Opinion: The Cannabis Industry in Colorado is Struggling, but it Could be Worse

Since I came out to Colorado in 2019, it would be safe to say I’ve enjoyed the weed. I came from Chicago, Illinois where I’m a medical patient and where cannabis culture and legalization have manifested in very different ways than it did in Colorado. Don’t get me wrong, you all in Colorado were first, but in recent years the industry has slowed down.
Amid the continued federal prohibition and an abundance of supply but little demand following the massive upswing in consumption during the pandemic, cannabis business owners have found it difficult to keep their doors open all over the state. A lot of factors play into what is going on with Cannabis in Colorado these days but for us stoners it’s easy to find some silver linings.
Colorado was the first state in the U.S. to allow the recreational sale of marijuana back in 2012, when amendment 64 to Colorado’s constitution, for the first time, allowed for the sale, regulation, and consumption of recreational marijuana. Legalization was a landmark decision that not only allowed the citizens of Colorado to enjoy cannabis, but also spawned an industry of legal cannabis tourism, at the time unheard of in the rest of the U.S.. Legalization has been great for Colorado, as state taxes on cannabis have gone toward providing $40 million annually to the “public school capital construction assistance fund.”
Federal prohibition continues to be, objectively, the largest hurdle faced by the cannabis industry. As other states began legalizing recreational cannabis and the industry as a whole grew larger companies began operating across multiple legal states, however due to the continued federal prohibition of cannabis these companies are still prohibited from transferring any cannabis products from one state to another. Beyond the limitations it places on interstate commerce, anybody legally working in the cannabis industry in Colorado can technically be tried under federal law, although in recent years the Federal government has agreed to not provide funding for law enforcement that contradicts local state laws.
An end to federal prohibition would truly open up the industry like never before and the Biden administration is said to be working to make it a possibility by fulfilling his 2020 campaign promise to reduce federal restrictions on marijuana. As of October 2023, the DEA seems likely to approve the HHS’s recommendation that marijuana be reduced to a schedule 3 substance.
Amendment 64 that allowed the recreational sale, use, and regulation of marijuana in Colorado also stated that “Marijuana should be regulated in a manner similar to alcohol,” and I for one totally agree out of the interest of public safety. Even the most staunch marijuana supporters, myself included, must acknowledge that to regulate marijuana in a similar manner to alcohol we need a weed breathalyzer.
Well at least something like a weed breathalyzer. Last year researchers at The University of Colorado Boulder conducted a study right around the corner from my house. The “proof of concept” study, a collaboration between the university and NIST, found unlike blood alcohol concentration the presence of THC in blood does not equate to the level of intoxication one may or may not be experiencing. The findings suggest that it is unlikely that cannabis impairment can be judged off of a one breath sample. However the National Institute of Standards and Technology has offered CU a $600,000 grant to continue the research.
Stoners may scoff, but to be interested in public safety is to support the fight against impaired driving, which accounted for 47 cannabis related fatalities in car crashes during the last five years according to CDOT.
Last year I saw John Mulaney at the Macky Auditorium. Fresh out of rehab for drugs and alcohol, Mulaney’s new comedy show commented heavily on addiction and offered audience members a chance to share their own experiences with drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Muaney asked audience members to raise their hands if they’d been to an outpatient rehab facility before, calling on one young man to hear his story. The guy spoke about how he took himself to a rehab center after being involved in two cannabis related car wrecks. He admitted to regularly consuming cannabis behind the wheel as said that after his second near death experience he knew he needed help.
People can say whatever they want about cannabis and all the ways in which it is better than alcohol, it truly is a healthier vice, but any substance that causes impairment has the ability to cause irreparable harm to others on the road. Any attempt to federally regulate legal marijuana therefore requires measures put into place to protect public safety, just as they do with regards to alcohol.
None of this is to say that support for increased regulation is not favored in Colorado. Colorado has been at the tip of the spear of cannabis legalization from the very beginning and at this point the only way to sustain the increased size of Colorado’s cannabis industry would be allowing exportation to other states. The market in Colorado has been saturated with cannabis cultivators, shops, and brands who after 11 years of legalization can’t find any more new customers to justify continued growth. The pandemic saw an unprecedented increase in marijuana sales as people stocked up in order to pass long hours at home during lockdown. 2020 recreational and medical sales topped $226 million but unfortunately there seems to be no foreseeable way to reach those highs again.
It was good being the first state in the country to legalize weed, but as nationwide attitudes toward marijuana have begun to shift in favor of continued legalization, Colorado’s position as the first has come with some drawbacks. First of all the elephant in the room; Montana and Arizona’s legalization of marijuana in 2020 with New Mexico following the next year. Having been one of the only recreationally legal states for so long there is little doubt that cannabis tourism as well as illegal transportation of marijuana across state lines constituted a somewhat significant portion of Colorado’s marijuana sales.
