Many Questions, Some Answers, and Six Lessons from Legal Marijuana in Colorado

Being the first to do something is risky. There are no examples to follow. What may seem like small issues can quickly become significant challenges. And any misstep may be perceived as a failure.

Colorado became the first state to allow legal sales of marijuana in January 2014. This historic and closely watched milestone brought many risks. But there have also been rewards, as Colorado’s thoughtful policy decisions yielded some early successes.

The Colorado Health Institute uncovers these issues in its new report Legal Marijuana Coming Into Focus: An Analysis of Colorado’s Policy Landscape. The report identifies six key lessons learned from the state’s evolving marijuana policy landscape.

What did we find?

Colorado’s “seed to sale” tracking of marijuana from growers to retailers and steep fines for selling to minors is keeping pot from retail stores away from children and teens and off the black market. But there’s still limited data on whether use of marijuana by youth has changed since legal retail sales. And a major source of marijuana in Colorado – the medical caregiver market – remains lightly regulated.

The economic impact of retail marijuana was overstated by its supporters and its detractors. Tax revenue in the first year has lagged predictions. And while there are signs that revenues are increasing, the largely cash-only market remains difficult to predict.

Today’s pot is much more potent, and it comes in newer forms, such as edibles. Colorado failed to completely anticipate how much attention edibles would attract and how difficult – and time consuming – it would be to regulate these candies, cookies and other familiar-looking products.

There is much to learn from Colorado’s experiences. Colorado has made strides studying and monitoring marijuana’s effects on health, and educating Coloradans and visitors about them. But public interest in legal marijuana still remains ahead of public health knowledge, and there are still many unanswered questions.

Colorado is at the forefront of a growing cadre of states and countries loosening their marijuana laws. The novelty of being first has worn off, and the hard work of regulating this evolving industry continues.  

Sara Schmitt is the director of community health policy at CHI.