The Vegas of weed is born 

City Sage

Last September, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 7.3 percent of Americans ages 12 or older regularly used marijuana in 2012, up from 7 percent in 2011 and 5.8 percent in 2007. Also in 2012, 52.1 percent of those 12 and older regularly used alcohol.

Those stats suggest the marijuana market is still in its infancy. But the kid is growing fast (pun intended). As the Denver Post reported last week:

"Only one week into Colorado's history-making recreational marijuana industry, one shop has already sold out of pot, others fear they may soon join it and perhaps as many as 100,000 people have legally purchased marijuana at Colorado stores. Industry advocates estimate Colorado stores have already done more than $5 million in sales — including $1 million on New Year's Day — though National Cannabis Industry Association executive director Aaron Smith acknowledges those are 'back-of-the-envelope' figures. The owner of one store said she expects to make as much in sales in the first 10 days of January as she did all of last year selling medical marijuana."

The arc of marijuana industry growth may compare to that of the gaming industry. In 1931, Nevada legalized casino gambling. Not much happened until the mid-1940s, when the Mob sought new markets in the West. For the next 40 years, Nevada enjoyed a legal gambling monopoly, and the money rolled in. Lawmakers in other states scoffed at such immorality and licentiousness — surely the God-fearing residents of their states would never permit such a thing!

But attitudes changed. Politicians took notice, quickly figuring out that their constituents might pretend to hate gambling, but they really hate taxes. So why not legalize some form of gambling, tax it heavily, and devote the proceeds to worthy governmental programs: parks, schools, historic preservation, whatever?

Today, 43 states have lotteries, state-run gambling enterprises featuring scratch-off games, Lotto and daily games. In addition, 45 states participate in multi-state lotteries such a Powerball and Mega Millions. True to the spirit of Texas Guinan's immortal remark — "Never give a sucker an even break" — the odds of winning a progressive jackpot are such that your odds of winning if you buy a ticket are not much better than your odds of finding the winning ticket blowing down the street.

Odds to win Mega Millions: 1 in 258,890,850. Powerball: 1 in 175,223,510.

Once states lost their gambling virginity to lotteries, the next step was easy: Now, 42 states have commercial and/or Indian casinos. According to the American Gaming Association, in 2012 the commercial casino industry had gross gambling revenue of more than $37 billion, paid $13 billion in wages and benefits and $8.6 billion in taxes. Lottery sales totaled $78 billion.

Lotteries might be compared to medical marijuana. It may have taken decades for Colorado advocates of legalization to persuade the voters to approve medical marijuana, but once the industry was established, retail dope came along in less than four years. If that pattern holds true throughout the country, we're in for a long, strange trip.

Firearms are dangerous, expensive and essentially useless — and tens of millions of Americans own them. Alcohol abuse may have contributed to 40,000 deaths in 2012 (excluding accidents), but most adults enjoy a drink or two. Opponents of legalization claim marijuana use will skyrocket and they're probably right. We're Americans — we like guns, gambling, gin and ganja!

So forget about today's boutique-y marijuana industry. A growing, heavily taxed and regulated market will require the same efficiencies in marketing and distribution that characterize alcohol and tobacco. Why pay Xcel to power indoor grows, when the sun is free? You don't grow tobacco in warehouses, and you don't brew Coors Light in craft breweries. Scale up, scale up!

Private and state interests converge at a single shining goal: more money. Both can realize that goal through lower prices and expanded markets. Colorado can be to legal weed what Nevada is to legalized gambling, Silicon Valley to information technology, Detroit to cars. But we'd better move fast ... in the words of an old radio commercial, "Call for Philip Morris!"

The future is bright for Denver, the Las Vegas of legalization. Not so much for Colorado Springs, but we'll always have Manitou for ganja, Cripple Creek for casinos and Denver for jobs ...



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