The pandemic was great for the weed business all over the country at first, coinciding with recreational legalization in Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York between 2019 and 2023. While in Colorado, the record highs of the pandemic would be impossible to sustain in the long run.
Whenever I’m back home in Chicago it is hard not to be aghast at the culture of legal marijuana that has developed since the pandemic. I may not be from Colorado but I have seen enough to know that the regulations and corporatization that have dominated the cannabis market in Illinois seem utterly wasteful, counterproductive, and exclusionary in comparison. Yet, as of this year, Colorado has fallen to the sixth largest cannabis job market in the U.S., behind California, Michigan, and even Illinois.
As of 2023, of the six largest cannabis companies in the U.S., three are based in Chicago, Illinois, where cannabis products are sealed in wasteful packaging at the factory. Options for dispensaries are limited and ones that cater to medical patients are even more scarce. Dispensaries are usually brightly colored and nicely decorated, but there is nothing more depressing than the prices. In Chicago consumers often pay 89% more per item than in the rest of the U.S., and yet people just keep buying it. So far in 2023, Illinois cannabis retails have seen over $950 million in sales with 68% of those coming from only ten brands.
As a medical patient I get to pay almost ten times less tax on cannabis than recreational customers in Illinois, however I often find myself being gouged for an eighth in Chicago when I could buy it in Denver for a quarter the price or less. That is with a prescription.
The pandemic fueled rapid growth of the cannabis industry in Illinois because legalization simply came at the right time. Citizens of Illinois had all the time in the world to go out and try cannabis during the lockdowns of 2020. People did in Colorado too, but having had legalized recreational cannabis since 2012, between the market saturation, continued legalization in other states, and the sales bubble of the pandemic, it doesn’t seem feasible for Colorado’s weed sales to ever return to their record highs.
If federal legalization doesn't become a reality, then it’s on Colorado to find out where to go with its cannabis industry. In a move toward cultivating a more self-sufficient industry Governor Polis announced this past year that Colorado’s new Cannabis Business Office will be offering loans in order to help establish cannabis businesses that “meet the state’s social equity requirements.” Such a program would bolster Colorado’s cannabis industry by bringing in greater diversity to the industry which is already much more developed than some of its more recent peers. Because cannabis remains illegal federally, participating in business legally in Colorado comes with drawbacks like an inability to secure many loans, hence the cash only business model. Getting the funds necessary to start or sustain a cannabis business can be even harder for those who received a criminal record for dealing with marijuana in the past, but by offering them state loans, Colorado can improve its social equity in a way no other state can.
Although Colorado’s cannabis industry has entered a severe lull, it’s important to remember that the biggest is not always the best. Colorado has shown great maturity in leading the charge for cannabis legalization since 2012. While working toward a federally legalized future Colorado has always been focused on protecting its own industry and the people who work in it. Colorado’s willingness to adapt to the changing circumstances of cannabis legalization gives consumers like me the feeling that legalization is about more than profits.
I can’t say the same about Illinois. I have to say that I envy those Chicagoans who’ve never bought legal weed anywhere else, maybe they think they’re getting the best product for the best price. However, having purchased marijuana in multiple states and countries, and having cared about the culture and repairing some of the damage done in the drug war, I can say with confidence that Colorado’s example should be looked to by other states, even if it doesn’t work for everyone. Legal Cannabis in Illinois feels like a racket, it feels dirty and wrong on so many levels. Between the excessive plastic packaging, the exorbitant prices, and lack of availability of recreational marijuana in Illinois, I urge those in Colorado’s cannabis industry not to wish for the situation that is happening in Illinois even if it means more sales and more profitability.
Unlike a lot of other states, it is safe to say that Colorado not only has its own history of marijuana, it has its own history since legalization. Future lawmakers and business people alike will have missed out if they don’t look back on Colorado’s intimate history with legalized weed. How can we as a country hope to repair the social inequities caused by the war on drugs if the federal government decides to follow Illinois’s model? How can we actually impact the illegal market by offering a superior yet cost effective product instead? I don’t know the answers to these questions but I know that Colorado is closer than some other states to figuring it out.

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Boyanton, Megan Ulu-Lani. “Colorado’s Cannabis Industry Has Fallen on Hard Times. What Does the Future Hold?” The Denver Post, The Denver Post, 21 May 2023, www.denverpost.com/2023/05/21/colorado-cannabis-marijuana-weed-disp....
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