DENVER — A set of laws to govern how recreational marijuana should be grown, sold and taxed was signed into law Tuesday in Colorado, where Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper called the measures the state's best attempt to navigate the uncharted territory of legalized recreational pot.
The laws cover how the drug should be raised and packaged, with purchasing limits for out-of-state visitors and a new marijuana driving limit as an analogy to blood alcohol levels. Hickenlooper didn't support marijuana legalization last year, but he praised the regulatory package as a good first crack at safely overseeing the drug.
"Recreational marijuana is really a completely new entity," Hickenlooper said, calling the pot rules "commonsense" oversight, such as required potency labeling and a requirement that marijuana is to be sold in child-proof opaque packing with labels clearly stating the drug may not be safe.
Colorado voters approved recreational marijuana as a constitutional amendment last year. The state allows adults over 21 to possess up to an ounce of the drug. Adults can grow up to six plants, or buy pot in retail stores, which are slated to open in January.
The governor said Tuesday he believes the federal government will soon respond to the fact that Colorado and Washington state are in violation of federal drug law. But Hickenlooper didn't have a specific idea of when.
"We think that it will be relatively soon. We are optimistic that they are going to be a little more specific in their approach on this issue," Hickenlooper said. Pressed for details, the governor jokingly referred to unrelated scandals surrounding the U.S. Department of Justice.
"They've been kind of busy," Hickenlooper said.
Colorado's new marijuana laws include buying limits for out-of-state visitors. Visitors over 21 would be limited to one-fourth of an ounce in a single retail transaction, though they could legally possess the full ounce.
Colorado laws attempt to curb public use of marijuana by banning its sale in places that sell food and drink that aren't infused with the drug, an attempt to prevent Amsterdam-style pot cafes. Food laced with the drug also would have to be to-go orders.
Colorado's laws also include a first-in-the-nation requirement that marijuana magazines such as High Times be kept behind the counter in stores that allow people under 21. That provision has prompted promises by attorneys representing at least two publications to challenge the restriction, which would treat pot magazines similar to pornography.
Besides the magazine restriction, Colorado's laws differ in several more ways from proposed marijuana regulations pending in Washington state. Colorado makes no attempt to ban concentrated marijuana, or hashish, unlike Washington. Colorado also has different possession limits on edible marijuana. Colorado also is planning a brief grandfather period during which only current medical marijuana business owners could sell recreational pot.
Both states are poised to require all pot-related businesses to have security systems, 24-hour video surveillance and insurance. One of the Colorado laws signed Tuesday gives state pot businesses a chance to claim business deductions on their taxes, something currently prohibited because the industry is illegal under federal law.
Colorado's laws also propose a series of new taxes on the drug. If voters agree this fall, recreational pot would face a 15 percent excise tax, with the proceeds marked for school construction. There would also be a new recreational pot sales tax of 10 percent, in addition to regular statewide and local sales taxes. The special sales tax would be spent on marijuana regulation and new educational efforts to keep the drug away from children.
"Public safety and the safety of our children were at the forefront of our minds," said Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, the sponsor of some of the pot bills.
Lawmakers and a few dozen marijuana legalization activists on hand to see the pot bills signed into law agreed that marijuana laws will see many changes in coming years if the federal government doesn't intervene.
"We are going to be talking about marijuana in the state of Colorado for some time," predicted Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, a sponsor of the stoned-driving law.
Mason Tvert, spokesman for the national legalization advocacy group the Marijuana Policy Project, predicted a lot of states will watch to see how recreational pot regulation works in Colorado and Washington.
"We can regulate the sale of alcohol in a responsible manner, and there's no reason we can't regulate the sale of something arguably less harmful - marijuana," Tvert said.