Colorado is often cited as the bellwether of America becoming a marijuana nation. With our legalization of medical marijuana in 2000, and of recreational marijuana in 2012, we helped open the floodgates to what has become a national movement.
After the November elections, in which four additional states legalized recreational marijuana, about 60 million Americans - or about 20 percent of the population - resided in the eight states that allow the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes. A majority of states allow the sale of medical marijuana. And, national polling has shown support for legalization well above 50 percent.
Meanwhile, Colorado is experiencing a dramatic increase in sales, topping $1.3 billion in 2016 and up nearly 30 percent from the year before. Marijuana produces $200 million in new tax revenue, which resulted in fights during the latest state legislative session over where to spend the new revenues.
Yet, resistance is in the air. The Obama years of tolerance at the federal level appear over. New Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made clear that he doesn't believe expansion of the use of marijuana should be encouraged.
Beyond this ill wind from Washington, Colorado, after three years of cultivation, distribution and retail sales, is realizing the boundaries of its rapid expansion of recreational marijuana sales.
One sign of its limitation is that 70 percent of local governments in Colorado don't allow retail sales of marijuana. Only 19 counties out of 64 allow recreational sales. Among the residents of the state's 10 largest counties, 57 percent reside in jurisdictions that prohibit retail sale. In the state's 271 municipalities, only 62 allow recreational sales; and in its 10 largest cities, slightly more than half of the public lives in jurisdictions that allow sales (56 percent).
An examination of national election and polling data shows that the public is much more supportive of medical than recreational marijuana. And, importantly, attitudes toward legalization have not changed over the five years since state legalization of recreational pot began. Quinnipiac's Colorado polls show that about 55 percent of the public supports legalization, similar to Colorado's 2012 election result. About 45 percent of the public continues to oppose recreational marijuana legalization five years after its passage.
But more problematic for the industry and its advocates is that expansion of sales is opposed in polls and frequently loses in local elections. A survey for the Colorado Springs Gazette by Ciruli Associates during the 2016 election showed 62 percent of El Paso County voters opposed allowing recreational sales in Colorado Springs, a municipality that has banned sales all along.
A statewide poll conducted in October by the University of Denver's Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research showed only 36 percent of state voters supported and 53 percent opposed the expansion of retail sales. A comparison of the 36 percent that support statewide expansion to the Quinnipiac poll showing 55 percent that support legalization reveals a 20-point or more drop in support for expansion, even among Democratic and Independent voters and the young - all staunch supporters of legalization.
The differences in opinion over legalization reflects the overall debate around social justice-type issues, such as the failure of the war on drugs, equality between regulation of marijuana and alcohol, and libertarian values. But opinion regarding the expansion of retail sales reflects concerns about public safety, quality of life and land use issues. Issues such as residential proximity to sales and use, density of store locations, odor, and health and safety of children in the community contribute to the concerns.
Efforts to expand marijuana sales in Colorado are relentless. Lobbyists and tax-hungry jurisdictions continue to look for areas of expansion. Denver recently approved a four-year experiment with pot clubs that many politicians did not advocate for but did not fight against.
Gov. John Hickenlooper continues to warn other states to be cautious with legalization and expansion. He points out that while studies are not yet complete and the data has not been fully analyzed, warning signs abound. In his 2017 State of the State speech, Hickenlooper addressed the challenges that accompany large-scale commercialization, including upticks in mental illness and chronic homelessness, organized crime associated with increased black market activities, and law enforcement problems of underage use and endangerment to children.
Nationally, the legalization wave does not appear to have crested. Vermont may be the next state to allow recreational marijuana and, no doubt, some others will follow. But, if Colorado is the model, caution is indeed warranted. After five years, at least half the population is averse to allowing marijuana sales, even though most have moved beyond wanting it criminalized.
Floyd Ciruli, a pollster, is director of the Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Denver's Korbel School. He blogs at fciruli.blogspot.com.