The 36% dilemma of legal marijuana in Colorado

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Grand Junction’s plans to hold another vote on possibly allowing legal marijuana sales in the City reminds me of a saying I sometimes use: “You know, marijuana is actually only legal in 64% of Colorado.”

Most people react to this statement with legitimate confusion. Then I remind them that 36% of Colorado is federal land and marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Recent events indicate that the incoming Biden administration is going to have their hands full, but addressing this disconnect between state and federal marijuana laws needs to be somewhere on the new president’s “to do” list.

When I first came to Colorado in 1980 to live the skier’s life in Steamboat Springs, marijuana was “decriminalized,” but not “legalized.” I must admit that I preferred that system. If you were caught with less than one ounce of marijuana in your possession in those days, it was assumed that you had the marijuana only for your own personal use and you received the equivalent of a traffic ticket.

I find legalization to be far more problematic. It has led to the rise of an entire industry surrounding the production and sale of marijuana. Even if we were to discover major problems with marijuana usage, this nascent industry gives legal marijuana a level of permanence that would be extremely difficult to undo. Despite what I may think, the voters of Colorado have spoken (along with the voters in a majority of other states) and it appears that legal marijuana is here to stay. Given that fact, it seems incumbent on the federal government to do their part to make this system work in the best interests of all concerned.

One obvious problem with marijuana remaining illegal under federal law involves the banking system. Most bank deposits are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). With marijuana illegal under federal law, many banks do not want to jeopardize their FDIC backing by accepting deposits from marijuana retail outlets. As a result, we end up with marijuana shops sitting on a mountain of cash or transporting large amounts of cash from one location to another without the easy ability to make a deposit. There are reports that banks are now somewhat more receptive to marijuana-related deposits, but it really seems that the entire banking system should be open to such deposits in order to avoid the public safety danger that results from having a huge amount of cash in your local pot shop.

And then we get back to that 36% of Colorado that is federal land. I think if any of our U.S. attorneys were in a position to speak frankly, they would say that they want to bust people growing marijuana on federal lands, but they may not want to prosecute cases against a couple of folks who are sitting around a campfire on public lands smoking a joint. And from a practical perspective, this makes perfect sense.

But for the federal law enforcement officer in the field, the messages are mixed. As long as marijuana is illegal under federal law, the natural instinct for many of our federal law enforcement personnel would be to write a citation to those hypothetical folks sitting around the campfire with a joint. And yet on the contrary, I’m told that many federal law enforcement personnel in Colorado now don’t write citations for personal marijuana use unless the violation is “flagrant.” It seems to me that we need much better alignment between our federal and state marijuana laws to avoid what is currently a very ambiguous situation.

In Colorado, we have an additional elephant in the room that often gets ignored when talking about legalized marijuana: the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. TABOR makes it very difficult to raise much-needed public money at the state and local government levels to support things like better roads, improved schools, better rural broadband service, and a host of other things. I would personally prefer to see Colorado eliminate the TABOR Amendment rather than expand marijuana sales in a desperate effort to enlarge the pool of public money needed by state and local governments.

With or without TABOR, we are presently stuck with a conflict between state and federal marijuana laws. Fixing this situation seems not only doable, but also likely to work for the best of all us living in a state that has already voted to legalize marijuana. While I wouldn’t really expect to find this issue in the “first 100 days” plan of the Biden administration, hopefully we can muster the resolve to correct this problem during the next four years.

Bruce Noble recently retired after a 33-year career with the National Park Service. He was most recently the superintendent for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area near Gunnison. He lives in Grand Junction.

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