When Colorado’s notorious and groundbreaking Amendment 64 passed on November 6, 2012, proponents of the measure envisioa state free of illegal distribution of marijuana and the more serious crimes often associated with it. With America’s first retail marijuana dispensaries open for business in Colorado, this vision remains unfulfilled almost a year and a half later.
Today in Colorado, the marijuana black market is still very much in action, as is the violence it perpetuates. In February, a 17-year-old boy attempted to rob a man who came to him looking to purchase weed, and allegedly shot and killed his girlfriend. Last March, 25-year-old Nathaniel Tallman was killed selling marijuana illegally when customers attempted to rob him. Three people were recently mugged in Denver as they attempted to purchase marijuana in a grocery store parking lot.
The debate rages on over the explanation of this continued violence. Many claim that such events are not surprising and that these issues will resolve themselves if Coloradans exercise patience. “It’s just a transition period,” activist Brian Vicente said to The Gazette. “Marijuana was illegal for the last 80 years in our state, and there are some remnants of that still around. Certainly – much like alcohol – over time, these underground dealers will fade away.”
Primary reasons why black market weed remains preferable to consumers include price and accessibility. Most retail dispensaries will sell an ounce of marijuana for around $400, while an ounce of equal quality can be purchased illegally for around $200.
Even if one is willing to fork out the extra cash, Colorado’s 160 current retail dispensaries are mostly concentrated in Denver. If a CC student wanted to purchase weed legally, he or she would have to drive close to an hour to Pueblo. As more stores open in more areas, (which will occur more rapidly in 2016, when those outside of current sellers of medicinal marijuana will be considered for licenses) accessibility will improve and prices will drop because of the increased competition.
Yet others argue that stories of those such as Nathaniel Tallman are evidence of flaws that undermine Amendment 64’s goal of abolishing the black market for marijuana. Under the law’s current structure, there may be too many complications in entering the retail industry, and too much taxation for those in the industry to compete with their illegal counterparts. “Those barriers to entry already create the potential for the black market,” Robert Corry explained in an interview with the Gazette. “Then you add these taxes on top of it, and it makes [the black market] impossible to get rid of.” Corry is an attorney who helped write Amendment 64, despite opposing the taxation components.
Colorado Springs is Colorado’s second most populous city at close to 500,000 residents, but because Amendment 64 allotted localities (counties and municipalities) jurisdiction over whether recreational dispensaries can exist within their communities, the city contains no retail dispensaries, and likely will not for some time.
The Manitou Springs City Council voted in favor of allowing recreational dispensaries in the city, though almost three months later, retail dispensaries still show no signs of opening. And if one does finally enter the industry, recreational outlets face a 12.9 percent sales tax and a 15 percent excise tax. These rates dwarf those of their medicinal counterparts and municipalities have jurisdiction to further increase this gap.
Data shows that the idea that the legalization of marijuana could abolish the black market for the drug was never truly realistic. Statistics show that the majority of marijuana smokers are in the 18-25 age range, meaning half of marijuana’s primary consumers are unable to legally purchase weed anyways. Because of this, some amount of illicit dealing seems almost inevitable.
Legalization has given birth to and propagated other forms of black market dealing as well. In a recent interview with TheGazette, Colorado Springs policeman Lt. Mark Comte went as far to say that legalization “has done nothing more than enhance the opportunity for the black market.” Colorado now allows individuals to grow their own marijuana for personal consumption under specific guidelines; however, this stipulation is easy abused for illegal profits. Comte describes raiding a warehouse where two men were growing “so much more than they could ever need.”
Weed was already unusually cheap and accessible in Colorado, but legalization has provided more avenues for those who seek to purchase in the state and re-sell illegally in those where the drug is not so abundant. With it now legal for Coloradans to possess up to an ounce of legally obtained marijuana, there is concern that this will make prosecuting illegal dealers more difficult and actually encourage further illegal activity.
Determining the source of a specific ounce of weed is very challenging, and prosecuting such cases isn’t cost-effective. There is worry that law enforcement officers already treat selling marijuana illegally less strictly than before the passage of Amendment 64 and will continue to do so, further encouraging black market dealers.