A bud tender at Northern Lights packages product for a customer.  In the jars on the shelves behind her, the buds for sale to recreational users are kept separate from marijuana intended for medical smokers, as is required by state law.  

(Photo: CPR/Megan Verlee)

Colorado's rollout of legalized marijuana has been a notable success, a new report from the Brookings Institution says, and the report's author credits an unlikely factor: the federal war on drugs.
 
Researcher John Hudak's report summarizes the state government's implementation of marijuana legalization. He credits, among other factors, willing leadership, a realistic timeline, and, perhaps most interestingly, the ever-present threat of Washington. Marijuana possession and use remains, of course, illegal under federal law.
 
Members of the industry realize that if inadequate regulation leads to serious public policy problems, public support may plummet. Moreover, the threat of federal intervention—however defined—looms large over the legal marijuana market in Colorado, and that threat induces members of the industry to push for and comply with regulations. “Industry has incentives to abide by the rules,” Michael Elliott of the Marijuana Industry Group explains. 
 
A common observation in my interviews was that the federal threat improved compliance, brought industry to the table, motivated firms to play by the rules, induced the industry to see the need for regulation, and facilitated communication between industry and regulators. The state’s largely smooth and cooperative rollout of legalization has had an assist from the unlikeliest of places: Washington’s war on drugs.
 
In Aug. 2013, the federal Justice Department said it expects states like Colorado to implement strong regulatory and enforcement systems. "A system adequate to that task must not only contain robust controls and procedures on paper; it must also be effective in practice. 
 
The report also touches on challenges regulators face now -- especially the problems surrounding edibles. Hudak notes that while the state has avoided many pitfalls, existing clean air laws have created some unintended consequences:
 
For a visitor to Colorado—even one who did not purchase marijuana—those incentives are clear. Upon arriving in Denver, I checked into my hotel, where staff explained I would have to pay a fee of several hundred dollars if the scent of smoke was found in my room. Moreover, the public use of marijuana remains illegal in the state. Denver also bans smoking clubs. Thus, if I went to Denver with the hope of smoking marijuana, I would need to use someone’s home. On the other hand, I could have easily purchased an edible and consumed it in my hotel room without incurring any penalties at all. And when it comes to edibles, tourists tend to be naïve users—the highest-risk group.