A customer selects marijuana strains at the 3-D Denver Discrete Dispensary in Denver, Colorado. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cannabis in Colorado: The ups and downs of legalising highs

With more cannabis shops than branches of Starbucks and further liberalisation to come - why hasn't the trade in legal marijuana decreased the number of dealers on the street in Colorado?

There are now more cannabis shops in Colorado than there are branches of Starbucks. Since 1 January, it has been legal to sell cannabis for recreational use on licensed premises, three years after the drug was cleared for medical use. The recreational stores sprang up and 37 were granted licences to begin trading on New Year’s Day.

With the help of the Cannabis Map of Colorado, I find my way to the Native Roots Apothecary dispensary on the eighth floor of a soulless building in downtown Denver. The shop looks like a cross between a GP’s waiting room and a homoeopathic clinic. It is bare and painted white, apart from a coffee machine decorated in the Rastafarian colours.

Courtney Phillips is behind the counter, fielding calls from customers. “Lots of reporters from all over the States have been asking questions about this,” she tells me. “I think it’s great that Colorado is leading the way in being accepting of pot as both a medicinal aid as well as the fact that some people just prefer it to alcohol.”

Before being allowed a doctor’s prescription, patients have to apply to the state for a certificate of eligibility that costs between $60 and $100. On prescription, it is possible to buy up to two ounces a day per person. It costs between $150 and $400 an ounce, including tax at 8.5 per cent.

The price of weed when not buying on prescription can range between $400 and $500 an ounce, and all you need to make your purchase is a piece of ID to prove you are over 21.

Despite decriminalisation, there is still an illegal market for weed which sells the drug at half the price of legal retailers. According to one police officer I spoke to, the legislation could, paradoxically, lead to an increase in the involvement of criminal drug dealers. He believes the normalisation of weed-smoking will increase overall demand and that users will soon turn to cheaper black-market suppliers.

But the new law has found support in unexpected places. Steven Foster, the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Denver, endorsed the law, arguing that poor and black Americans are disproportionately targeted by drugs law enforcement. This is also one of the arguments taken up by the state chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers trade union, one of the largest in the United States.

The legal cannabis market is tightly governed. Until October this year, recreational marijuana stores have to grow almost all the cannabis they sell, a policy that will shortly be reviewed. Retailers can’t advertise in places where children might see it and must sell their product in opaque, child-resistant packages. They will be inspected regularly by the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division and surveillance cameras will track sales to identify each customer.

In the hour I spend at the LoDo Wellness Centre, another cannabis retailer in central Denver, at least 300 people come through the door, ranging from young men in pairs to older women on their own. There are carloads of tourists from as far away as New Jersey, California and Ohio, some of whom ask Elizabeth, the receptionist, which weed-friendly hotels she considers the best value. Elizabeth checks each customer’s ID and then directs the client either to the dispensing room or to the commercial storeroom.

I speak to Al (not his real name) who is a regular cannabis smoker. Al tells me that he has visited the store out of curiosity but will continue to buy his usual stash off his dealer. “It is much cheaper, quicker and easier.” Two grammes from the store, he tells me, costs him $37, “more than twice as much as I usually pay”.

Washington is preparing to liberalise its cannabis laws this year to bring it up to speed with Colorado, and activists in several other states are preparing to follow the Coloradan model. But federal organisations are trying to reverse the law.

Many Colorado businesses are cash-only, as the banks, controlled by the federal government, are refusing to open accounts for cannabis retailers. This makes them a target for organised crime, and the Internal Revenue Service is unhappy that such affluent businesses have no clear money trail.

In Colorado, however, many argue that the new laws are helping the state out of a bad recession. The Tax Foundation, a think tank, estimates that the state will raise almost $70m in new taxes this year.

Weed lovers and libertarians are united in their support for Colorado’s approach, but is there enough attention being paid to the lows as well as the highs of legalisation? One thing is certain: with more than half of all Americans supporting legal pot, this issue is unlikely to disappear in a puff of smoke.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.