County-Level Recreational Marijuana Policies and Local Policy Changes in Colorado and Washington State (2012-2019)

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Policy Points:

  • In 2012, Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize recreational marijuana through voter-initiated ballots. In these states, counties could restrict or ban local marijuana facilities through a variety of regulatory methods such as ordinances and zoning.
  • County-level recreational marijuana policies in Washington and Colorado vary substantially, with 69.2% of Washington counties and 23.4% of Colorado counties allowing all types of recreational marijuana facilities as of April 1, 2019.
  • After Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana, many counties modified their marijuana policies over time, with shifts in county policy often preceded by advocacy and information-seeking activities.

Context: In 2012, Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. Both allowed local governments to further regulate the availability of marijuana facilities in their jurisdictions. As early adopters, these states are important quasi-natural experiments to examine local marijuana policy and policy change processes, including key stakeholders and arguments.

Methods: We conducted a policy scan of county-level recreational marijuana ordinances and regulations in Colorado and Washington. Data collected included policy documents from counties in both states and newspaper articles. We used a mixed-methods approach to describe the types of county-level recreational marijuana policies enacted by April 1, 2019; identify key policy stakeholders involved in local policy debates; and explore arguments used in support or opposition of county policies. We also selected four counties that represent three county policy environments (all marijuana facility types allowed, some marijuana facility types allowed, all marijuana facility types prohibited) and described the policy changes within these counties since recreational marijuana was legalized.

Findings: By April 1, 2019, Colorado counties were less likely than Washington counties to allow marijuana facilities—48.4% of Colorado counties prohibited recreational marijuana facilities in their jurisdiction compared to 23.1% of Washington counties. Since state legalization, several counties in both states have made substantial marijuana facility policy modifications, often preceded by information-seeking activities. Primary stakeholders involved in policy debates included elected officials, law enforcement, individual growers/farmers, marijuana business license applicants, parents, and residents. Proponents referenced local economic gain, reduced crime, and potential health benefits of marijuana as arguments in favor of permitting local facilities, whereas opponents pointed to economic loss, negative health and public health issues, public safety concerns, and existing federal law. Both sides referenced local public opinion data to support their position.

Conclusions: By early 2019, a patchwork of local marijuana policies was in place in Colorado and Washington. We identify key areas of policy and public health research needed to inform future local marijuana policy decisions, including the impact of legalization on public health outcomes (particularly for youth) and public safety.

Keywords: marijuana, cannabis, local policy, county, ordinance, regulation.

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Citation:
Payan DD, Brown P, Song AV. County-Level Recreational Marijuana Policies and Local Policy Changes in Colorado and Washington State (2012-2019). Milbank Q. August 18, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-0009.12535.