Economy & Jobs

State Marijuana Legalization: Is Colorado a Blueprint for America?

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State marijuana legalization is a growing topic among Millennials, whose social attitudes may differ from previous generations (and each other). Public discourse surrounding this issue is complex. Ethical concerns about drug dependency frame one side of the multifaceted debate, while others question the incarceration of nonviolent drug users. The debate over legalization also brings to light questions about taxation, conflicting government policies, and U.S. drug laws, including the widespread permissibility of harmful substances such as alcohol, nicotine, and pharmaceutical drugs.

Measures permitting the recreational use of marijuana have passed in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia. States such as Vermont and Ohio, among others, are considering the passage of similar laws. Could these states be paving the way for legalization elsewhere in the U.S.?

The True Price for Marijuana Taxation

In Colorado, licensed growers generated over $300 million in sales in 2014 and more than $40 million in tax revenue. The flip side, however, is that Colorado now faces a growing number of lawsuits from in-state stakeholders, as well as from neighboring Nebraska and Oklahoma. Opponents challenge the constitutionality of Colorado’s Amendment 64, further arguing that buyers who cross state lines cause burdens on other states’ criminal justice systems.

Make no mistake, under federal law, it’s illegal to possess marijuana. But state measures, such as Colorado’s, directly conflict with federal law. This has resulted in confusion among law-enforcement officials and ordinary law-abiding citizens. In addition, the Justice Department has largely refused to prioritize the prosecution of marijuana-related offenses.

Legalization and the Millennial Response

Among Millennials, 63 percent support the legalization of marijuana. Yet its recreational use could lead to major consequences for this generation, who are still in the process of establishing stable careers, financial credit, and personal reputations. Getting caught smoking or in possession of this drug could result in serious legal ramifications that damage any of those areas.

And therein lies the debate about state marijuana legalization:

  • Does marijuana negatively affect one’s health?
  • Does prohibition do more harm than good?
  • Has the widespread availability of other harmful substances resulted in irrational — perhaps hypocritical — laws and social attitudes? (About 69 percent of Americans believe alcohol is more harmful than weed, according to Pew Research.)
  • Given that over 50 percent of Americans (and nearly two-thirds of Generation Y) support marijuana legalization, shouldn’t government policies reflect this mandate by ordinary citizens?

About one in five young adults aged 18 to 25 use, or have used, marijuana, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And yet, in any given year, there are between 700,000 to 800,000 arrests made for marijuana-related offenses, and nearly 90 percent pertain to weed possession, according to FBI statistics.

However, consider that there are nearly 30,000 alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. each year, compared to zero known marijuana-related deaths. Also, most drug overdoses (about 52 percent of 43,982 deaths in 2013) involve pharmaceutical medicine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Proponents of legalization argue that law enforcement should focus their limited resources on violent crimes, and that policymakers should reform laws based on actual health risks. These proponents further contend that criminalization of marijuana use disproportionately harms Millennials.

The public discourse surrounding marijuana legalization will likely continue for years resulting in further legal disputes and a lot of gray area. But as states like Colorado continue to rake in the tax dollars, it seems the tides are turning in favor of closer analysis of scientific data, updates to U.S. drug policy, and gradually shifting voter preferences — especially among young adults who exercise their growing political influence.

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Over 6,000 articles appear under Marv Dumon's byline. He has written for Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Yahoo!, and Fortune 500 clients. Marv previously worked in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and Six Sigma, and earned BA, BBA and MPA degrees from the University of Texas at Austin.