DENVER — Colorado was one of the pioneers of medical marijuana. Soon it will hold another distinction.
Voters in November overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment that will allow for the sale of cannabis to anyone over age 21. In doing so, they made Colorado one of only two states to opt for full commercialization of the drug, along with Washington state.
As early as next year, marijuana strains such as Facewreck Haze, Bio-Diesel, Cheesequake and Colorado Cough will be available to the masses.
It’s a prospect that supporters say will bring states millions in additional tax revenue at a time of starved budgets and launch a new industry that could provide thousands of new jobs and spur economic development.
Others, meanwhile, warn that the societal and regulatory costs of legalization could far outweigh the economic benefits.
Established companies in Colorado’s medical marijuana industry, which will get the first crack at selling recreational or “adult use” pot to the masses, are preparing for a potential windfall of profits.
A recent study by Colorado State University estimates the size of Colorado’s recreational marijuana market at $605.7 million in 2014. That would bring in an additional $130 million in state tax revenue, assuming a 15 percent special sales tax and a 15 percent excise tax.
Researchers predict that about 643,000 Coloradans, or about 12 percent of the state population, will use more than 2.2 million ounces of marijuana next year, or about 142,000 pounds.
Under the amendment, adults can possess up to an ounce of marijuana and can grow as many as six plants for personal use.
The measure was met with withering criticism and fierce opposition from the state’s business groups, including the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, which feared the move could stain Colorado’s mostly sterling reputation as a low-tax state with a highly educated workforce.
“We are truly the leanest, most active adults in the country. We are the second-most educated state in the country. We know we’ve got the workforce to make you successful, and I don’t think marijuana reinforces that message,” said Kelly Brough, the chamber’s president and chief executive.
Brough acknowledged that the new law could bring economic activity to the region, but said she doesn’t think the boost “offsets what you have to do in return to ensure that employers and companies are confident in the workforce you can deliver.”
Aside from image concerns, the chamber and other business groups worry about more tangible consequences.
For the Associated General Contractors of Colorado, one of the most ardent detractors of expanding use beyond medicinal needs, the concern goes beyond Colorado’s ability to draw employers here.
The contractors group, which represents about 400 construction employers, including 50 of the state’s largest commercial firms, worries that workers in the industry, many of whom have dangerous jobs, could be impaired when they show up for work, endangering their lives and those of their colleagues.
Stoned workers also could endanger contractors’ ability to win federal construction contracts, which require a certified drug-free workplace.
It lobbied the Colorado General Assembly hard to ensure that employers retained certain protections, including one that allowed them to continue with a zero-tolerance policy on drugs, even though marijuana use is legal in Colorado.
Denver City Councilman Chris Nevitt acknowledged it’s risky for Colorado to open the market to adults ahead of most other states.
Although he was wary of legalizing pot for the masses, he said the economic activity the new industry is expected to bring is undeniable.
“When this is legalized everywhere, Colorado will be poised to be the Silicon Valley of cannabis,” Nevitt said. “I view this as a market proposition. This is a growth industry.”