On Friday, Colorado's Marijuana Enforcement Division released its first annual report on the state's regulated pot industry, offering comprehensive data on the sale, licensing, taxing and investigations of weed in 2014. While there have been plenty of newspaper polls and think-tank studies on the subject, no organization has previously had access to this much data, which offers a proper glimpse into the nature of the world's first fully regulated, seed-to-sale pot market.
After pouring over "37 million recorded events," the MED report says that "109,578 pounds of medical marijuana flower were sold," and "38,660 pounds of retail flower sold," meaning a grand total of nearly 75 tons of cannabis was purchased. While flower (buds) were more popular with medical marijuana patients, edibles were a bigger hit with recreational buyers, who purchased 2.8 million edible products, compared to 1.9 million for those with prescriptions. (It's worth noting that medical edibles can be significantly stronger than recreational ones.)
Edibles also played a starring role in the controversy surrounding Colorado's marijuana legalization in 2014. From Maureen Dowd freaking out in a Denver hotel room, to hysterical myths about children being dosed on Halloween, to Nancy Grace alleging they're responsible for suicide and murder, edibles both made cannabis consumption more accessible to those averse to smoking and became a major talking point for activists preaching against the poison of pot.
"When I see what's happening in Colorado with edibles—the sodas, ice-creams being targeted toward kids—I think that's really worrisome," says Kevin Sabet, former senior advisor on drug policy for the Obama administration and co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-cannabis group. "We think that Colorado is ushering in the next Big Tobacco industry."'
When 2014 began, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper's public statements on pot weren't all that different from Sabet's. From the beginning, Hickenlooper was against legalization, saying, "I hate Colorado having to be the experiment," and went so far as to set up enormous rat cages around Denver, warning kids that since we don't know how marijuana affects young brains, smoking pot will make you "a lab rat."
But just as polls show a majority of Coloradans remain pleased with legalized marijuana, and more residents than ever (about one in eight) are consuming the substance, Governor Hickenlooper has similarly relaxed his tone, sounding more like a marijuana advocate than a prohibitionist.
"I think even after the election, if I'd had a magic wand, I probably would've reversed it and had the initiative fail," Hickenlooper told 60 Minutes in January. "But now, I look at it and I'm not so sure I'd do that even if I had such a wand. . . . I think it will become like the whiskey or beer business. From time to time, people want to relax and help relieve the pressure of their day, in whatever form. And they might choose to have a drink, or they might imbibe some marijuana. It will just be one of several choices of people trying to relax."
Still, Coloradans are far from unanimously celebrating their state becoming the pioneers of legal pot. The recent MED report shows that of Colorado's 321 jurisdictions, 228 currently prohibit licensing for any type of marijuana business. And even some of those in areas that do allow it are still resisting the Mean Green.
Last month, the owner of a Holiday Inn in Frisco, Colorado, filed a federal lawsuit against state politicians, businesses, and public servants, suggesting that plans to open a dispensary near the hotel would cripple their business. This came shortly after Nebraska and Oklahoma filed similar suits against Colorado, claiming marijuana was being trafficked across their borders.
Anti-marijuana activists like Sabet point to the number of jurisdictions that ban marijuana sales as evidence of lingering public concern over the substance. But Director of Communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, Mason Tvert, tells me that "Most of those localities are very tiny. When you look at the areas that issue the most licenses, they're the largest populated areas."
Whatever your feelings on the issue, it's undeniable that marijuana is one of the biggest growth industries in Colorado. "Overall, the industry has grown from 1,734 licensed premises to 2,249 licensed premises" in 2014, according to the MED report, "a growth of almost 30 percent."
What does all that growth mean, though?
"To me the question is, how much these numbers reflect the novelty of the first year of sales, and how much is driven by tourism," offers Douglas A. Bergman, a law professor at Ohio State University who specializes in criminal justice and teaches a seminar on marijuana policy. "And will that decline over time, or will more and more people become users as the stigma goes away? We still don't have numbers about the black market, and how much that has declined. It's not necessarily a complete picture of what's going on with marijuana in Colorado."
Sabet believes that the strong profit motive of this business has led marijuana companies to deny the health risks of their product. He says this behavior mimics that of Big Tobacco companies, who as recently as the 1990s denied cigarettes were harmful despite contrary scientific evidence.
"This is addiction for profit," Sabet tells me. "The tobacco industry relies on heavy users for their profit base, and we're worried that the same thing is happening with marijuana. Every medical organization in the world acknowledges the addictive properties of marijuana: the American Medical Association, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the American Society of Pediatrics. The people who deny the science [of marijuana] have the same thinking as the people who deny climate change, or the use of vaccines."
Of course, Tvert—who co-directed the campaign to legalize marijuana in Colorado, and has spearheaded a push to boycott all Holiday Inns for their role in the federal lawsuit—says that Sabet linking marijuana with tobacco is a misleading tactic designed to make pot look more dangerous than it really is.
"He loves to talk about Big Tobacco, because tobacco is incredibly dangerous and results in hundreds of thousands of deaths each year," Tvert says. "Marijuana is not remotely on the same level, and is not found to be the direct cause of any deaths, ever. He could just as easily say, 'This is just like Big Caffeine,' because caffeine has been found to be more addictive than marijuana in some cases.
"I don't know of any professional advocate for marijuana that claims that it is not addictive," Tvert continues. "Any human behavior is potentially habit-forming. [Anti-pot activists] claim that, 'Those people say marijuana is entirely safe.' Who are they talking about? They're making up their own opponents. Never in the ten years of our campaigns have you ever heard anyone claim marijuana is not potentially addictive for some people. We've only said it's less addictive than alcohol, which is simply a fact."
Comparing the health effects of marijuana to alcohol has been an enduring tactic of weed legalization campaigns. When a recent study was published in the journal Scientific Reports showing that marijuana is about 114 times less deadly than alcohol, it seemed like pretty good news for marijuana proponents. But Sabet thinks a more nuanced conversation about the health risks of the drug is still warranted.
"Mason Tvert has admitted that the reason they use that alcohol thing is that it polled well with people, but the science isn't there," he says. "The harms are different for people. You can smoke tobacco and drive a car, because it doesn't impair driving. You can smoke tobacco and go to school, because it doesn't impair learning. It does result in lung cancer. Marijuana has strong links with psychosis, impaired driving, and low IQ. Alcohol is legal not because it's safe, but because it's been in mainstream Western culture for 5,000 years. Marijuana hasn't had the vast majority of people using it for years."
By likening the marijuana industry to Big Tobacco—and pegging those who say it's harmless as comparable to climate change or vaccine deniers—Sabet has developed a modern strategy for communicating what has usually been an antiquated, grouchy message. He goes out of his way to tell me that "we're not Reefer Madness," uses the term "GMOs" when describing industrialized marijuana, and says that his campaign is "in favor of removing criminal penalties for use, and increasing education and treatment."
What does seem clear that Colorado's $700 million in marijuana sales in 2014 has forever altered the national dialogue about legal weed. For legalization opponents like Sabet, the MED report is evidence of commercialized marijuana's extreme profitability, and this is leading to greed and the spreading of misinformation on the part of industry leaders.
But Tvert says he wasn't surprised by anything in the report, and actually found it to be "incredibly boring, which is as it should be. If this was an annual report showing the number of liquor licenses out there, no one would care. It's noteworthy at the moment because, for the first time, we have hard data on how many people are producing and selling marijuana, which we never had. In five years, this kind of thing won't even be newsworthy, because it will just be another legal product available to adults."
Follow Josiah M. Hesse on Twitter.