One year after he became, unofficially, the first legal recreational marijuana customer in America, Sean Azzariti sits on a couch in Denver's 3D Cannabis Center and looks up to see ... himself.
The 4-foot-wide photo hanging over the couch shows Azzariti, an Iraq war veteran chosen for the ceremonial first purchase for his advocacy on post-traumatic stress disorder, cocooned by cameras on Jan. 1. The subsequent year — media requests, speaking gigs, advocacy awards, cannabis celebrity — washed by in what Azzariti calls "waves of awesomeness."
"So, I have to ask," a somewhat star-struck young guy says to Azzariti, nodding toward the picture. "Did you really say, 'One marijuana, please?' when you were at the counter?"
Azzariti laughs no. It's just an urban myth that arose from an artist's rendering of the first purchase.
"But feel free," he jokes, "to tell people that I did."
Only one year in, Colorado's unprecedented jump into marijuana legalization has become the stuff of legend.
For opponents and supporters, the state comes up repeatedly in the evolving discussion about marijuana. It is perhaps the most underappreciated consequence of legalization. By becoming the first place in the world to actually legalize commercial sales of marijuana to anyone over 21, Colorado made the worldwide debate over pot more vibrant than it has ever been.
Those in favor of legalization now think of Colorado — and, to a lesser extent, Washington state, which debuted a smaller marijuana market later in the year — as a kind of political homeland. The states' campaigns and resulting industries were the inspiration for pro-pot successes in two more states this fall and are the blueprints for coming 2016 campaigns in as many as a half-dozen states. They helped foment never-before-seen congressional rebellion against federal enforcement of marijuana laws.
"It would not have become a topic of national debate so immediately if Colorado's laws hadn't come online early in the year," said Aaron Houston, a D.C. lobbyist for the company WeedMaps who has worked on pro-marijuana issues since 2003. "Colorado's law was a game-changer because it shifted the debate at the federal level from if to when."
Those opposed to legalization, though, see Colorado as a cautionary tale — hard evidence of the kinds of dangers that they previously had been able to warn of only in the abstract. In speeches in states and countries considering legalization, marijuana opponents now talk about accidental pot ingestions, lower-than-predicted tax revenue, gaudy industry advertising and even deaths. They cite examples of each from Colorado's first year of legalized sales.
"We're able to say, 'Here is what legalization looks like in practice, not just in theory,' " said Kevin Sabet, one of the nation's most prominent legalization foes as a co-founder of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. "That's actually very valuable."
The on-the-ground reality, of course, has been less stark than either side's version. Marijuana legalization has changed Colorado. It's just tough to say exactly how.
Marijuana is more available in Colorado than ever before, but it's unclear whether marijuana consumption has risen as a result. Teens are less likely to think that marijuana is harmful, and marijuana arrests at Denver schools are up, but that hasn't yet translated into measurably increased use. More people may be driving stoned, but traffic fatalities are down.
The smell of pot is more common along Denver's 16th Street Mall.
Tourism to the state hit record levels this year. But how much of that has to do with marijuana?
After a full year, legal marijuana sales are an experiment still very much in progress.
"People are trying to jump to conclusions much faster than the data allows," said Andrew Freedman, the man in charge of coordinating Colorado's policy efforts on marijuana legalization.
The jumps are even bigger because of Colorado's data-collection woes. The state lacks systems for quick, accurate measurements of youth use, marijuana-related incidents at schools, stoned driving and many other questions. State officials this year commissioned a 74-page report titled "Marijuana Data Discovery and Gap Analysis" just to address the problem. One person in the Department of Public Safety is now in charge of coordinating data-collection efforts for 2015.
"If we can't measure something," a frustrated-sounding Barbara Brohl, the executive director of the Department of Revenue, said during an October meeting on marijuana regulations, "we can't improve on it."
Even when there are numbers to measure legalization's impacts, they often tell unexpected tales.
For instance, state tax revenues from recreational marijuana once were predicted to top $100 million in the current fiscal year. They're on pace for a little more than half that. And, aside from the dollars constitutionally mandated to go to school construction, state officials haven't seen the revenue as a budgetary windfall. They've instead proposed the money all go toward marijuana-related issues.
In 2014, police said marijuana legalization would cost more for them to enforce than marijuana prohibition. Employers tightened their drug-testing policies, even though it was legal for their employees to use marijuana. More people became registered medical marijuana patients, despite the presence of a less-restrictive recreational market.
"The big assumption here was that human behavior is a light switch," said Skyler McKinley, Freedman's deputy, "that you legalize marijuana and everything changes overnight."
That resiliency of old ways proved a boon to state regulators trying to implement legalization. Because Colorado already had a robust medical marijuana industry — and because the recreational marijuana industry initially was restricted to people who already owned a dispensary — the transition into legal sales was more of an evolution than a revolution.
Freedman said Colorado's years-long struggle to develop effective regulations for medical marijuana ended up being "pre-turbulence" for the roll-out of the recreational industry. Washington state, which didn't have a well-defined medical marijuana industry, has seen a much bumpier start to recreational sales.
But Colorado had its notable problems in 2014 — issues over the packaging and potency of edible marijuana products were especially unforeseen. But for supporters of legalization, the lack of drama locally over the opening of new marijuana businesses is Colorado's greatest success.
"We can't say the state has gone to hell in a handbasket," said Brian Vicente, one of the leaders of the legalization campaign in Colorado.
"The number of I-told-you-sos that I have had to do," said Mason Tvert, another legalization leader, "has been remarkable."
That is not to say that things haven't changed.
Toni Savage, the owner of 3D Cannabis Center, said the most she ever grossed in a single year operating a medical marijuana dispensary was $400,000.
This year, she's on track to top $3.5 million in sales — with more than half of those coming from out-of-state tourists.
But bigger sales means bigger tax bills. Not only is she paying nearly $100,000 a month in state and local taxes, she also expects to have a $500,000 federal tax bill because she can't deduct business expenses in the same way that stores that aren't illegal under federal law can.
"I made a ton of money," she said, "but I owe more than I have."
The situation could get even tougher in 2015 because the state has started to allow newcomers into the recreational marijuana business. Savage said stores fear a glut of marijuana, which could drive down prices that have budged only slightly since the beginning of 2014.
"If you're in the business, it's going to get really ugly," she said.
It's the change in the amount of attention Colorado has received from outside the state that defines the first year of legal marijuana sales. This was the year a New York Times columnist got stoned in a Denver hotel room, hallucinated that she had died, then wrote about the whole experience. Snoop Dogg recorded a theme song for a Colorado gubernatorial candidate, and Bill O'Reilly, upset over legalization, mused about running for the same office.
It was a sign of things to come that, on opening day, one of the first people in line behind Azzariti at 3D Cannabis Center was a documentary filmmaker.
Azzariti said the interest has given him opportunities around the country to talk about using marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
But, befitting the transition the nation finds itself in over marijuana, he's also discovered the attention goes only so far.
It turns out, Azzariti never smoked what he bought on Jan. 1. Instead, he's hoping he can donate it to a museum.
"I even called the Smithsonian," he said. "But I don't think they thought I was serious. They were like, 'Yeaaah, we'll get back to you.' "
By John Inguld - The Denver Post/Dec. 29, 2014
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