Legal Pot Is Here, But Stash The Wallet For Now
On Election Day, voters in Colorado and Washington state legalized the use of marijuana for recreational use. What's next?
No, really, what happens now?
Residents in the Mile-High State are already looking to buy, says William Breathes, a professional pot critic for the Denver alternative weekly Westword. (By the way, that's a pen name for reasons that may be obvious.)
"I was in a shop the day after the amendment had passed here, and the shop owners were getting calls left and right from people asking if they could just come in and buy marijuana legally," Breathes tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "People are just expecting to be able to walk into these medical stores right away."
But they can't — at least not until next year. Like Washington, Colorado still needs to set up a regulatory framework to handle what is expected to be a big expansion of its marijuana market, even though the state already has more medical marijuana dispensaries than it has Starbucks.
The growth of that industry has been remarkable to watch, Breathes has written. Three years ago he was hard-pressed to find pot more potent than bud from a dedicated grower with a few basement lamps.
"But now you see some really beautiful product in the stores," he says. "Some really well-grown medicine. And also, prices have come down," from nearly $400 an ounce in 2009 to around $250 today.
When legalization is fully implemented, prices could fall even further.
"There's a big market for it. I think people really want to get out and get to these shops," Breathes says. "It's pretty interesting and really liberating to go into a store and purchase marijuana legally. It's just a matter of seeing who's going to step up and open the first recreational shop."
That's because it could open the door to a clash between the state and federal government, which still classifies pot as an illegal drug.
With lawmakers in Rhode Island and Maine planning to introduce legalization bills next year, Daily Beast reporter Tony Dokoupil says, the question of legalized marijuana across the nation is not whether, but when.
"2014," he says. "Big pot is here."
Rebounding From Reagan
The push toward legalization may seem like a modern movement. But Peter Bourne, who served as President Jimmy Carter's drug czar in the late '70s, says it's been a long time coming.
"The [Carter] administration's position basically was that the penalty for marijuana use did infinitely more damage to people and their lives than the drug did," he says.
So Carter asked Congress to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and suggested states be free to legalize if they chose. Pro-legalization advocacy groups ran ads on television in support of the president. Legalization seemed inevitable.
Then came the Reagan administration.
President Reagan famously called pot the most dangerous drug in the United States, and by the end of the '80s, Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign had made the issue of legalization far less popular.
"To me," Bourne says, "[that's] equivalent to telling somebody who's depressed to have a nice day."
Reagan successfully changed the national conversation around marijuana use, Bourne says. But before that happened, big tobacco companies were poised to get in on the act.
"I was in fairly regular discussion with the tobacco people," Bourne says. "They very clearly had contingency plans that they developed to grow and market marijuana should it be legalized."
Big Weed And Room To Grow
Now that legal pot is here, will cigarette companies dust off their old plans for mass commercialization?
Tony Dokoupil, a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast who has written about the changing legal status of marijuana, says they'd like to — if history is any indication.
In the '70s, he says, "there were high-level conversations about adding marijuana to tobacco, creating a line of marijuana cigarettes, and being ready to jump in and market this."
As recently as 1993, when it looked like France was poised to legalize marijuana, Philip Morris trademarked the name "Marley." But when the estate of Bob Marley complained, the company claimed it had nothing to do with the reggae singer.
"Philip Morris said, 'No no, it could be any kind of Marley,' " Dokoupil says, like Jacob Marley, the cheap, cantankerous teetotaler from A Christmas Carol.
Cigarette companies are staying mum on whether customers could see Marley-like products in the U.S. anytime soon. But Dokoupil says the regulatory market such products would enter into — once it was created — could look a lot like the for-profit regulatory model in Colorado now.
"There's a ban on advertising," he explains. "There are cameras that track the marijuana from bloom to end-consumer, so the diversion into the black market is limited. There are extensive background checks on people who are part of the marketplace — so if you want to open a marijuana shop, you have to go through an extensive background check."
Once that model is in place, the consumer side of things might look a lot like Starbucks.
"I think you will have a variety of products at different levels of intensity, exactly like Starbucks," Dokoupil says. "You might be able to walk in there and in the case they'll have 12 different strains of cannabis. Behind the counter there might be hash. There might be edibles, like fizzy drinks or brownies. There could be a hot dog wheel turning. You could put THC in anything."
And, according to Breathes, legal weed could even draw tourism to states that offer it.
"I got a lot of emails from people really excited about this, " he says. "They're looking forward to visiting Colorado now."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Let's start our cover story today with a guy named William.
WILLIAM BREATHES: Hi, Jacki.
