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3 things we learned from Colorado's first year of legal marijuana sales

A woman ponders what marijuana she should buy in a Colorado dispensary.
A woman ponders what marijuana she should buy in a Colorado dispensary.
Craig Walker / Denver Post via Getty Images

It's been a big year for marijuana legalization. In January, Colorado became the first state in the country to allow the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes. Washington state followed in July, although the industry has struggled to keep up with demand due to a supply shortage of marijuana for recreational purposes.

And in November, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, voters elected to fully legalize marijuana — although DC's vote may be overturned by a congressional spending deal.

As these and other states look forward to legalization, government officials and regulators have looked to Colorado's early adaptation to gauge what they can expect. While Colorado's experience has so far gone better than many anticipated, the state has faced some unexpected hurdles, and many questions are still unanswered. Here are three big takeaways from Colorado's first year of legal pot sales.

1) Marijuana legalization can go smoothly — at first

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper opposed marijuana legalization when it was on the ballot in 2012. But his administration has taken a considerably softer stance on legalization since then, with Hickenlooper and administration officials repeatedly emphasizing that it's going better than expected. "The rollout has been pretty smooth," Barbara Brohl, executive director of the Colorado Department of Revenue, told the Brookings Institution.

Even Attorney General Eric Holder, who opposes legalization and is charged with enforcing the federal prohibition of pot, said he's "cautiously optimistic" about how legalization is proceeding in Colorado.

Prior to legalization, opponents of the policy warned of the many things that could go wrong. Law enforcement repeatedly claimed that crime would rise following legalization. Critics warned of a sharp increase in car accidents and other marijuana-related deaths. In the lead-up to Halloween, police and critics fanned fears of kids accidentally eating marijuana-laced candy.

While drug policy experts caution that it's too early to know what the policy's effects will be in the longer-term, nothing appeared to go horribly wrong in the first year of implementation. Serious crimes fell in Denver, the city with the most marijuana dispensaries. Fatal traffic accidents are near historic lows, according to an analysis from the Washington Post's Radley Balko. And Halloween came and went with zero reported cases of kids in the Denver area accidentally consuming pot.

Revenues from marijuana sales also trended up throughout the year, providing the state with more money to build schools. Colorado was even able to give state residents a tax rebate because marijuana revenues came in higher than projected, according to the Denver Post.

Colorado marijuana tax revenue

It's far too early to gauge whether these trends will stick and what the final effect of legal pot sales will be on any of these issues, drug policy experts Mark Kleiman of UCLA and Beau Kilmer of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center told me. But state officials and legalization advocates have latched onto the numbers and early experiences as evidence legalization can work okay — at least at first.

2) Regulations likely won't be perfect the first time around

Maureen Dowd

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd on Meet the Press. (Alex Wong / Getty Images News)

If anything went wrong in Colorado, it was issues with marijuana edibles. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported a bizarre experience in June, claiming that at one point she felt dead after eating too much pot. Children's Hospital Colorado reported a small uptick in children ending up in emergency rooms after eating marijuana. One college student fell to his death from a balcony after eating six times the recommended dose of a marijuana cookie, the Denver Post reported.

None of these issues seemed to be widespread, but they drew a lot of attention from the media, critics, and state officials. In response, Colorado regulators set up a panel that is currently working on stricter regulations for marijuana edibles.

Very early, state officials cautioned that these kinds of regulatory tweaks will be necessary as legalization moves forward.

"You come out with the best-laid plans for how you think something's going to work and how the regulatory framework is going to perform, and you're going to have to make adjustments to that," Ron Kammerzell, director of enforcement at the Colorado Department of Revenue, said in May. "And that's something we're committed to doing: reevaluating things constantly and being adaptable and flexible to, say, 'Okay, we thought this was going to be the most flexible to do this. It's not really panning out that way in the real world, so we're going to have to make some adjustments.'"

This likely stands true not only for Colorado, but other states that end up legalizing marijuana. As Kleiman and Kilmer told me in October, it remains to be seen whether the current popular forms of taxation — based on the weight of marijuana and overall sales prices — are the best way to maximize revenue and reduce problematic drug use. It's not even clear whether a private market is better equipped to handle marijuana sales than state-controlled dispensaries.

As more states legalize and try different policies, these kinds of questions will get answers — and regulatory changes, big and small, will likely follow.

"The issue with edibles highlights the importance of building flexibility into the system," Kilmer said. "No one's going to get this right the first, second, third, fourth, or fifth time."

3) There's still a lot we don't know

marijuana business

People line up to get their first purchase of legal marijuana. (Joe Amon / Denver Post via Getty Images)

As drug policy experts repeatedly told me throughout 2014, it's unlikely we'll know the full effects of legalization for a few years.

"I think the big concerns were exaggerated from the start," Kleiman said, "but nothing in the past year tells us that."

We don't yet have numbers for drug use through the first full year of sales. We also don't know for certain whether traffic accidents involving stoned drivers and other marijuana-related deaths will rise as the pot industry becomes more established. And it's possible that other unexpected issues will surface over the next few years.

Much of this stems from the fact that the marijuana industry is far from established. Although Colorado's recreational pot market is more advanced than Washington's, it remains smaller than the thriving medical marijuana industry in the state. Many cities and counties still prohibit the sales of recreational pot. Businesses hoping to create a national marijuana brand, such as Aquarius Cannabis, have yet to get off the ground.

"It's going to be a while before things stabilize," Kilmer said.

As more people get into the market, the pot industry and its effects will change. With more production could come lower prices — and those lower prices could make excessive marijuana use more affordable and common. The commercialization of marijuana could also bring fresh attempts to push the product to new consumers across the country and globe.

"We're seeing the expected level of marketing irresponsibility from the vendors, but they don't have much to sell at the moment," Kleiman said in September. "When they've got something to sell, we'll see how aggressive they get."