Taking stock of marijuana, 10 years after legalization began

In Denver, they queued for hours in sleet and snow, waiting to buy pot. It was Jan. 1, 2014, and the unthinkable had happened: Colorado had legalized recreational marijuana for adults, the first state to breach the federal prohibition on nonmedical sales. For the people who waited in line that morning, it was a historic moment to savor.  

But that didn’t make Ricardo Baca’s job easy. As The Denver Post’s cannabis editor – another first – Mr. Baca headed out to cover the first day of legal sales, trailed by a film crew shooting a documentary. When customers lined up outside newly licensed cannabis dispensaries saw the cameras, many pulled their sweaters and jackets over their faces to avoid being identified. “People were very uncomfortable going on the record,” says Mr. Baca. 

Colorado state regulators had their own concerns about what the United States, including lawmakers in Washington, would see on TV during those first days. Licensed sales were now legal. But smoking pot in public wasn’t, and Coloradans were asked to respect the rules, which nearly all did after making their purchases, says Mr. Baca. “They weren’t lighting up on the streets.” 

Why We Wrote This

Ten years after individual states began legalizing marijuana, signs of a shift in perspective surface. Behind the growing commercial presence lie people’s preferences, states’ power – and unanswered questions.

Ten years on, the whiff of pot is pervasive in parts of Denver, though the ban on public consumption remains. The stigma of shopping at the dispensaries that dot the streets has largely gone up in smoke, as cannabis takes its place alongside other legal intoxicants. “More professionals are using it,” says Brian Vicente, a lawyer who co-directed Colorado’s 2012 campaign for legalization via a ballot initiative. “People are not parking three blocks away from their store because they don’t want to have their license plate written down.” 

That sense of normalization, of a page turning on an era of pot prohibition, extends beyond Colorado. More than half of Americans now live in jurisdictions that have legalized recreational cannabis, while 37 states and the District of Columbia provide access to medical marijuana, which was pioneered by California in 1996. A more than $30 billion legal industry has become a significant employer in some states; Mr. Baca now runs his own cannabis-focused public relations agency, Grasslands, in Denver. 

This wave of state legislation has tracked public opinion on marijuana in a sea change comparable to the shift in approval of same-sex marriage. In 1991, only 17% of Americans favored the legalization of cannabis, according to Pew Research Center. In 2022, 88% of respondents told Pew it should be legal, either for medical and recreational use or for medical use only, while only 10% said it should be illegal. 

Andy Cross/The Denver Post/AP

A Clean Colorado highway sign, sponsored by the Northern Lights Cannabis Co., appears on Sixth Avenue eastbound in Denver, Feb. 6, 2020.

Illegality is still federal policy: Cannabis is a controlled substance, and producing and trafficking it is a crime. But the Biden administration is reviewing the drug’s classification and has begun pardoning thousands of people convicted by federal courts for simple cannabis possession, citing racial disparities in arrests and prosecutions and the negative impacts of criminal records on offenders’ employment, banking, and housing prospects. 

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