What have we learned about the arguments for and against legalized marijuana in the past 10 years?

As we look back on a decade since Colorado’s landmark vote on legalized cannabis, we assess how arguments from both sides of the debate have borne out

John Ingold
The Colorado Sun
Automated fans and cultivation lights are pictured operating above cannabis plants at RiNo Supply's cultivation facility near Lafayette on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018.
Andy Colwell/Special to The Colorado Sun

When Colorado voters legalized use, possession and sale of small amounts of marijuana 10 years ago, they faced a lot of unknowns.

“A great experiment,” is what legalization skeptic-turned-believer John Hickenlooper, who was the state’s governor a decade ago and is now a U.S. senator, has called it.

Cannabis legalization did not eliminate the marijuana black market in the state and in some ways created a new opportunity for the black market to flourish. This is in part because, with marijuana remaining illegal in other states, Colorado became an attractive place for black-market growers to set up shop, sometimes using Colorado’s cannabis industry as cover for their operations.

A report last year by the Colorado Department of Public Safety found that “the amount of marijuana diverted out of Colorado is difficult to estimate” because only a small percentage of it is caught and because there is no central database to track it. Using a database maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration’s El Paso Intelligence Center, the report found that seizures of marijuana coming from Colorado jumped significantly in the years following 2014, when Colorado’s first recreational cannabis shops opened.

There were 286 seizures in 2012. By 2015, there were 768 seizures. The numbers have declined since then and, in 2019, the figure hit 266 seizures, below the 2012 benchmark.

Annual reports published by the Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a law enforcement group, often highlight the continued presence of the marijuana black market in Colorado. Last year’s report noted that 2019 saw the largest marijuana bust in the history of Colorado, involving 250 homes and businesses. 


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