Colorado made history when it became the first U.S. state to legalize a recreational cannabis market in 2014. Since then, legal weed has continued to crop up in new markets, and the legalization debate is heating up ahead of November elections.
With politicians around the country paying attention to criminal justice reform, the opioid crisis and marijuana tax revenue, we sat down to discuss cannabis policy with Andrew Freedman, Colorado’s marijuana czar. As the director of marijuana coordination for the state, he has a front seat view of how legalization is playing out.
While traveling to other states to advise officials on legalization, Freedman steers clear of advocating for or against it, but he does make clear that opponents’ predictions of doomsday have not borne out.
That doesn’t mean legalization has been a rosy new source of tax revenue for the state. Here, he tells us about the challenges behind Amendment 64, and why no state should legalize cannabis just for the money.
HT: Are things as bad in Colorado as legalization opponents make it out to seem?
AF: Most of the trends are what they were pre-legalization. Some of those trends are concerning in the same ways that they were pre-legalization. We continue to be concerned about youth consumption—it was high before legalization, and it’s high afterwards. The promise of legalization was actually that youth use would go down. Until we start to see it go down, it’s not a success for us. That’s the ultimate goal.
On the other hand, I think these predictions of doomsday are not coming true. We’re not seeing significant spikes that are out of the normal of what we were seeing year-to-year before [legalization], with the one exception of ER visits and hospitalizations. Compared to the total amount of ER visits and hospitalizations, it’s a very small part, but it has been a statistically significant spike of people showing up in hospitals and calling poison control.
We’re finding [it’s mainly tourists]. And that’s a new dynamic.
I think a lot of people are who don’t normally use marijuana are taking their vacation in Colorado and deciding to partake. You overindulge in a lot of things when you’re on vacation (like alcohol). But you might know what a bad night is going to do for you with alcohol, and you don’t know what overindulging in edibles is going to do to you. I think that’s why you’re seeing a good portion of what you’re seeing.
What are your thoughts on the data from the Rocky Mountain HIDTA reports, which seems to paint a picture that legalization has had a negative impact on the state? Do you think they are politically motivated, or are they a good faith effort to assess the impact of legalization?
I think both sides use data in an agenda-like manner. So honestly, I see a DPA report that is a different interpretation than I would have on it, and I see a HIDTA report that has a different interpretation. None of the facts are wrong in the HIDTA report, but it’s presented with an agenda. I don’t think they hide that they have an agenda of what they want to do.
We’ve worked really hard to treat data from a very neutral standpoint because people don’t trust data when it’s being presented with an agenda. I think what you’ve seen from our reports is just a good faith effort to be neutral arbiters of fact. I hope that that trend continues, so we end up in a place where people do trust facts more.
We’re only now seeing baseline data. We weren’t collecting data on a lot of these different things before [legalization]. People will ask questions like, “Have you seen an increase or decrease in opioid addiction?”
If you want those answers, you’re really going to have to be patient. We can do as much as we can with public health surveys to get kind of a snapshot of what’s going on right now. But if we want true data, we’re going to have to wait a while.
What’s the position of the state in regard to federal legalization?
We try very hard not to be a political office that weighs in on whether or not people should legalize, including the federal government. There are a few things that we are asking for: One is that there is a banking fix. I don’t think that’s a legalization issue, I think that’s a safety issue.
The second one is that we would like a way for the federal government to allow for laboratory testing of marijuana. The governor has said before, if that’s rescheduling or simply passing a law saying marijuana can be tested in laboratories, that’s up to them.
People are going off doctor-prescribed medicine in order to use marijuana instead. They have a right to know what has been proven to work here or not. I think it’s a bad place for us to not be doing research—we should know more about the effects of marijuana.
Colorado has pretty robust lab-testing requirements for the industry, right?
Yeah, but that’s for things like potency, contamination, mold and pesticides—not so much cannabinoid profiles.
We put $9 million into a research fund. But $9 million is not a lot of money to do this testing, and they still have the problem that they can’t do it in laboratory settings. [Labs] can’t do it if they have any federal funding, so our best institutions have to sit this one out. We should be fast-tracking as much research as possible right now, because it’s already legal in  states, and people should know what benefits and what harms they’re subjecting themselves to. It’s going to take a long time to do the research they need to do. Every day, we’re losing out on good information.
What’s your opinion on legalizing through ballot measure vs. legalizing through the legislature?
