Russell Wangersky
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Colorado raking in taxes from legalized weed

A pall hangs over Denver, Colorado. Lawlessness stalks its streets, while stupefied potheads loll on every corner, stoned senseless on legal weed.

Russell Wangersky

Well, actually, no, it’s not really like that at all. Really, it’s just another day.

Denver’s like any other big American city: on the 16th Street Mall, there are vagrants on the corners, Broncos and Patriots fans spooling around while they wait for the start of the AFC final later in the day. Coffee shops are setting out chairs in the unseasonable warmth, and a robot street performer, painted entirely silver, is making plans with friends for after the game.

At lunchtime, the bartender at the Rhein House is wrestling with the beer lines: the cooling system  has run amok, heating the lines instead. Cold beer is spraying out of the nozzles as foam. It’s going to make for a hard afternoon selling a different kind of recreational drug.

And as far as legal weed goes?

It hasn’t had much of a mark, beyond, well, money.

“Tourism and cash.” That’s the bartender’s take as he dumps out glasses of foam. “The federal government could come in and shut it down at any time, but they’re just watching the money.”

And money there is.

The taxes Colorado’s collected so far? Well, the government’s own numbers show US$12.2 million in taxes, licences and fees for December 2015 alone — $72 million in the first nine months of this fiscal year, on track for close to $100 million by the end of 2015-16. More than taxes on alcohol.

The kind of money that Canadian governments must be thinking about, especially because the federal government has promised legalization, and, with the current economic downtown, there’s not one province that couldn’t use a source of cash. Especially a source of cash that’s brand new, on a product that is currently virtually the sole preserve of criminals. There probably won’t be weed tourists, not if the legalization is nationwide — but there would be taxes, and weed stores.

The Euflora Cannabis Dispensary is like any other store on the 16th Street Mall.

Its pixillated electronic sign, as big as any other retail store’s, lights up at 10 a.m., right around the time a man spins his wheelchair to a nearby corner, carefully positions the stump of his leg, in plain and bare sight, bluntly amputated above the knee, and starts his patter: “Got any change for a one-legged man?”

Inside, the store is as sparse and clean as a cosmetics store: marijuana on display in plastic jars you can crack open and smell, $20 a gram for different strains with names like Cherry Skunk and Joker. Beside each jar, an iPad with a touch-screen menu for the different effects of each strain — the side-effects, the different types of high. With the exception of the security checking everyone’s identification at the door, it could be any store, anywhere.

Weed dispensaries have popped up all over the city, growth mirrored, fittingly, only by the number of craft brewing operations: “It was a church yesterday, now it’s a brewery,” the Rhein House bartender quips.

One street over, it’s simpler commerce: “Wanna buy my all-day bus ticket?” a woman shouts.

“I just got back from selling mine,” her intended customer calls back.

On the street, there are a handful of people outside smoking. Most of the time, it’s the sharp, familiar smell of tobacco smoke.

Other times, the heavy, pungent skunkiness of marijuana.

And in both cases, the smell of taxes rolling in.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at — Twitter: @Wangersky.

Organizations: Rhein House, 16th Street Mall.Its

Geographic location: Colorado

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Recent comments

  • Stephen  Redgrave
    Stephen Redgrave
    January 27, 2016 - 17:21

    I use to own a very successful business in Calgary Alberta. We had a diverse workforce , small by some standards---eight staff full time. There were times when some of the younger staff would smoke pot on their lunch break. After all, it's their break right? However, when they got back to their assigned printing press they would be a solid 40% slower at everything they did, and production suffered. It's a fact that although pot smokers are typically passive, and rarely rob any one for pot money--they still cost us in other ways not visible to the public. Pot smoking high school students will have a much lower grade average, unless they're in the "school of rock". No one wants or needs a pot smoker in a position of importance. They simply turn into "air heads" after smoking. So while it may generate income for the State and the merchants, it hurts the average business, reducing productivity to a bare minimum. "Smoke on the Water"

  • John Smith
    January 26, 2016 - 15:54

    ...everyday that goes by means millions of dollars nationwide goes to buying guns, prostitutes and crack...instead of schools, doctors and infrastructure...the same amount of marijuana will be consumed before and after legalization...the only difference will be who makes the money...

  • Frank McDonald
    January 26, 2016 - 12:50

    "The Euflora Cannabis Dispensary is like any other store on the 16th Street Mall." You will notice that there is no Colorado Liquor Corporation with 25 vice presidents and a dozen other assorted executives. Just private enterprise meeting the demand. The state is taxing the product then allowing the marketplace to work.

  • david
    January 26, 2016 - 10:46

    Here's the problem with your panacea premise: NL just finished proving that it can't properly manage collected via the taxation / royalty route. If it goes to the government, it's up in smoke, spent as 'free money' by myopic politicians to curry favor and win votes. NL needs an economy where people go to work and give a small fraction of their wages to government ----- the smaller the better. Pot is not nearly as addictive as 'free money' in the hands of fools, and Denver potheads are not nearly as dangerous as NL politicians.

  • The real Calvin
    January 26, 2016 - 08:14

    The big deal is the conservative American hysteria surrounding, well, everything. People will be on here soon talking about the crime associated with weed. Potheads are not the ones out holding up stores and breaking into cars. The only crime associated with weed is in fact selling it. It is a gateway drug some will say. You mean to tell me if weed didn't exist no one would every try cocaine or heroin? Alcohol causes 10 times as many problems as weed, but everyone seems to be fine with liquor stores. As Russell stated, it would be a great form of tax revenue and people who smoke occasionally would not have to be paranoid about the public criticism. The cops don't even care. If they catch you having a puff on George Street they may ask you to put it out, but that is it.

  • Fred
    January 26, 2016 - 06:34

    What's the big deal? What I do in my home is my business. I don't see any difference between having a toke and having a beer. We just have to wait until big brother says its OK and for the hysteria that has been cultivated for the past 50 years to subside..