DENVER ― Colorado’s marijuana industry soared to new highs in 2016.
According to data released Thursday by the Colorado Department of Revenue, dispensaries in the state sold $1.3 billion in medical and recreational marijuana last year, generating close to $200 million in tax revenue for the state.
For perspective, that’s slightly more than the entire 2015 GDP for the island nation of Antigua and Barbuda.
Cities in Colorado also collected millions of additional tax dollars, as each city typically tacks on extra duties in addition to state taxes.
Colorado dispensaries sold slightly over $699 million in medical and recreational marijuana in 2014, the first year sales were legal in the state. That figure leaped to $996 million in 2015.
Impressive as Colorado’s $1.3 billion market might seem, it’s a pittance compared to the $53.3 billion that consumers in North America are believed to have spent on the drug in 2016, according to Arcview Market Research. What’s more, the company estimates 87 percent of those sales occurred in the illegal market.
"[Colorado] is also reaping the invaluable public health and safety benefits of replacing an underground market with a tightly regulated system." Mason Tvert, the Marijuana Policy Project
“[Colorado’s tax revenue] is just the tip of the iceberg,” communications director Mason Tvert of the Denver-based Marijuana Policy Project told The Huffington Post in an emailed statement. “The state is also reaping the invaluable public health and safety benefits of replacing an underground market with a tightly regulated system.”
“Marijuana is now being sold in licensed businesses, rather than out on the street,” Tvert continued. “It is being properly tested, packaged, and labeled, and it is only being sold to adults who show proof of age. The system is working.”
The extra $200 million in tax revenue is nice. But compared to the state’s budgetary needs (and Colorado’s perpetually anemic education funding), it’s hardly a windfall. Of that money, $40 million has been set aside for grants to be awarded for public school construction, with the remainder going toward health care, health education, law enforcement and substance abuse prevention and treatment programs. (Here’s a flowchart explaining how marijuana is taxed, and where the proceeds are spent.)
“Marijuana tax revenue is not going to cover the state’s budget, but it is going to cover important programs and services that would otherwise be left out of it,” Tvert said.
Experts caution that Colorado’s sales may plateau in 2017 and beyond, as other states begin to legalize marijuana and market pressures exert a downward force on the wholesale price of cannabis.
“Colorado has had a really good run, being the first mover,” Miles Light, an economist with the Marijuana Policy Group, told The Denver Post’s Cannabist blog this week. “Now, as other states legalize, some of these external benefits that are occurring are going to be eroded.”
Another factor that could weigh on the industry ― or perhaps even eliminate it entirely ― is President Donald Trump’s newly confirmed attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Sessions previously called legalization of the drug “a mistake,” and said that “we need grown-ups in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized.”
“The big lesson we tell other states is you probably shouldn’t legalize marijuana if you want to make money — that’s not why you do it,” J. Skyler McKinley, deputy director of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s (D) office of marijuana coordination, told HuffPost in 2015. “You do it because you think that a regulated marketplace might be safer than an unregulated marketplace or you believe that the war on drugs didn’t work.”