A look at cannabis legalization in Colorado, USA

It has been over forty years since the Nixon administration declared a “war on drugs”; the criminalization of drugs still reverberates throughout all corners of America today. Yet last November voters said “yes” on legislation that ended marijuana prohibition in not one but two states. Come January 2014, Washington and Colorado will allow adults 21 years and older to use, manufacture and sell cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol or tobacco. In a nation that charges over 1.5 million people per year for drug violations, how did such a shift happen?

Let’s back up to November 2000 when Colorado passed its first medical marijuana legislation, Amendment 20, which initiated what has become the most successful and sophisticated medical marijuana industry in U.S. history. With more medical marijuana shops than liquor stores or Starbucks outlets, the industry has created an infrastructure and attitude that has changed the way Coloradans think about pot.

This important shift in mentality has moved the conversation from drug criminalization to profitability and regulation. The medical marijuana industry proved that big bucks were being made in the state of Colorado – what has since been termed the “Green Rush.” According to the State of Colorado website, medical marijuana sales were over $200 million, generating over $5 million in state sales tax. Evidence like this caused activists to project and campaign a $600 million profit margin per year – a profitability that the majority of Coloradan voters wanted.

Unfortunately, though, you can’t just say “marijuana is legal” and expect things to sort themselves out. Over the past year, activists, lawyers and politicians of Colorado’s Amendment 64 campaign have been putting out fires and doing everything necessary to smoothly implement the new state law.

The biggest post-legalization concerns surround children, driving and taxation. According to the Denver Post, from 2005 to 2009, Children’s Hospital Colorado had virtually zero emergency room visits from pediatric marijuana ingestions. When conversation of legalization began in 2010, there were 14 emergency room visits. That same year, poison centre calls from pediatric marijuana ingestions doubled. Since then, regulators have been working to create safety measures that can prevent such exposures, including childproof packaging that could be required for all cannabis products in the state come the new year.

Regulators have also been working hard to devise safeguards on our roads.  Unlike alcohol, there is no clear-cut consensus on the amount of marijuana that would impair a driver’s ability. Marijuana users could have tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in their body for up to a week or more after lighting up, making it difficult to assess the driver. Since Amendment 64 passed, a new law has set a THC of 5 or more nanograms per millilitre to be considered illegal. However, even with the new standard, skeptics are expecting numerous defendants and court cases to emerge as the law becomes implemented.

The last and most recently debated step in the legalization process has been to establish state revenue goals and taxation laws. On November 6, 2013, voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition AA, authorizing a 15% excise tax and special sales tax of up to 15%.  Adding this to county sales taxes as high as 15%, this makes pot one of the most heavily taxed consumer products in Colorado – higher than alcohol even without taking local levies into account.

A recent Forbes article argued that with taxes that high, there is serious concern that legal marijuana may have trouble competing with the black market.  BOTEC analysis corporation report estimates that a legal ounce of weed will cost anywhere from $482 to $723 – much higher than the estimated black market price of $238. If those price comparisons are the actual prices, Colorado may be perpetuating instead of eliminating illegal cannabis, undermining Amendment 64 altogether.

Come January 1st, Colorado is open for business and the world is watching. Colorado and Washington alike will serve as important examples of what marijuana legalization should or should not look like. If legalization is successful, other states, provinces or countries may follow suit. If it is not, legalization could risk pushing drug policy back and perpetuating the black market and criminalization even further.

Using Colorado’s road to legalization as an example, do you think B.C. is ready?

*Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC


Author: Alissa Greer, Research Project Coordinator at Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center

Public opinion and alcohol policy in BC

As the BC government’s public consultation on liquor control and licensing laws draws to a close at the end of this month we wish to highlight findings from a province-wide opinion survey conducted last month for MADD Canada and CARBC. While telephone surveys have their limitations we believe the results are indicative of broad support across BC for some fundamental principles: that a major purpose of liquor laws should be to reduce alcohol-related harm (84% support); that consumers need to be better informed about risks, e.g. through labeling (71%); and that some kinds of pricing can be used to reduce harm (62% to 65%).

In this blog, we will mainly address the issue of public support for alcohol pricing policies because the strong evidence behind this approach is not widely known. The scientific evidence shows that alcohol consumption decreases when alcohol prices increase – and, more importantly, there are associated reductions in premature deaths, admissions to hospital and accidents on our roads. However, opinion research has found that most people do not believe heavy drinkers will reduce their drinking if prices are increased.

Furthermore, in the many hundred comments on the public consultation website and the blog series from the parliamentary secretary for the review, John Yap, a common sentiment is expressed: why punish the responsible majority for the behaviour of a small minority who misuse alcohol? While this viewpoint overlooks the existence of risks from moderate drinking (e.g. cancers), widespread occasional heavy consumption and harm from others drinking, this is a critical objection to address in discussions of policies like pricing.

Setting a minimum or floor price on alcoholic beverages is a policy that the BC government has implemented for the last 25 years, though BC minimum prices tend to be lower than most other provinces and are considerably lower than some (e.g. Saskatchewan). This type of policy is well targeted towards heavier drinkers as several studies have shown that those who drink low cost alcohol tend to consume higher amounts.

So do BC minimum prices provide any public health or safety benefit? Using BC hospital data, a recent study published in the American Journal Public Health found that for every 10% increase in minimum prices there was an immediate 9% reduction in hospital admissions for injuries and poisonings ‒ and a similar reduction in serious illnesses caused by alcohol (e.g., liver cirrhosis, cancers) 2 to 3 years later. Similarly, we have found immediate and delayed effects from minimum price increases on alcohol-related deaths.

Thus, there is strong evidence that minimum alcohol pricing avoids punishing the majority of responsible drinkers while having the greatest impact on the behaviour and the health of those most at-risk. We would love to know how public opinion would change if these facts were more widely known. We believe British Columbians would tolerate price increases on the very cheapest, often high strength alcohol products if they actually believed this would prevent fellow citizens becoming seriously ill, injured or dying from the effects of alcohol.

Because minimum prices here are relatively low and, unlike in Saskatchewan, they are not adjusted to reflect alcoholic strength, there are some products that cost less than 75 cents per “standard drink” (i.e., 17.05 mL ethanol or the amount of alcohol in a 12oz can of 5%beer). This makes it possible to exceed Canada’s Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines while spending less than three dollars per day – usually less than a loaf of bread.

Would you accept increasing the price of the cheapest alcohol to $1.50 per standard drink if you knew that it would save a few lives each year and reduce health care costs?


Author: Tim Stockwell, Director, CARBC


Author: Gina Martin


Author: Andy Murie, CEO MADD Canada