What New Jersey can learn from Colorado about legalizing pot

N.J. lawmaker Jim Kennedy checks out the pipes and other wares at the Groundswell dispensary in Denver.

DENVER - When the New Jersey lawmakers arrived at the Denver International Airport a couple weeks ago, a young woman with shoulder-length dreads greeted travelers with a smile and samples of cannabis-free "Happiness Cream."

Welcome to Colorado, the first state in the U.S. to legalize marijuana for adults 21 and up. After a 2012 referendum, about 500 dispensaries have opened for business, selling cannabis buds for $99 to $225 an ounce, chocolates, cookies, and oils. However, the airport, the landing place for many visitors, offers no pot dispensaries and there is little on display to suggest that recreational marijuana is just an Uber ride away.

Opponents of the billion dollar industry say Colorado has become the mecca for potheads and point to the influx last year of 100,000 people in Denver, home to 2 million.

Republican New Jersey Gov. Christie, who calls marijuana a gateway drug, has claimed Colorado has "head shops popping up on every corner." He promised to veto legalization, saying it would ruin New Jersey's quality of life.

But a visit to Denver this month painted a fresh, vastly different portrait of the Mile-High City.

Eight New Jersey lawmakers - six Democrats and two Republicans - toured for about three days to see for themselves. How does legalization affect culture, business climate and crime, and is the $500 million New Jersey could collect in annual tax revenues from pot sales worth it?

Exhibit One: the airport. The Happiness products and a "Munchies" sign above snacks that were for sale were among the few hints that Colorado has embraced pot. Dispensaries are concentrated in downtown Denver and Boulder.

"The airport put a ban on dispensaries and wouldn't allow any cannabis smoking lounges," said Saray Brunett, the salesperson at Taspen's Organics kiosk. She said the kiosk owner is applying for a license to add cannabis to other products they sell offsite.

Brunett said she uses "Golden" cannabis at home because it brings euphoria but doesn't cause "cloudiness" that would interfere with her job.

The cannabis business, though booming, is subtle and tucked away in many places. The colorful "Marijuana Tourism Map" put out by Kush Tours is not among the hundreds of brochures displayed at hotels, car rental places and the airport. A Denver Avis representative said that pamphlet, which marks 27 locations in the city, is kept behind the counter and provided to visitors who ask, due to instructions from corporate.

Only two dispensaries have opened along the popular 16th Street Mall, a mile-long pedestrian-only district in Denver. Since Colorado law bans public consumption and there's a police presence, people are rarely seen smoking joints on the streets.

"It's like any other city," New Jersey Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg, a Republican from Medford, Burlington County, said during the trip.

At the LivWell dispensary on Pearl Street, customers had to produce a photo ID, sign in and then be ushered into a locked back room where salespeople would open jars of buds to allow a whiff to help them choose a strain. The salesman said his favorite is Tangerine Man, recommended by Snoop Dogg.

Video cameras recorded each transaction.

At the gas station next door, Scott Duggan, 36, an industrial design student who was filling his tank, said he thinks legal cannabis helps people with health issues and also reduces crime. "If you keep it from people, then all the money will go to the black market," he said, adding he doesn't use marijuana.

Still, legalization has created a few issues, Duggan said, including the congestion created by the population increase. Colorado is "still hashing things out and figuring it out. . . It's a learning process like anything else society takes on that's new," he said.

On Nov. 8, Denver voters will be asked to tweak the law to allow businesses and coffee shops to designate areas for smoking cannabis. Duggan predicts it will pass.

New Jersey Sen. Nicholas Scutari, who led the fact-finding journey, was impressed with Denver. A Union County Democrat, Scutari plans to introduce a legalization bill soon. He says it likely won't become law until Christie's term ends in January 2018.

Currently, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are among the 25 states that have approved medical marijuana programs.

But recreational marijuana is the next big thing. Besides Colorado, three other states - Oregon, Washington and Alaska - and Washington D.C. have legal pot.

But on Nov. 8, voters in Massachusetts and Maine will decide whether their states will become the first on the East Coast to end cannabis prohibition. California, Arizona and Nevada will also pose the question to voters that day. If the Yes votes win all those states, one-fourth of the U.S. population would have accessible recreational marijuana.

On the flip side, voters in Pueblo County, Colorado will decide whether to ban all cannabis businesses there, even existing ones, by next fall. Anti-pot groups initiated the ballot question, saying the businesses have increased homelessness and crime.

Though the federal government still deems marijuana illegal, U.S. officials have said they will not enforce the prohibition in states with cannabis programs.

New Jersey lawmakers met with Colorado regulators, legislators and law enforcement and learned it is better to legalize marijuana by passing a law than through a constitutional amendment. Laws can be more easily modified, they said.

The eight N.J. lawmakers say they are leaning in favor of such a bill.

The Colorado officials also discussed rules for for childproof packaging and restrictions on advertising to keep children and teens from being enticed by pot, which experts say can harm their brains.

Teen abuse is relatively the same as before legalization; businesses are thriving and the new law has not significantly increased crime, according to reports they received. There is not sufficient data yet to determine if there has been a rise in the homeless population and if there is an increase, is it because of the cannabis industry.

On major highways between Denver and Boulder, no billboards touted pot or the dispensaries.

In Boulder, resident David Kane stopped to chat while strolling down Pearl Street with his five-year-old daughter, Morgan, riding atop his shoulders. Legalization, he said, has "goods and bads."

He voted for it but sometimes worries Morgan will grow up thinking pot is okay.

"I think it will increase teen use," Kane, 55, said. "But then, it's like alcohol. When I was a kid, we would drink. And I used marijuana in college."

Legalization was "a formality," not a culture shift in Colorado, he said. Now, parents wrestle with what to tell their kids, though teaching children about the dangers of alcohol is also challenging, he said.

Medical experts say marijuana is less addictive than alcohol.

Kane, who does not use marijuana, said the influx of people is another concern. It seems there are many more homeless people since legalization, he said, but Google's expansion has also attracted people.

A consultant for Native American tribes, Kane said that when he travels to California he sees the many advertisements of anti-marijuana groups.

"They paint Colorado as a dark place with problems," he said. "But I don't think it is. . . Alcohol is a problem too and that's everywhere."

jhefler@phillynews.com

856-779-3224 @JanHefler