LYDEN: Hi, William. How are you?
BREATHES: I'm doing well. How about yourself?
LYDEN: He lives in Denver.
BREATHES: Yeah, hi. I'm William Breathes. I'm a reporter with the Denver Westword here. I cover medical marijuana, and I review medical marijuana dispensaries much like a restaurant critic.
LYDEN: A professional marijuana critic. And, no, that's not his real name. Like any good critic, he has to stay anonymous. William Breathes is his pseudonym.
BREATHES: Well, it's a reference to a song by a band...
BREATHES: Yes, exactly. So...
LYDEN: We got it.
BREATHES: You got it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILLY BREATHES")
TREY ANASTASIO: (Singing) Above the trees where Billy breathes, we float upon the air.
LYDEN: Anyway, William says a day after the election when the state passed an amendment to legalize marijuana, Coloradans were already expecting to walk into a head shop and purchase a joint.
BREATHES: Yeah, I was in a shop and it was the day after the amendment had passed here. And the shop owners were getting calls left and right from people asking if they could just come in and buy marijuana legally. And then at one point, someone had walked in the store and sort of handed their ID over to the woman and was expected to be led back into the back. So he wasn't, and I found the whole thing kind of funny. People are just expecting to be able to walk into these medical stores and buy marijuana right away.
LYDEN: That's because right now, only people like William, who has a state issued medical marijuana card for treatment of chronic stomach pain, can buy marijuana legally. But within a year, the state is expected to have a regulatory framework up and running for what's expected to be a pot boom in the Mile-High State. What will that look like, and how will the government handle states with laws that don't square with federal regulations?
We're asking those questions because now that Colorado and Washington state have legalized marijuana, Rhode Island and Maine are putting it on the ballot in 2013. Other states may follow. And not long after, mass commercialization with cigarette companies getting in on the act, even stores that sell THC-infused food of all kinds. Any THC turkeys that were consumed out there this week?
BREATHES: I imagine someone has found a way to infuse their gravy, yes. I have not been privy to any. But if anyone knows of any, send me an email.
LYDEN: Legalization is actually part of a trend line that goes all the way back to the 1970s. That's according to Peter Bourne, who ran the U.S. office of drug abuse policy for President Jimmy Carter. He was essentially the nation's first drug czar. And Bourne says that back then, it looked like the country was on a fast track towards more relaxed marijuana laws.
PETER BOURNE: Well, the administration's position basically was that the penalty for marijuana use did infinitely more damage to people and their lives than the drug did. And in the White House, opposition was on the federal law, there should be only a civil penalty for having up to one ounce of marijuana. We also thought it should be left up to the individual states to decide how they wished to handle it, and they shouldn't be dictated to by the federal government.
LYDEN: There were ads on television for legalization, if I remember rightly.
BOURNE: There were indeed, yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws suggests that you write to the president and thank him for his commitment to a more just marijuana policy in this country. His address is the White House...
LYDEN: Did you think at the time that the legalization of marijuana was inevitable?
BOURNE: Yes, I did think that then. You know, the contrast and still the prevailing view was the one which came in with the Reagan administration.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Leading medical researchers are coming to the conclusion that marijuana, pot, grass, whatever you want to call it, is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States, and we haven't begun to find...
BOURNE: You know, we hardly (unintelligible) nonsense from Nancy Reagan about Just Say No, you know, which is, to me, equivalent to telling somebody who's depressed to have a nice day. So even though we sent a bill to Congress to decriminalize the federal law for amounts of less than an ounce, it never passed the Congress.
LYDEN: But President Carter wasn't the only one with an eye towards relaxed rules on marijuana. In one of the better kept secrets of the story about marijuana in the '70s, Peter Bourne says big tobacco companies were poised to get in on the act too.
BOURNE: I mean, I was in fairly regular discussion with the tobacco people. And they very clearly had contingency plans that they developed to grow and market marijuana should it be legalized.
LYDEN: We wanted to know more about that, what it could reveal about future plans for commercialization, so I spoke to Tony Dokoupil. He's a reporter for The Daily Beast and Newsweek. He wrote a recent story on the changing legal status of marijuana.
TONY DOKOUPIL: There were high-level conversations about adding marijuana to tobacco, creating a line of marijuana cigarettes and being ready to jump in and market this. And then there were some other interesting cases too. In 1993, in France, when that country was approaching legalization, there was a strong push to legalize marijuana. Philip Morris coincidentally, or not so coincidentally, they trademarked Marley brand.
LYDEN: As in Bob Marley?
