Two Years After Legalizing Marijuana Sales, What Has Happened?

05 July, 2016

Two years ago the U.S. states of Washington and Colorado became the world's first legal marketplaces for recreational marijuana. In other words, people in those states can now legally use marijuana for pleasure, not just for medicine.

A man VOA is calling "Ryan" is one of them. He is at a marijuana store in Denver. He shows a store worker a document that shows he is over 21 years old.

Ryan is buying about a small amount of marijuana. It will be placed in a container that is difficult for children to open.

Almost everywhere else in the United States, Ryan could be arrested for buying marijuana. And workers at the store could be arrested for selling it to him.

"In the past, I would have to go to the black market. But now I can freely go to any shop that I please and I can really pick someone that I feel comfortable with as opposed to going and calling a random number that I would have no idea where it's going."

One of the effects of making marijuana legal, Ryan says, is that buying it feels safer and more comfortable.

Pot problems

Police, advocates and researchers also want to know the effects of making recreational marijuana legal.

VOA spoke to a leader of the Boulder County Sheriff's group that fights illegal drugs. He says that if they follow the rules like any other business, marijuana stores do not cause problems. But those who grow marijuana illegally do.

The police officer works undercover, so he did not want VOA use his real name or voice. But he explained that his office receives many reports of people illegally smoking marijuana in public, driving after they have smoked, or selling the drug to people younger than 21.

The officer also says criminals come to Colorado, rent several houses to grow marijuana, then transport the drug out of the state to earn a higher price.

And, he says, many people call to complain about their neighbors growing or smoking so much pot that the smell disturbs them.

The officer says these marijuana-related problems add to the problems police already deal with, and stretch the resources of the department.

More pot = more crime?

Yet federal law enforcement agencies have found that marijuana-related arrests in Colorado have dropped by almost 50 percent since selling the drug became legal. And, they say, the overall crime rate in the state has not changed much.

These reports show that Colorado's experience is a success, some advocates say. Jason Thomas is a spokesperson for a group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He and his group want to make all drugs legal across the country.

He says current federal laws punish non-violent drug users too severely. Does it seem fair, he asks, that having or selling a drug like marijuana could result in being put in prison for years?

Thomas suggests that some drugs should be sold at a store and others should be more regulated. For example, he says marijuana should be treated differently than cocaine. And similarly, he says, marijuana-related crimes should be treated differently than cocaine-related ones.

People and money

Researchers are also watching Colorado's experiment with legalizing marijuana. They want to know if more young people are using pot now that it is legal.

A study by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, reported by The Washington Post newspaper, says no.

The study found that, before marijuana became legal in Colorado, 1 in 4 teenagers there reported using it within the last month. After the drug was legalized, 1 in 5 teenagers reported using it within the month.

In other words, the rate did not change much. If anything, it went down. And, researchers note the current rate is also slightly below the national average.

However, experts say more adults -- about 1 in 7 -- use marijuana in Colorado now that it is legal.

And what about the money?

Time magazine reports Colorado has collected an estimated $70 million in taxes on marijuana sales in the past two years -- that is a lot of money. And there is some evidence that some people are traveling to the state, and spending tourist dollars, because they can legally buy marijuana there.

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Correspondent Shelley Schlender reported this story from Denver, Colorado. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the story for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

recreational – adj. used for pleasure instead of for medical purposes

container – n. an object (such as a box or can) that can hold something

black market – n. a system through which things are bought and sold illegally

random – adj. chosen or done without a particular plan or pattern

undercover – adj. done or working in a secret way in order to catch criminals or collect information

stretch – v. to cause or force (something) to be used for a longer time or for more purposes than originally planned or expected

prohibition – n. the act of not allowing something to be used or done