Legalizing pot: Colorado a trailblazer in drafting legal framework

On Jan. 1, Colorado became the first state in the modern world to legalize marijuana from seed to sale, making it a pioneer in setting up a regulatory framework around legalized pot.

Member of task force that set out new laws outlines controversies around child safety, DUI

Framework for legalizing pot

9 years ago
Duration 6:27
Sam Kamin explains how Colorado decided on regulations for its legalization of marijuana

On Jan. 1, Colorado became the first state in the modern world to legalize marijuana from seed to sale, making it a pioneer in setting up a regulatory framework around legalized pot.

After voters approved Colorado Amendment 64, which allows for personal use of marijuana, the state struck a task force to deal with questions such as who would regulate marijuana sale and production, how to decide who could produce the drug and what restrictions should be placed on use of the drug.

University of Denver law professor Sam Kamin sat on that task force and said one of the first considerations was safety, including the issue of how to keep it out of the hands of children.

One of the main worries was gummy bears, gummy worms and sodas made with pot.

““These things are attractive to children and we wanted to try to come up with some regulations that would minimize those risks,” Kamin said in an interview with CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange.

“Part of it is labelling, part of it is tamper-proof containers, everything has to leave the store in a sealed, opaque bag. It can’t be in packaging that looks like something for use by children,” he added.

The task force looked at alternatives such as banning bright colouring for the products, so they would look less like candies.

What agency to regulate?

 “In the end it came down to trusting the consumer to keep those things out of the reach of children, much in the way we expect them to keep prescription or non-prescription drugs , alcohol and other things out of the hands of children,” he said.

In controlling recreational marijuana use, Colorado had to consider who would be overall regulator – a health board, an alcohol and gaming agency, an industry group. It opted for the state revenue agency. But it took its ideas from other agencies who regulate alcohol, casinos and other sin industries.

In Canada’s move to legalize medical use of cannabis, our country chose a different sort of regulator – Health Canada.

Kamin said one of the most controversial issues was how to define impairment – and draw the line to say you cannot drive if you have THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, above a set limit. The difficulty came in setting that level, as marijuana metabolizes very differently in the body from alcohol and a level at which one person is impaired might leave another unaffected.

“With regard to driving, the policy was – and this was very controversial – the idea was that we needed a set drug level – if you were over that you were presumed to be under the influence,” Kamin said.

Employers were also given permission to prohibit marijuana use and impairment on the job – a critical safety issue for people who operate heavy machinery or do construction.

Who can run marijuana facility?

There were issues as to who could operate a marijuana facility, which kinds of ventilation would be required, how would quality be monitored – dozens of details that had to be hammered out in a short period before the law went into effect at the beginning of this year.

The task force eventually rejected the idea of a state-run marijuana monopoly, similar to provincial liquor boards. Colorado instead decided to set a residency requirement, as the drug is outlawed in other states, and stipulate that any grower must have a clean criminal record.

For the first nine months of 2014, the only Colorado businesses that will be selling recreational pot are those that were previously medical marijuana operations. Medical marijuana has been legalized for more than 12 years in the state.

“We have a requirement that the industry be vertically integrated, so a business that sells marijuana must also grow it.  We didn’t want a business that grows marijuana and goes around selling to whoever would buy it,” Kamin said.

Video surveillance of every stage of marijuana cultivation, processing and sale is required to enforce this regulation, he added.

Hanging over the entire process of setting regulations was the problem that at the federal level, marijuana growth and use is still outlawed, Kamin said.

Washington is following Colorado in legalizing pot, and its markets, with possibly very different regulations, are expected to open half-way through 2014.