On November 6th, 2012, the state of Colorado became one of just two U.S. states to legalize the recreational sale of marijuana with the passing of Amendment 64. The first stores to sell marijuana legally officially opened for business on January 1st, 2014. According to an e-mail from a City of Denver spokesperson, there are currently thirty-seven businesses licensed to sell recreational marijuana, in addition to citizens having the ability to grow up to six plants in private for their own consumption.

Marijuana sales are nothing new to Denver. The state of Colorado has allowed medical marijuana for more than ten years. When I moved to Denver in May 2012, I felt there were more medical marijuana retailers than Starbucks. And as it turned out, that was true. There are more dispensaries than liquor stores, Starbucks coffee shops, or public schools in Denver.

 
Map showing where medical and recreational marijuana is sold in the United States
Map showing where medical and recreational marijuana is sold in the USA

But recreational marijuana may present unique problems for urban planners in Denver.

Frosted windows conseal the interior of this medical and recreational distributor in Denver, Colorado, USA

Frosted windows conceal the interior of this medical and recreational distributor in Denver

Financial institutions are weary of dealing with marijuana retailers, forcing most marijuana suppliers to deal in cash. Institutions are weary for fear of drug and money laundering status, because recreational marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. This has created an obvious safety issue as criminal gangs hone in on these new retail locations known to have plenty of cash on hand. Due to the legalization of the plant, there has been some up-tick in marijuana-related crime. Why would someone rob a convenience store and walk away with maybe $100, when you could rob a pot store and run away with tens of thousands of dollars?

The economic development opportunity of legalizing marijuana is obvious. Amendment 64 asks all pot sales to be taxed—heavily—at 12.9%. Reports suggest over $600M in tax revenue is expected across Colorado in 2014. There is even a booming recreational marijuana tourism industry.

Financial institutions are weary of dealing with marijuana retailers, forcing most marijuana suppliers to deal in cash. Institutions are weary for fear of drug and money laundering status, because recreatioanl marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.  This has created an obvious safety issue as criminal gangs hone in on these new retail locations known to have plenty of cash on hand. Due to the legalization of the plant, there has been some up-tick in marijuana-related crime. Why would someone rob a convenience store and walk away with maybe $100, when you could rob a pot store and run away with tens of thousands of dollars? The economic development opportunity of legalizing marijuana is obvious. Amendment 64 asks all pot sales to be taxed—heavily—at 12.9%. Reports suggest over $600M in tax revenue is expected across Colorado in 2014. There is even a booming recreational marijuana tourism industry.
 
 
But the prospect of having businesses provide significant economic good to a community through the sales of a product historically sold in back-alleys and in under-the-table exchanges is a perplexing problem for planners, in addition to the safety issues.

Right now, the City of Denver regulates marijuana shops similar to other adult uses like adult video stores and liquor stores. As stated by a City of Denver spokesperson, Denver recreational marijuana retailers are not allowed to be located in residential zone districts and must be more than 1,000 feet from schools, child-care facilities, and alcohol or drug treatment facilities. Other than those restrictions, recreational marijuana shops have no additional land-use regulations over regular retail establishments.

Can urban planners create land-use schemes and opportunities around something that used to be illegal? Could pot shops be used for economic development? Does urban planning have an obligation to explore opportunities for creating better neighborhoods using pot shops? What problems have your cities dealt with in preparation for proposed legal marijuana laws?

Credits: Images and Edited Map by Jonathan Knight. Data linked to sources.