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Legal Pot Is Here, But Stash The Wallet For Now

Marijuana plants flourish under the lights at a grow house in Denver, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012. Marijuana legalization votes this month in Colorado and Washington state don't just set up an epic state-federal showdown on drug law for residents. The measures also opens the door for marijuana tourism.

President Jimmy Carter, with his special assistant for health issues, Dr. Peter Bourne, beside him, talks briefly to reporters at the White House in Washington Tuesday, August 2, 1977, about his drug abuse control message to Congress. Among other things, he called for the elimination of all federal criminal penalties for the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana.

Audio

Aired 11/24/12

On Election Day, voters in Colorado and Washington state legalized the use of marijuana for adults. What's next?

No, really, what happens now?

Residents in the Mile-High State are already looking to buy, says William Breathes, a professional pot critic for the Denver alternative weekly Westward. (By the way, that's a pen name, for reasons that may be obvious.)

"I was in a shop the day after the amendment had passed here, and the shop owners were getting calls left and right from people asking if they could just come in and buy marijuana legally," Breathes tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "People are just expecting to be able to walk into these medical stores right away."

But they can't -- at least not until next year. Like Washington, Colorado still needs to set up a regulatory framework to handle what is expected to be a big expansion of its marijuana market, even though the state already has more medical marijuana dispensaries than it has Starbucks.

The growth of that industry has been remarkable to watch, Breathes has written. Three years ago he was hard-pressed to find pot more potent than bud from a dedicated grower with a few basement lamps.

"But now you see some really beautiful product in the stores," he says. "Some really well-grown medicine. And also, prices have come down." From nearly $400 an ounce in 2009 to around $250 today, he says.

When legalization is fully implemented, prices could fall even further.

"There's a big market for it. I think people really want to get out and get to these shops," Breathes says. "It's pretty interesting and really liberating to go into a store and purchase marijuana legally. It's just a matter of seeing who's going to step up and open the first recreational shop."

That's because it could open the door to a clash between the state and federal government, which still classifies pot as an illegal drug.

But with Colorado and Washington's new legislation -- and with Rhode Island and Maine, where lawmakers plan to introduce legalization bills next year -- Daily Beast reporter Tony Dokoupil says the question of legalized marijuana across the nation is not whether, but when.

"2014," he says. "Big pot is here."

Rebounding From Reagan

The push toward legalization may seem like a modern movement. But Peter Bourne, who served as President Jimmy Carter's drug czar in the late 70s, says it's been a long time coming.

"The [Carter] administration's position basically was that the penalty for marijuana use did infinitely more damage to people and their lives than the drug did," Bourne says.

So Carter asked Congress to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, and suggested states be free to legalize if they chose. Pro-legalization advocacy groups ran ads on television in support of the president. Legalization seemed inevitable.

"Yes, I did think that, then," Bourne says. Then came the Reagan administration.

Reagan famously called pot the most dangerous drug in the United States. And by the end of the 80s, Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign had made the issue of legalization far less popular.

"Which, to me," Bourne says, "is equivalent to telling somebody who's depressed to have a nice day."

Reagan successfully changed the national conversation around marijuana use, Bourne says. But before that happened, big tobacco companies were poised to get in on the act.

"I was in fairly regular discussion with the tobacco people," Bourne says. "They very clearly had contingency plans that they developed to grow and market marijuana should it be legalized."

Big Weed And Room To Grow

Does that mean, now that legal pot is here, cigarette companies will dust off their old plans for mass commercialization?

Tony Dokoupil, a reporter for Newsweek and the Daily Beast who's written about the changing legal status of marijuana, says they'd like to -- if history is any indication.

In the '70s, he says, "There were high-level conversations about adding marijuana to tobacco, creating a line of marijuana cigarettes, and being ready to jump in and market this."

As recently as 1993, when it looked like France was poised to legalize marijuana, Philip Morris trademarked the name "Marley." But when the estate of Bob Marley complained, the company claimed it had nothing to do with the reggae singer.

"Philip Morris said, 'No no, it could be any kind of Marley!'" Dokoupil says, like Jacob Marley -- the cheap, cantankerous teetotaler from A Christmas Carol.

Cigarette companies are staying mum on whether customers could see Marley-like products in the U.S. anytime soon. But Dokoupil says the regulatory market such products would enter into -- once it was created -- could look a lot like the for-profit regulatory model in Colorado now.

"There's a ban on advertising," he explains. "There are cameras that track the marijuana from bloom to end-consumer, so the diversion into the black market is limited. There are extensive background checks on people who are part of the marketplace -- so if you want to open a marijuana shop, you have to go through an extensive background check."

And once that model is in place, the consumer side of things might look a lot like Starbucks.

"I think you will have a variety of products at different levels of intensity, exactly like Starbucks," Dokoupil says. "You might be able to walk in there, and in the case they'll have 12 different strains of cannabis. Behind the counter there might be hash. There might be edibles, like fizzy drinks or brownies. There could be a hotdog wheel turning. You could put THC in anything."

And, according to Breathes -- the professional marijuana critic -- legal weed could even draw tourism to states that offer it.

"I got a lot of emails from people really excited about this, " he says. "They're looking forward to visiting Colorado now."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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