I really wish we hadn’t written it into our constitution. I understand why it happened, [legalization proponents] wanted to make sure that the government did what it was being required to do and that [lawmakers] couldn’t overturn [it]. I think from a good government standpoint, when you see these things play out long term, there are things you need to change.
Through Amendment 20 and Amendment 64, we’ve allowed a lot of ways to grow in the unlicensed system. It’s a problem for us now. There are some people who are using it legitimately to grow for a patient they care for and recoup just costs of doing it. Then, there are some people who are using it as a front to grow in Colorado and ship out of state—that’s a very real problem for us.
Those people don’t just stop at shipping it out of state, they’re also selling it to minors here, and that’s why we have trouble completely shutting down the grey and black markets.
It would be really great to go and have another conversation without having to go back to the constitution. How do we have legitimate caregivers but keep out illegitimate caregivers? That conversation is 10 times harder because it’s written into our constitution.
How much should potential tax revenue figure into a discussion about legalization?
Almost none. I try to always put this in perspective: We’re expecting somewhere around $100 million for the previous calendar year in marijuana taxes. We had a $27 billion budget last year.
I actually have people angry at me that we’re not paying teachers more from marijuana money. Well, it’s not that type of money. People truly overestimate what you can do with marijuana money.
What I can say is that it’s not a trivial amount of money. We’re paying for substance abuse treatment facilities that we otherwise couldn’t pay for. There are good youth prevention programs, there are good after-school programs and there are good diversion programs. But it’s not going to solve your budget woes.
At the end of the day, the debate shouldn’t be about tax revenue. “Should we lock up fewer people for marijuana?” vs. “Is this going to create more of a burden on public safety?”—that’s where the debate should be.
Reports say there are all these marijuana-related crimes, but often that data includes crimes like robberies against dispensaries. It seems unfair to portray that as a negative of legalization.
Again, that’s why we caution: “Take time with the data.”
You should be concerned about a marijuana dispensary in the same way you’re concerned about having a convenience store in your backyard because convenience stores are more heavily burglarized than other places.
If you put a whole bunch of dispensaries in a poor community, there’s going to be more crime around it. That is something everybody should think about, whether or not it’s going to be used in the pro- or anti-legalization debate. We should be thinking public safety in that way.
That goes back to the banking issue too, having large amounts of cash makes you a target.
And product. This was a surprise to me. At liquor stores, the product isn’t robbed as much because it’s heavy. With marijuana, you can throw it in a trash bag, and you have a lot of value of marijuana in there. Even though we handle the cash side of it, dispensaries are going to be targets for burglaries.
Any thoughts on regulation in regard to concentrates?
We’re definitely worried about it. We have no idea what dabbing does to you vs. what a joint would do to you. The other side of that is: Sometimes concentrates are very responsibly smoked. That’s not all that different from alcohol. The problem is, we just don’t have our standards yet of what’s responsible use. When is somebody too high?
I hear a lot of horror stories from people who took too big of a hit from a dab and end up having a really bad night. But it’s not like the blood alcohol content levels where we know, “Oh, that person checked in at 0.2, that’s really bad.” It’s a place that really needs more research.
What specific policies do you think other states can learn from Colorado?
I would say the biggest one is the unlicensed market. I think a lot of these states started with an unlicensed market because voters were not trying to put government in a position to regulate it. It was, “let us just have this unlicensed market on the side, and you guys don’t even have to think about it.”
You can’t both have an unlicensed market and a tax-and-regulate market at the same time. So you have to make a choice when you do that, and that’s what we tell other states. If you want to give your tax-and-regulate system a chance, you have to shut down your unlicensed market or really limit what the unlicensed market looks like.
How does home grow factor into this?
Our problem is that we have home grow and caregivers, and you’re allowed to home grow for others, or you can help other people with their home grows. There’s just too many variables in our [system].
I think if you could do it in a very limited manner, it’s not inconceivable that you could allow for home grows that look like home brews. But you have to get bright lines that your local law enforcement can be comfortable with enforcing.
Law enforcement is usually anti-legalization. How has law enforcement here reacted to legalization?
I’ve worked with a lot of law enforcement that make me proud. They are very anti-legalization—you don’t have to guess [how] they voted on Amendment 64. But most of them have moved beyond that to, “OK, in this brave new world, how do we maintain public safety?”
Most of them are not hoping that the system fails so that we undo it. They don’t want to go through a time of public safety woe in order to make that happen, so they’ve put their backs into making the system work. That’s not everybody, but that’s the vast majority of people.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.