Lessons from Denver: Marijuana Legalization

Although traffic was sparse, I crept along the avenue at 15 mph, my eyes darting from the road to the sidewalk and back again. One has to be careful driving around here. They’re everywhere — the stoners — stumbling around, oblivious to their surroundings, often strolling out into the road while mindlessly drawing potato chips from a crinkled bag.

Sometimes they’re wearing jeans and t-shirts, sometimes a rumpled business suit, tie partially undone and shirt untucked. Sometimes they’re wearing boxer shorts and tank tops, as they stumble past the burning garbage and the bodies on the ground to some unspoken destination. Oh! The bodies .. laying there .. slumped up against the stone walls of a bank or office building. From my car, I can’t tell if they’re alive or dead.

“My God” I thought. “They have made a huge mistake.”


That would have been a good opening to this blog post had things turned out differently after Colorado legalized marijuana. Unfortunately for you, I don’t have anything so interesting to talk about.

Driving through Denver is like driving through any other city. Walking in downtown Denver is like walking in the downtown of any other city.

A small group of us went for dinner in downtown Denver, and walked to the Avalanche game afterwards. We went to a core-area pub and did some shopping in the same trip, and at no point was it ever evident that recreational drug laws were different here. Perhaps there was one occasion when I detected a slight waft of pot in the air, but that would not be unusual in any city. And in any case, I may have been mistaken. I certainly did not see anyone out on the sidewalk sparking up a spliff.

Nor did I see any “dispensaries” in downtown Denver. It wasn’t until I left the city and visited a nearby resort town in the mountains that I saw stores selling pot. I also later saw a “Cannabis Care Center” next door to Voodoo Doughnuts in a transitional area of Denver, but that’s about it. These stores are not prolific by any means.

Cannabis Care Center

None of this is surprising, once you look into Colorado’s new industry a little bit. When pot was legalized, the state imposed punitive excise taxes on the product, resulting in prices for legal non-medicinal weed being twice the price of street weed. The legal sale of marijuana is therefore little more than a boutique business for tourists and ganja snobs. Day to day or casual smokers still buy their usual pot through usual channels, just like people in Winnipeg or anywhere else.

Perhaps if taxes were lower there would be more stores, but would there be more stoners? Would society fall apart? Would my opening scenario come to pass?

I suggest: not likely. To begin with, pot is already easy to get for people who want it. There isn’t a convincing reason to believe that the quantity of pot smokers will multiply, because those who enjoy it already have access to it, only through untaxed and unregulated means.

I should probably mention at this point that I don’t smoke pot, and to be honest I never really understood the appeal of it. However I know that many other people smoke up from time to time, including various accomplished and successful people all around you.

I only ever knew one person who could be considered a “druggie”. This guy, in fact, died of a drug overdose several years ago. This is the sort of thing that leads people to believe that cannabis is a “gateway drug”, because he smoked pot in high school and look … now he’s dead from whatever poison he injected in himself. But it wasn’t pot that killed him. He also drank in high school, and ate ‘shrooms and did other stuff. The fact is that he was a troubled person who headed down the wrong path in life, and it’s about as simple as that.

There have been many studies that have shown that Marijuana, in comparison to alcohol, is a relatively benign drug when used in moderation. It is less addictive, less damaging to your health over the long term, and less disruptive to your character and motor skills in the short term. Thus, the risk in legalizing the drug is limited. Even if there is an increase in the number of people smoking up, the impact on society and on our health care system will be minimal, especially in comparison to drinkers. It has been estimated that the health care costs associated with a drinker are 8 times that associated with a pot smoker. Deaths associated with drinking are proportionally much higher still.

8 years ago I was marginally opposed to legalizing weed, but only because the US was in the middle of their War On Drugs and I didn’t want crossing the border to become more of a hassle than it already was. Times have changed, and acceptance of cannabis is sweeping across the nation one state at a time. It is still illegal at the federal level in America, and therefore it is not really legal in Colorado or any other state, but the Feds are unlikely to force the issue except in extreme circumstances. But the point is that the United States is now more liberal than Canada in this regard, so my prior reasons for opposing legalization have vanished into thin air, like a puff of smoke.

I didn’t intend for this post to become a pro-pot rant, but it’s hard to avoid getting into that. All I really wanted to say is: it doesn’t seem like anything is different in Colorado than anywhere else, based on my visit there. It’s still early days in the new joint-friendly Colorado, and maybe there will longer term impacts. There will be many people watching and looking for them. But .. maybe legalizing Cannabis is not such a big deal after all.

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