This May, when the Colorado legislature finalized regulations for its now-legal recreational marijuana industry, it took a lot of cues from the medical marijuana system that’s been in place there since 2010. So many cues, in fact, that it can be a little hard to tell what, exactly, distinguishes a medical dispensary from the new recreational pot store next door.
For starters, Colorado’s new recreational marijuana centers are expressly forbidden from making any kind of health or medical claims. Medical dispensaries, meanwhile, aren’t allowed to talk about marijuana in recreational terms. On top of that, the new regulations give licensing preference to existing medical marijuana businesses that want to transition to the recreational market. It’s a little like having a liquor store across the street from a pharmacy that dispenses whiskey.
Taken together, Colorado’s new regulations could amount to a tacit acknowledgement that medical marijuana isn’t much different than the recreational kind. That raises some interesting questions for the 15 other states that have legalized marijuana only for medicinal use. (Most people would argue that California’s loosely regulated medical marijuana industry essentially amounts to full legalization in that state.)
Unsurprisingly, medical marijuana advocates bristle at such a characterization. They point to a growing body of research showing some medical benefits of marijuana use, as well as administrative realities like Federal Drug Administration rules preventing businesses from advertising health benefits of certain products. Full-on legalization just means you don’t need a special medical branch anymore, they say.
Still, if you want marijuana in Colorado, there’s an easy way to get it and a harder way. “I don’t know who would want to bother getting a medical marijuana ID card and go to the doctor [when] they just can go to the store if they’re 21 or over,” says Karen O’Keefe, state policy analyst at the Marijuana Policy Project. “It just makes more sense for everybody to go to the same location.”