DENVER — Tourists are buying up to 90% of the recreational pot sold in some Colorado ski towns, according to a new state analysis that says those visitors are pouring tens of millions of dollars into a marijuana economy that's far larger than first predicted.
The study prepared for state marijuana regulators says about 9% of Colorado residents are using marijuana at least once a month, and that previous estimates dramatically under counted the amount of marijuana consumed by heavy users. The study, released Wednesday, says 22% of users consume about 70% of the pot sold in Colorado, defining a heavy user as someone consuming a gram or more a day at least 21 days monthly.
The study also says Colorado residents will consume about 121.4 metric tons annually, while tourists will buy nearly 9 metric tons. A study by state tax officials earlier this year estimated the market at just 92 metric tons, and a separate study released last year estimated the market at 64 metric tons.
A metric ton contains 1 million grams, and the average joint contains about half a gram, according to the study. A significant amount of marijuana in Colorado is being sold as either pot-infused foods or hash oil, which contain concentrated THC.
"This analysis suggests that the Colorado marijuana market is larger than previously thought," the study says. "When combined, total resident and visitor demand is estimated to be approximately ... 130.3 metric tons in 2014. This is a substantially higher value than reported in previous estimates."
Colorado has collected $34.8 million in marijuana taxes and fees this fiscal year.
The study notes that recreational and medical marijuana stores will likely sell only about 77 metric tons of pot this year, with the rest sold on the black or gray markets. Only a small amount is actually grown by people for their own use, the study said.
What remains uncertain, the study said, is how the medical and recreational markets will mature over time. Taxes on medical marijuana are significantly lower than for recreational pot, and Colorado residents can get on the state's "red card" registry for just $15. Tourists can't get those red cards, however. The study's authors noted that red card holders haven't been switching to recreational marijuana because the taxes are so much higher.
"The potential demand for marijuana by out-of-state visitors could represent a significant portion of total retail demand. While many Colorado residents have medical marijuana cards allowing them to purchase at a lower tax rate and at a greater number of locations, out-of-state visitors must purchase from retail marijuana vendors exclusively," the study said. "Preliminary revenue and sales data from the Department of Revenue indicate that for some counties about 90 percent of all retail sales are likely to be from out-of-state visitors."
Colorado's ski resorts have taken great pains to remind both residents and tourists alike that smoking marijuana in public is illegal, and that it's also illegal to use it on the U.S. Forest Service lands that underlay most of the state's ski areas. Several Colorado-based companies have begun offering marijuana tours to visitors, offering to pick them up and chauffeur them to pot shops before delivering them to the ski slopes.
The study was commissioned by state marijuana regulators and conducted by the Marijuana Policy Group, a collaboration between private consultants and the University of Colorado-Boulder Business Research Division.
(Copyright © 2014 USA TODAY)