All eyes were on Colorado this week as the state’s first marijuana storefronts opened to the public. Though voters there decided to legalize recreational pot more than a year ago, the framework is now in place to make the marijuana industry a reality. Both there and in Washington, there is a ton of pressure to succeed. Lawmakers, voters, and even the federal government are watching these two pioneers as they embark on what could ultimately end prohibition across the U.S.
Both Washington state and Colorado became the first to legalize recreational pot in November 2012. That alone was reason to celebrate, no matter what state you lived in. If two states could get such legalization efforts passed, the future looked bright to the rest of us. Despite the good news, officials withheld judgment as there seemed to be a “wait and see” attitude among lawmakers and state leaders.
If they are waiting and seeing, the profits of legal marijuana may be enough to pique their interest. On the first day of retail sales, Colorado marijuana sellers estimate more than $1 million was made. An in-depth piece in Rolling Stone says the legal marijuana industry is already valued at $1.43 billion and is expected to grow to $2.34 billion in 2014. In other words, the money is there. And when states apply their taxes to the trade, they stand to make off handily.
One study estimates the Colorado state government could get $10 billion every year off the industry by 2018.
Money doesn’t tell the whole story, however. Opponents of legalization want the world to think pot could turn normal society into the dregs of some evil drug underworld. They want people to think marijuana is a gateway drug that will lead users to harder, more dangerous substances and ultimately perpetuate a higher crime rate. This, they say, is reason enough to leave the War on Drugs as-is.
But the Drug War is both costly and ineffective. It has made this nation the most-incarcerated in the world at a price of more than $50 billion every year! It has done nothing to reduce drug-usage rates or reduce crime. Instead, it has perpetuated the black market it seeks to destroy.
Meanwhile, public support for marijuana legalization is at an all-time high. The most recent Gallup poll showed for the first time ever, more Americans favor marijuana legalization than oppose it. Those in-favor grew 10 percentage points from 2012 to 58% in 2013.
Marijuana legalization advocates are working harder than ever to ensure more states follow in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington. But, as Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance suggests, it may not be the advocates and marijuana users who ultimately make a difference.
“The capitalist forces at work in a prohibitionist market are violent and brutal,” Nadelmann said, “but the capitalist forces at work in a legal market are even more brutal in some respects. We know that the people who may come to dominate this industry are not necessarily the people who are a part of this movement.”
Corporate interests may pave the way for legalization across the board. The almighty dollar may do the talking for advocates who want to see prohibition ended. But no matter who is credited with one day ending the war on marijuana, they will have no-doubt pulled some lessons from what is happening in Colorado and Washington right now.