Colorado took a major step toward implementing a legal system for dispensing recreational marijuana, as Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) signed into law on Tuesday several pieces of legislation on the licensing, cultivation, and taxing of marijuana. The ballot initiative to legalize and regulate marijuana passed by voters last November immediately eliminated criminal punishment for possession by those 21-and-over of less than an ounce of pot and for growing up to six plants. But a legal system for dispensing cannabis will not take effect until producers and dispensaries can be licensed. And although Hickenlooper opposed the ballot initiative, his signature signals his willingness to implement the will of the voters. The laws passed Tuesday set up a state licensing authority that will set more specific rules for the marijuana industry, and enable the law to fulfill its stated purpose of regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol to minimize criminal activity while protecting public health. Here are six of the ways it achieves that:
- Marijuana dispensaries will have time, place, and number restrictions. The law authorizes local “time and place” restrictions on marijuana dispensaries and limits on the number of dispensaries, which will likely take the form of zoning laws. Statewide, it prohibits marijuana businesses from siting within 1,000 feet of schools, drug treatment facilities, or child care facilities, mirroring similar restrictions in many state marijuana laws. Also particularly noteworthy is that the law permits local jurisdictions to not only implement their own independent licensing schemes, but also to entirely ban retail marijuana establishments, a move that has been controversial and subject to court challenge in other states.
- Colorado limits who may obtain a marijuana license. Among those prohibited from obtaining a license are all sorts of law enforcement officers, those with a criminal history that indicates “he or she is not of good moral character,” and anyone who plans to site a marijuana business in a food establishment.
- Products will be subject to state oversight and testing. Licensed suppliers and retailers are required to provide a sample of their product to a state testing facility, which will likely verify the purity, potency, and safety of the products and eliminate the risk of black market purchases sometimes laced with other drugs.
- Colorado will limit interstate purchases. Recognizing the significant concern of the Department of Justice that states with recreational marijuana laws not become suppliers for those around the country, Colorado law permits licensed marijuana retailers to sell only ¼ of an ounce per transaction to nonresidents.
- Retailers, producers, and consumers will pay a hefty tax. The law Hickenlooper signed would impose a 15 percent excise tax and a 10 percent sales tax. The first $40 million of this revenue will go toward school construction. But state voters will have to vote on whether to approve this tax scheme during the 2014 election. Additional state and local taxes on all products may result in a total tax rate in excess of 30 percent.
- Colorado has finally implemented driving under the influence regulations for marijuana. After years of wrangling over a DUI law that would both protect drivers and ensure that those who use medical marijuana regularly would not be criminally punished, Colorado now has a law limiting THC levels to 5 nanograms while driving. Those charged, however, will have the opportunity to rebut a DUI allegation with evidence that their driving was in no way impaired.
Among the most controversial provisions in the set of laws is one to keep marijuana magazines behind the counter, like pornography. This first-of-its kind provision raises serious First Amendment flags by limiting marijuana speech in the same way as “indecent” sexually explicit material, and several publications are already queueing up legal challenges to this measure.
As Colorado moves ahead to implement the ballot initiative approved by voters in November, Attorney General Eric Holder has remained silent on how it will respond to Colorado and Washington’s recreational marijuana laws. While the Department of Justice has recently renewed crackdowns on some medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington, no similar recent reports have emerged from Colorado, which has a particularly robust scheme for regulating medical marijuana. Facilities already dispensing medical marijuana will get first dibs on applying for licenses, starting in October, 2013, and those dispensaries could be operating as soon as January, 2014.