Opinion | Scott M. Estill: Up in smoke

Happy April 20 — for those who may celebrate National Weed Day. While the origin of this day to celebrate cannabis culture is a bit hazy, so to speak, the general consensus attributes it to a group of California teenagers who would meet every day at exactly 4:20 p.m. to smoke the banned substance and seek out a supposed legendary crop of marijuana being grown nearby. They never found the crop, but the legend grew until the April date was substituted for the time.

Given the current proliferation of the legalized/decriminalized marijuana laws in the United States, it is easier to list the states that have not permitted medical marijuana or in any way decriminalized marijuana: Idaho, Nebraska, South Carolina and Wyoming. Colorado is one of 21 states that has fully legalized marijuana, both medicinally and for recreation. The impact of this shows up visibly in the form of tax revenues to the state and local governments.

The town of Dillon has received a huge amount of revenue as a result of its sin taxes on tobacco and marijuana. For the last four years (2019-2022), the town has collected $1,216,142 of excise taxes on marijuana. This amounts to about $1,140 for each of its 1,064 residents. For perspective, taxes collected on nicotine during this time were $496,904. Not bad for the weed contingent, especially considering that the funds can be used for the town’s general purposes in addition to funding drug abuse and prevention programs.

Breckenridge has fared even better, with taxes on marijuana accounting for $4,842,927, or about $950 for each of its 5,078 residents. Silverthorne does not track its marijuana sales separately from its sales tax collections due to confidentiality agreements with the sole dispensary in the town, but if your wages had the same trajectory as the sales taxes collected you would be an incredibly happy employee!

The amounts the State of Colorado has collected are astronomical. From the opening of legal sales in 2014 to today, the state has added about $2.4 billion to its coffers. The funds are used for health care and education, substance abuse prevention and treatment programs, and law enforcement. These funds are all new sources of revenue and are being used to support the public good. In addition, law enforcement resources were shifted from marijuana to more dangerous crimes.

Lastly, the county also receives a relatively small amount (about $200,000) each year from weed sales and uses these funds to partially fund the Summit Stage.

There are numerous cannabis companies that are currently publicly traded, including a few companies with annual revenues in excess of $1 billion. Who would have thought just a short decade or two ago that you could not only buy marijuana legally but also invest in companies that grow, distribute and sell the plant? Of course, with higher revenues and profits comes increased political influence, especially if the alcohol and tobacco histories relate in any way to the weed industry. There is no doubt that these companies will use their money to influence the government and public opinion, the same as every other for-profit enterprise in any industry.

It is important to look at the legalization issue with these financial numbers in mind. First, the benefits of allowing citizens to make health care choices without governmental interference has brought much relief to those suffering from chronic pain, cancer treatments and a host of other medical issues. There are currently 70,533 patients that benefit from this opportunity in Colorado today. Nationally, more than 5.4 million people are availing themselves of this health option. Interestingly, the “sickest” state from the perspective of the need for marijuana as a necessary drug is Oklahoma, with a full 9.3% of the population on the medical registry.

In addition, the government now gets to share in the profits of what once was strictly a very profitable illegal market. And for those who make the comparison to alcohol, it is undisputed that alcohol is a far more dangerous and deadly drug, especially when considering the societal effects of alcoholism.

However, not all is positive, as legalization has increased use (but not problems). With availability and the removal of the criminal stigma, more adults are trying and liking the product. In addition, the use of much stronger marijuana today, along with use by minors, continues to be a challenge. In fact, any marijuana use, even with a lower amount of THC, has been found to be detrimental to the growing mind of a child. Furthermore, despite legalization, the underground economy still exists and thrives. Not everyone wishes to give the government man any personal information or tax revenues. 

As marijuana use on 4/20 has morphed from being a symbolic counterculture protest to just another commodity bought and sold on the public market, it shows that American capitalism is alive and well. As revenues and net profits increase, the marijuana industry will become more mainstream and integrated into society. In the end, capitalism overcame the war on drugs. And more than $1 trillion used in this fight has simply been wasted and gone up in smoke.

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