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Pot on the patio? Colorado's 'surreal' path to legalizing marijuana.

Colorado's Amendment 64 Implementation Task Force is wading through the weeds of marijuana legalization, creating regulations to take pot from the shadows out into the open.

By Staff Writer / February 21, 2013

A marijuana plant is ready to be harvested at a grow house in Denver. Voters approved legalizing marijuana in November, so Colorado is working to develop rules for the emerging recreational pot industry, with sales set to begin later this year.

Ed Andrieski/AP


In the wake of the decision by voters in Colorado last November to legalize recreational marijuana for adults, the question of how to actually integrate legal pot into the practical, and often bureaucratic, realities of modern American life has fallen on two dozen Coloradans.

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By the end of the month, the Amendment 64 Implementation Task Force must submit a report to the Colorado Legislature that lays out its suggestions for how the state should regulate legal marijuana. It has been a curious process.

On one hand, the task force has considered new rules for what Colorado should do when it inevitably becomes a center of "pot tourism," it has debated whether smokers can use their backyard patios to light up, and it has considered how to deal with "marijuana clubs" that will appear. Yet, at the same time, marijuana use remains illegal according to federal law, and the Department of Justice may step in and try to invalidate everything the task force has done.

In a time when as many as 25 states are considering pro-marijuana laws, what Colorado does could be broadly significant. How it converts a massive black market into what experts call "problematic adult commerce" on the fringes of society – akin to gambling, drinking, and go-go clubs – all amid lingering legal concerns, could provide a framework for other states to follow.

So far, the results from the task force point to legal marijuana regulations that in many ways mirror regulations on alcohol and tobacco yet, because of the drug's unsettled legal status, are in some ways distinctly separate. 

"We made an industry out of cigarettes, we made an industry out of alcohol and now we're creating an industry out of marijuana – frankly, it's surreal sometimes," says task force member Mary Beth Susman, president of the Denver City Council. "We're making rules about an activity that is illegal according to the federal government, and sometimes we're making rules that in the normal course of events would be illegal themselves in order to stay under the radar of the federal government."

So far, the Obama administration has kept its hands off the emerging experiments in Colorado (and Washington State, where voters also approved a ballot initiative that legalized pot), though it could be waiting until the Legislature formalizes new pot laws. That's expected by May 8.

Last November, 55 percent of Colorado voters approved adult use of marijuana, meaning that the state would regulate the cultivation and sale of marijuana while allowing legal possession of up to 1 ounce per person. As caveats, the referendum allows towns and municipalities to opt out of retail marijuana sales and extends criminal and civil liability to smokers who drive high. The law also allows the state to collect hefty new taxes from license production and retail sales that will go toward state education funds.

Nationally, a slim majority of Americans now support legalization of adult use of marijuana, up from 10 percent in 1971. Some 100 million Americans have tried the drug at least once, 25 million have smoked in the past year, and 14 million are regular users, according to surveys by the US Department of Health and Human Services.


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