Marijuana mayhem

Murky and messy state rules leave local governments scrambling to sort things out

Underlying voters’ approval of Amendment 64, which made recreational marijuana use and sales among adults older than age 21 legal in Colorado, was the sentiment that marijuana is not the terrifying Hydra it once was thought to be, capable of fraying the social, emotional and familial fabric of communities, leaving a wake of ruined lives among users. Marijuana has evolved from being a forbidden substance to one found to have medicinal value to one deemed appropriate – by voters, at least – for recreational use. The transformation has been relatively rapid, and as often is the case in such circumstances, the regulatory environment is struggling to keep pace. It is not quite wholly successful in that endeavor.

The Colorado Legislature, under the provisions of Amendment 64, was tasked with formulating rules about how recreational marijuana would be handled in the state, including proposing a taxing framework that will require voter approval. By and large, the panel convened to handle this task did so well, but there remain a number of murky questions that local governments would be wise to address before opening their communities to new recreational marijuana businesses. Durango is considering a moratorium in order to do that critical policymaking, making it one of 19 localities that is considering or has approved some breathing room for implementing marijuana sales. That is appropriate, given the many unknown variables associated with transitioning a substance from the black market to mainstream retail activity.

The transition is further complicated by the fact that existing regulations governing medical marijuana do not automatically transfer to recreational sales, in effect creating two different sets of rules for the two uses of the substance. Medicinal dispensaries will not be able to open their doors to all recreational users and instead will have to create separate accommodations for those seeking marijuana as a pastime instead of as a treatment.

There also are different taxing structures for the two uses – pending voter approval – with recreational marijuana sales facing up to a 30 percent tax comprising state sales and excise levies, as well as any taxes local entities care to attach – again, with voter approval.

In short, it is a hot mess.

Given these complications and the big pending question of whether voters will approve the state taxing proposals, the City Council is completely reasonable to be considering a timeout in allowing recreational marijuana sales. Doing so allows for the regulatory environment to catch up with the philosophical shift that Amendment 64 brought to Colorado and could keep the city from having to backpedal if any recreational marijuana-related businesses run afoul of or get ahead of local or state rules.

In the meantime, Amendment 64’s underlying principle – that using marijuana recreationally now is legal – is in full effect, meaning that adults older than age 21 can use marijuana and possess up to one ounce of the substance. The details of how, where and whether marijuana use and sales can take place remain unclear, and cities are right to take their time in sorting out those questions.