ST PAUL, Minnesota — Minnesota can a learn a lot from Colorado's experience with legal pot, according to two visitors from the Rocky Mountain State who dropped by the State Capitol Tuesday.
Former Boulder County Attorney Stanley Garnett and former Denver City Attorney Doug Friednash were there at the invitation of House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, who is hosting a series of town hall meetings on legalizing cannabis.
Both said they were opposed to the amendment Colorado voters passed in 2012, which made recreational marijuana legal in that state starting in 2014. But their minds have changed with the benefit of hindsight.
"From a practical perspective and a public safety perspective I’ve come to conclude that legalization and appropriate regulation of marijuana is better than criminalization," Garnett told reporters.
"And I think that’s what the experience in Colorado has shown."
Friednash said predictions of huge upticks in crime didn't come true, and Coloradans have helped derail black market cannabis by embracing the legal retail variety. He said the wholesale price of marijuana has dropped from $2,000 per pound in 2015 to $1,000 in 2019.
"The price has been cut in half and the demand has doubled, so we know people are buying from dispensaries and that's a good indication that black market has gone."
Both men said legalizing pot didn't change government's zeal for enforcing laws against the illicit street version of marijuana and other drugs.
"We treated it like selling securities or selling mortgages in Boulder County," Garnett said. "You can do legally if you do it right. If you don’t, it’s a felony and we’re going to come after it."
They both acknowledged mistakes were made along the way, as government leaders scrambled to put a regulatory framework in place after voters approved the idea.
"In Colorado at one point we had the ability for caregivers to have 99 plants, which is insane. That did create serious black market issues," Friednash explained.
And authorities were surprised at how quickly the market for edible cannabis products grew, compared to the traditional smoked forms of pot.
"Early on we didn’t have child-resistant packaging. We allowed edibles that were attractive to kids. We had to adjust and change over time," said Friednash.
Friednash said that legalizing pot through legislation, rather than via a constitutional amendment, gives Minnesota's leaders the opportunity to craft a system of regulations that will better prepare state agencies and law enforcement.
For instance, part of Colorado's marijuana tax revenue goes to law enforcement to train officers as drug recognition experts, or DREs, that can detect drug-impaired driving in the absence of sophisticated field chemical tests.
"In my jurisdiction we have seen a number of successful prosecutions of pure marijuana impairment or mixture between alcohol and marijuana, which is quite common for some reason particularly among undergraduates at the university of Colorado," Garnett said.
"We need to have better chemical tests. And I think we can get there. They’re not there yet."
The two Colorado visitors also recommended that the state begin gathering data as soon as possible on youth use of black market marijuana products, to policymakers can see if that trend changes after legalization.
Rep. Winkler, a Golden Valley Democrat, said the state already vigorously enforces age limits on legal projects such as alcohol and tobacco. He says the same approach would apply if recreational pot were to become legal here.
"That does not mean we will stop enforcing illegal activity related to cannabis," Winkler asserted.
"This is not an attempt to take the law away from marijuana. This is a shift, a change to regulation from a public health standpoint and make sure our current laws are being enforced."