DOKOUPIL: Well, you know, the Bob Marley estate said, obviously, you mean Bob Marley, and we don't like that you're doing this, and they sued. And Philip Morris said, no, no, no. We mean any kind of Marley. We're just saying Marley. It could be Jacob Marley. And everyone was like, who?
LYDEN: Who knew? Come on. Ebenezer.
DOKOUPIL: Yes. Exactly. Right, right. It's an obscure Dickens character, you know, who's mean and cheap and doesn't smoke and doesn't drink. And this is not somebody who you would want to market your smokable item. I mean, that was the other telling thing is that the trademark request - it didn't specify what was being smoked. It just said smokable consumer products.
LYDEN: Marijuana, by the way, is still not legal in France. But Colorado's been growing it out in the open for years - well, inside. Tony Dokoupil visited a grow house there.
DOKOUPIL: Colorado has more than a million square feet of warehouse dedicated or leased to medical marijuana growers. And you go into these warehouses and it looks like a normal warehouse. Like there might be Coca-Cola being stored there or it might be servicing a grocery store. And then you go into these smaller rooms within rooms, and that's where the plants are.
And it's magical. Your eyes recognize sunlight. It's the glow lamps, and the plants are waving gently at you because they're being stirred by fans. And there's classical music playing or there's rock 'n' roll playing depending on what the grower says the plant likes. And then there'll be people walking among the plants - the bud tenders. And I refer to them as the Keebler elves of cannabis because they really - they live and breathe and sleep among the plants. And they tend to them beautifully.
LYDEN: So now, for the moment, what you're describing is used in the service of legal medical marijuana?
DOKOUPIL: That's right. Colorado is already a revolutionary state in this regard. It has a for-profit medical marijuana market. The 17 other states that have medical marijuana have cooperatives or nonprofit models. So it's already big business marijuana in Colorado. There's a very concerted effort to control where the pot comes from, who's getting it and also to make some money, I mean, to make this a, you know, a market that business people would be interested in being part of.
LYDEN: But marijuana is still considered illegal by the federal government. So how would it work? There would have to be some kind of federal oversight rule, no?
REAGAN: It's an outstanding question, and no one knows the answer yet. The Justice Department has said it's reviewing the situation, and that review has no end date. The decision will have to be made, guidance will have to given to federal attorneys in those two states about whether or not they should prosecute cases of legal marijuana.
LYDEN: Well, Tony, I want to talk about the pros and the cons of legalization. First of all, are you advocating that it be legal?
DOKOUPIL: Well, when I look at the different options, I come down on the side of legalizing marijuana, but in a tightly restricted way. So I really like the Colorado regulatory model. There's a ban on advertising. There are cameras that track the marijuana from bloom to end-consumer, so the diversion into the black market is limited. There are extensive background checks on the people who are part of the marketplace, so you're not really - you're not a front for the black market, you're not a former black market dealer, you're not a member of a Mexican cartel, most likely.
I don't think such an open model like the alcohol model would be good for marijuana. And I think most Americans at this point come down on that side as well. They don't want to be driving down the highway and see advertisements for Budweiser and then also, you know, bud. They don't want to have to move their kids away from the marijuana rack at the bodega or the grocery store in their neighborhood. So I think tight controls is where the people who favor legalization come down.
LYDEN: So, Tony Dokoupil, where do you see Colorado's marijuana business in five years' time? Will it be like going to Starbucks?
DOKOUPIL: Assuming the federal government does not intervene, I think you will have a variety of products at different levels of intensity exactly like Starbucks. It's a really good comparison, right? Because you go to Starbucks, you can get an espresso, you can get a long bean, you can get a coffee, you can get snacks, you know, there are edibles. You might be able to walk in there, and in the case, they'll have, you know, 12 different strains of cannabis - sativa, indica, you know, purple kush, green crack - I mean, whatever colorful name is popular at the moment. And then behind the counter, there might be hash, there might be in another container edibles like fizzy drinks or brownies. There could be a hot dog wheel turning. I mean, you can put THC in anything. So anything could be edible with marijuana. And the model, that's a - it's an excellent comparison. I - and I think that's what you'll see.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LYDEN: Tony Dokoupil, reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He's working on a book about all this. By the way, William Breathes, that professional marijuana critic from Denver, he thinks marijuana tourism in Colorado could soon be no more unusual than, say, a fly-fishing trip to the state.
BREATHES: Around the country, I get a lot of emails from people really excited about this and saying they're looking forward to visiting Colorado now. And I agree. Having a joint and fly-fishing are actually two very wonderful things together.
LYDEN: So there you have it. Colorado, Rocky Mountain high. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.