They talked to a wide range of people: a homeless man, a waitress and the Colorado governor’s staff. After three days, many of the Vermonters who went this week to check out the legalized marijuana scene in the Rocky Mountain State found that it's complicated.
Life on the streets of Denver looked – and smelled – pretty much the same as anywhere, except for one thing. “You can’t throw a stone without hitting a [marijuana] store out there,” said Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn. One of those stores, he said, reported grossing more than $1 million a month.
The impact of those sales on the lives of Colorado residents was harder to determine, the trippers said.
“There’s no reliable data in Colorado. That says to me, Vermont needs to wait,” said Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, who organized the trip, which ran from Sunday through Wednesday.
Two Vermont lawmakers plan to introduce a bill – likely next week – that would legalize the recreational use and sale of marijuana in the state. Donovan and the others said they wanted to see how Colorado’s law was working a year after legalization there.
“I came away understanding that it’s far more complicated than I thought,” said Mary Alice McKenzie, executive director of the Burlington Boys & Girls Club, who is co-founder of a group opposing legalization in Vermont. “The questions a community needs to wrestle with are many.”
“People are split out there as far as is this a good thing or a bad thing,” said Flynn. “I don’t think there’s a consensus.”
Colorado approved legalization by a public vote.
“I don’t think they expected it would pass,” said Bill Young, executive director of Maple Leaf Treatment Center in Underhill, who went on the trip. “It caught them without a lot of preparation.”
Legalization here would be via the legislature, which could craft a much more detailed law, said David Mickenberg, a Vermont lobbyist who represents the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project. He also went on the trip. “I feel like the legislature has the wherewithal to figure out all the complexities,” Mickenberg said.
Colorado’s law didn’t, for example, keep marijuana shops from setting up next to schools. “They had to revisit that,” Mickenberg said. Vermont, in establishing its medical marijuana dispensaries, included such a restriction, he said.
Donovan said that after touring a Colorado growing facility the first day of the trip, he was impressed at how well-run it was. By the end of the second day, after visiting a marijuana shop, he was more wary. “I had real concerns about edibles, the marketing of edibles,” Donovan said. Colorado has enacted new rules regarding the size of edibles after reports of people inadvertently over-consuming.
The size of the marijuana business struck McKenzie. “This is the creation of an industry that’s big, big cash and marketing strategies. I saw it and went, ‘Wow.’ There’s just a ton to think about,” she said.
Regulating that business is also a sizable enterprise for state and local governments, something Vermont should keep in mind, Young said. “The state, before doing anything, should see a detailed plan of what it would cost and what would be required,” he said. “The advice we got was, 'Whatever you do, get all the information, and go slow.'”
Donovan said the staff of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper told the group that it will be five years before Colorado has reliable data about impacts on areas such as health and public safety.
Flynn said police in Colorado reported writing a lot of tickets for public consumption, which is not legal. When he talked to a homeless man on the street, Flynn said, the man told him other drugs were far more of a problem than marijuana.
Donovan, Flynn and law enforcement officials paid their way with asset-forfeiture money. Others traveled on their organizations' dollar.