This past week, I, and three members of my legislative staff flew to Denver, Colorado to see for ourselves what the complete legalization of cannabis looks like. Given the polls, what other states are doing, and the arc of history, it seems difficult to deny that legal cannabis is coming to Pennsylvania fairly soon. We wanted to make sure we understood how it works and what Colorado did right, and wrong, in an effort to ensure we do this the right way when the time comes.
We packed as much information-gathering as we could into our three days. We toured two facilities where the marijuana is grown, one lab where it is processed, one where it is tested for potency and impurities and two dispensaries, which are essentially marijuana stores. We then visited the headquarters of the National Conference of State Legislators to discuss trends in legislation.
We also tried to spend some time just interacting with Denver. We wanted to see how people were living their lives with these new policies in place. How noticeable is legal marijuana on the streets, in restaurants, at a Rockies game? Is life different? What would ending prohibition mean day-to-day here in Pennsylvania?
Here is what we’ve found:
The thing that became most clear during our trip is what a tremendous economic opportunity this is. The larger grow facility we toured employs 65 people in high-paying horticultural jobs. The labs we saw employed doctors, medical technicians, mechanical engineers and extensive support staff. The dispensaries employed security, technicians, and even the sales force, known as “bud-tenders,” had to be highly educated about their products, and thus commanded a very good salary.
Further, the tax revenues coming into the state are astronomical. It is estimated that in the first six months of legal cannabis, the State of Colorado has pulled in well over $50 million in direct tax revenues, plus millions more from licensing fees, and indirect businesses such as paraphernalia companies, apparel, tourism, etc. Also, residential as well as warehouse real estate (that would otherwise be dilapidated and abandoned) is being snapped up at premium prices. This is all on top of the millions saved by not having to prosecute tens of thousands of people for marijuana offenses.
Beyond the money, it struck us how professional everyone involved in the business is. Cannabis is highly regulated, and these regulations are strictly enforced. So you really have to know your business in order to succeed. Unfortunately, some very reputable businesses have bailed due to the federal government’s mixed messages about cannabis enforcement. Rather than lose everything through raids and forfeiture, some have elected to close up shop and save themselves from prosecution. The other issues are lack of banking and security. One of those parties includes Wanda James who had a lucrative business with her business partner and husband.
As for the impact on society, what we saw and what we heard from locals we spoke to indicates it’s all been good. One obvious benefit is that sick people who need medical marijuana are getting it. Also, adult-use cannabis consumers aren’t being thrown into the criminal justice system.
But beyond the obvious, crime is down and traffic accidents are down. It is true that a higher percentage of traffic accidents involve people who test positive for pot, but you would expect that since they didn’t test for it often prior to legalization.
It was also clear that Colorado has not turned into a state full of “stoners.” There is no noticeable change in productivity, absences from work or dropping out of school. If you didn’t know marijuana was legal in Colorado, you wouldn’t guess it from being out and about in the city. Smoking is illegal in public. And although we did see a few people smoking vape pens on the streets, that was only on Saturday night, and since people also smoke tobacco from vape pens, we can’t say for sure that they were even smoking marijuana.
The bottom line is that we saw a system that is working. The marijuana workforce is professional, skilled, and dedicated to serving their customers. Business is booming to the point that more than one person we talked to likened the coming cannabis explosion to the tech explosion of the ‘90s.
In Colorado, we met hard-working people doing honest labor, and happy citizens responsibly living their lives in a prosperous and healthy state. The tragedy is that all of these people, every one of them would be criminals in Pennsylvania. We would arrest them, prosecute them, incarcerate some of them and ruin all of their lives. We’d kill their business and deny sick people medicine they need.
That is the true insanity of prohibition, and the primary reason it is on its way to the ash-heap of history.
State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-17
(Special thanks to Diane Fornbacher of Ladybug Magazine for organizing the trip)