makes sense that the two pioneer states would continue to debate the most modern of cannabis concerns: pot clubs.

These are indoor areas where people can gather publicly to consume cannabis. Participants bring their own product and pipes. (The phrase is that these are BYOP for “bring your own pot.”)

Colorado’s legislature approved pot clubs earlier in May.

Reportedly there already exists a network of underground clubs operating in Colorado without regulation or license. Municipal officials expressed concern about how to handle them, leading state politicians to legalize the clubs. Though the bill stipulates that clubs cannot serve alcohol, or food other than little munchies.

Supporters of the bill believe it will regulate the underground clubs, while also lowering cannabis consumption in public spaces like parks and sidewalks.

But Colorado’s governor may not pass the bill. Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper has threatened to veto any bills that allow for indoor smoking, limiting the clubs to outdoor areas like rooftops and patios.

Washington legislators, meanwhile, made quick work of such clubs when they ruled them illegal in 2015. Reportedly the decision came with little warning to the marijuana industry — frustrating many. Especially because the law establishes that operating a pot club is felony.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Cannabis Regulator. Reach him at or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece 8 States That Could Legalize Cannabis In 2017.