This project was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
DENVER — Broadway Street near downtown Denver used to be known for its eclectic antique stores. Now known to locals as “The Green Mile,” the street is lined with marijuana dispensaries — Ganja Gourmet, Colorado Wellness and Green Depot — along with tattoo parlors, a boot shop, a skate shop and storage units.
The smell of marijuana wafts through the air. Around the corner are the unmarked cultivation and production warehouses that feed the freedom of legal marijuana.
As of July, the state of Colorado had issued 2,446 licenses for marijuana cultivation, production and testing facilities and retail stores in both the medical and recreational markets. Just 18 months into the legalization era, the state’s estimated annual demand for marijuana is already about 130 metric tons, according to a study by the Marijuana Policy Group.
Known for years, even before legalization, as a pot smoker’s haven, investors, business owners, tourists and many residents argue that legal recreational marijuana has been nothing but good for Colorado, bringing in more than $79 million for the state in taxes and fees during the fiscal year 2015. And those figures don’t keep track of the economic contributions of thousands of tourists who come to Colorado partly for its marijuana.
According to Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division, up to 90 percent of recreational sales in some areas, namely mountain towns, are made to tourists coming to enjoy the crisp mountain air, freshly powdered ski slopes and bountiful weed.
When Colorado’s Amendment 64 legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, most of its support came from voters in Denver and the surrounding metropolitan area — and not from more rural areas, leaving a state divided over the drug that is still illegal under federal law.
Out of 321 municipalities in Colorado, 228 “opted out” of allowing marijuana. Local officials and law enforcement throughout the state, unconvinced of the benefits of marijuana, have tried to push back against legalization, citing the federal government’s ban on marijuana, going so far as to file lawsuits against their own governor.
Across the state, headed into the desert of western Colorado from the red rocks of Utah, the landscape is almost void of recreational dispensaries. One exception, about 60 miles into the state, is De Beque, a one-exit town of 500 people where a gas station and the Kush Gardens pot shop sit at the side of the interstate.
“In the last 10 years, nothing has changed, people are still obtaining marijuana and using it, they’re just doing it in a legal, regulated market now. Now they’re just paying a tax on it and giving back to the community,” Jim Roberts, operations manager of Kush Gardens, said.
Amendment 64 passed with 54.8 percent of the population voting in favor of recreational marijuana for those 21 and over, allowing residents to purchase up to an ounce of marijuana and tourists to purchase up to a quarter-ounce. Most of those votes came from the Denver metropolitan area. Now, smaller municipalities are deciding whether they want to include marijuana in their jurisdictions, with more beginning to allow marijuana dispensaries to capitalize on tax dollars.
In Kush Gardens’ case, De Beque is allowing it to operate, but keeping a close watch on the building with names of marijuana strains plastered on the building and a bright green cross sign out front to lure travelers.
“The sky’s kind of the limit right now in the industry, and that’s what makes it so exciting,” Roberts said. “It’s in its infancy. And it’s just exploding like a supernova, and it’s the new gold rush of the 21st century.”
In one year, the state added about 900 new marijuana licenses for retail purposes, according to the Marijuana Enforcement Division. One of the state’s goals for marijuana legalization is to have the industry’s regulation pay for itself through licensing and tax revenues. For 2015-2016, the Marijuana Public Awareness Campaign, which works to inform residents and visitors of how to consume cannabis safely and legally, got $2.15 million. Local law enforcement training got $1.17 million. The governor’s office received $190,097 to form the Governor’s Office of Marijuana Coordination.
Colorado public schools are benefiting as well. Amendment 64’s main selling point to the voters was that it would provide up to $40 million annually for school construction to the Department of Education’s Building Excellent Schools Today program. When Amendment 64 passed, Colorado earmarked certain tax money for school construction and repairs.
In the first year, Colorado put $18 million into the program.