Marijuana goes mainstream, but not yet welcome on Main Street

On the one-year anniversary of marijuana legalization in Colorado, most Colorado ski areas have opted to bar recreational pot dispensaries from their touristy downtowns, highlighting a 'branding' tension in states experimenting with legal pot.

Elaine Thompson/AP
Cannabis City clerk John Golby, left, helps customers looking over a display case of marijuana products at the shop in Seattle, Dec. 30, 2014. A year into the nation’s experiment with legal, taxed marijuana sales, Washington and Colorado find themselves with a cautionary tale for Oregon, Alaska or other states that might follow suit: They’re wrestling not with the federal interference many initially feared, but with competition from their own medical marijuana systems or even outright black market sales.

A year after America began to experiment with legal marijuana, an uneasy new normal has set in from the nation’s capital to the ski bum towns of Colorado.

After decades of legal and political banishment, pot has in bold new ways moved into the mainstream. But in the parts of America that have legalized weed, the marijuana merchants have yet to join Main Street.

Indeed, even as so-called “pot tourists” are drawn to Colorado, most Colorado ski towns – which are heavily dependent on tourism – have voted to push dispensaries to the outside of town to places like the industrial “Airpot Road” section of Breckenridge and the “Green Mile” beyond Vail’s central business area.

Such conundrums over how to incorporate the legal sale of marijuana into communities with images to uphold can be found everywhere from local town councils to the US Congress, which in its latest omnibus budget bill nixed recreational marijuana in the District of Columbia – after voters in the nation’s capital passed a referendum in November that would have legalized it.

However, in the same bill, Congress also in effect ended controversial federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries.

The decision by Congress to end dispensary raids boils down to “strange-bedfellow politics and a rare bipartisan consensus on a topic that wraps in law enforcement, individual rights, and medical judgment,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board.

Colorado, which one year ago became the first state in the country to legalize the recreational use of the drug, raised more than $40 million from taxing pot sales, well short of its $70 million goal. With six months of legal marijuana under its belt, the state of Washington saw $64 million in cash sales in 99 outlets, resulting in $16 million in excise taxes.

Colorado’s experience also shows that legalizing marijuana doesn’t necessarily put drug dealers out of business. In Colorado’s case, some have argued that high local and state taxes on the drug have played a role in keeping the black market trade alive. That’s a problem. The chief argument to legalize marijuana, after all, was to shutter illicit sales.

It’s too soon yet for studies to show whether legalizing marijuana has had an impact in reducing the number of people, disproportionately minorities, imprisoned for possessing small amounts of the drug – another argument often cited by advocates for legalization.

But the continuation of the illegal trade in Colorado, along with studies that suggest marijuana use has increased as it’s become legalized, may give pause to other states considering the possible windfalls of legalizing a substance used at least once by 75 million Americans in the past year.

“If [states are] looking at pot as something that might swoop in and save them, they need to keep looking,” Joseph Henchman, an analyst for the nonpartisan Tax Foundation think tank, tells the Associated Press.

To be sure, America’s view on marijuana is still evolving. And how that evolution is playing out in the small towns where smoking a joint is now perfectly legal may be the most telling.

More than two-thirds of residents in the town of Breckenridge voted to approve legal marijuana in 2012, part of a long-running view held by residents that criminalizing marijuana use is wrong. But in December, a local poll showed that two-thirds of the town still did not want dispensaries in its core business district, and the town council promptly voted to keep them out of downtown, according to a Mountain Town News report.

Three former mayors penned a letter saying that pot dispensaries in the middle of a family-oriented tourist community could pose “big risk, little upside” for the town.

“When marijuana goes mainstream, our Main Street may then be ready,” Chuck Struve, Sam Mamula, and Ernie Blake wrote. “But not now, not yet.”

“The Breckenridge story is most interesting because the vote seems to represent such an about-face, dreadlocks replaced by penny-loafers,” writes Allen Best in Mountain Town News.

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