Our Guide to Colorado Marijuana Laws

When a majority of voters supported passage of Amendment 64 on November 6, 2012, Colorado became one of the first two states in the country to legalize recreational marijuana use. Along with Washington on that same date, Colorado defied federal law and made it legal for adults 21 and over to buy and consume marijuana purchased from state-licensed stores.

Since opening its first recreational retail stores only 13 months later (well before Washington), the cannabis industry in Colorado has been thriving. This is largely due to the fact that the regulations governing the industry are far less restrictive in Colorado than elsewhere. But the rules and regulations that allow Colorado residents considerable freedom are not applicable to visitors and tourists, so it’s a good idea to read on if you live elsewhere and are planning a marijuana-related vacation to the Centennial State.

How Colorado Got Legal

Certain areas of the state–including Denver and Boulder–have a long history of cannabis activism and support for legalization. In fact, the Boulder campus of the University of Colorado was once the site of an annual gathering that routinely drew crowds of 10,000 marijuana advocates before the university began closing its campus to the event in 2012.

This long history of advocacy makes it only fitting that Colorado became one of the first states in the nation to legalize cannabis, a voting choice that stands in stark contrast to the fact that Colorado played a pivotal role in federal prohibition in the early 20th century.

Marijuana Law Milestones
  • March 30, 1917: Cannabis is criminalized in Colorado.
  • October 8, 1937: Denver resident and unemployed laborer, Samuel Caldwell, becomes the very first person arrested and prosecuted under federal law for selling marijuana.
    • He was found with 3 pounds of cannabis in a bust by federal agents at the Lexington Hotel in Denver.
  • November 7, 2000: 54% of voters approve Amendment 20, which allows for possession and use of medical marijuana in Colorado.
    • Patients need written medical consent to visit medicinal dispensaries.
  • February 27, 2012: A proposed initiative legalizing the sale, possession, and use of recreational marijuana is found to be sufficient by the Secretary of State and is placed on the November 2012 ballot.
  • November 6, 2012: Colorado voters approve Amendment 64, which ends marijuana prohibition in the state.
    • The Amendment was supported and passed by 55% of voters.
    • We’ll provide more detail on what the law entails later, but basically:
      • Amendment 64 legalized possession and use of small amounts of marijuana by adults 21 and over, and
      • Created a legal recreational marijuana industry
  • April, 2013: The Colorado Court of Appeals rules that, because marijuana is still illegal under federal law, employers in the state can sidestep Colorado’s legalization and use the federal standard to ban off-the-job use of marijuana by workers.
  • September, 2016: The Cato Institute publishes a study conducted to assess the impact of marijuana legalization in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.
    • The study concluded that legalization has had little effect on marijuana use and that related outcomes predicted by opponents (increased drug us among teens, increased crime rates, diminished traffic safety, etc.) have not materialized.
The Steps to Legal Sales

Once Amendment 64 was passed by voters in 2012, possession and private use of cannabis became legal in Colorado. However, it was more than a year later–on New Year’s Day 2014, to be exact–when the first retail marijuana stores opened to the public and the aptly-named Colorado “Green Rush” began.

  • December 10, 2012: Amendment 64 is officially adopted and made a part of the state constitution. Private cannabis use is made legal.
    • Governor John Hickenlooper orders the creation of a Task Force that will oversee the implementation of Amendment 64 and craft the rules and regulations that will govern the new industry.
  • August 29, 2013: US Attorney General Eric Holder announces the Department of Justice will allow Colorado and Washington to proceed with their plans to legalize marijuana.
  • March 13, 2013: Governor Hickenlooper’s Amendment 64 Task Force submits their recommendations on how to move forward in implementing the Amendment.
  • September 9, 2013: The Colorado Department of Revenue adopts final regulations for the licensing and establishment of retail stores.
  • May 28, 2013: Notable taxes are proposed by the state consisting of:
    • A 15% marijuana general tax
    • A 10-15% marijuana sales tax
      • The hefty taxes are opposed by marijuana advocacy groups including NORML
  • November 5, 2013: Only a 10% marijuana sales tax is approved.
    • This is in addition to the 2.9% general state sales tax and any local sales taxes.
  • January 1, 2014: A total of 37 recreational marijuana stores officially open to the public across the state.
  • January 8, 2014: It is announced that marijuana sales exceed $5 million in the first week of legalization.
  • 2015: Sales of marijuana in Colorado just miss the $1 billion mark.
  • December 12, 2016: According to the state’s Department of Revenue, $1.1 billion of marijuana and related products were sold in just the first 9 months of the year.
The National Context

So how is Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana seen on a federal level?

  • Since marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance at a federal level, many residents of Colorado and Washington held their breaths after legalization, waiting to see whether the Department of Justice would step in and play a role in state-level processes.
  • But, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a memo to the governors of both states that the DOJ would not interfere and planned to allow the laws to go into effect.
  • Those working for drug policy reform say the approval of Amendment 64 dramatically boosts the movement’s political clout on a national level and adds to the pressure on the federal government to allow each state to decide on its own regulations.
  • Tom Angell, Chairman of the drug policy reform group called Marijuana Majority, claims that the end of federal marijuana prohibition is now only a matter of time and that policies related to it will be a much bigger issue in Washington DC now that more states are legalizing marijuana.
  • The confirmation of Alabama senator Jeff Sessions as the Attorney General in February 2017 creates some anxiety among marijuana reform advocates since he can choose to uphold or rescind the U.S. Justice Department’s August, 2013 memo suggesting that U.S. attorneys not prioritize marijuana-related convictions.
  • You can learn more about the current administration’s thoughts on state legalization by reading this article.

And how does it fit in with other legalization movements around the country?

  • Many states (especially Alaska and Oregon) watched Colorado and Washington closely to see how they implemented the initiatives that were passed, and how well their differing approaches worked (you can read up on Washington’s marijuana laws here).
    • Colorado and Washington were viewed as both trailblazers and guinea pigs in the complex world of marijuana regulation.
      • Colorado chose to take a more relaxed, strongly pro-marijuana stance while Washington implemented their initiative more conservatively.
  • With legalization now in place in 8 states and the District of Columbia, the national market for marijuana is projected to reach $7 billion by the end of 2017 and $22 billion by 2022.
  • More and more states are expected to place legalization measures on the ballot in the coming elections.
  • Read all about the current status of marijuana in all the states over at NORML.

The Law in Colorado

Personal Use

These are the rules:

  • Marijuana, just like alcohol, is for adults only. You must be at least 21 years old to purchase products from a recreational marijuana store.
  • Any adult can make purchases–even out of state visitors.
    • However, visitors have lower buying limits than Colorado residents (see below for the details).
  • All recreational products must be consumed in Colorado.
  • Marijuana is not allowed inside airports and cannot be taken on planes, even in checked bags.
    • Airports in Colorado Springs and Aspen have installed “amnesty boxes” where forgetful fliers can deposit marijuana before entering security.
  • The most you can purchase at any one time is:
    • Colorado residents – 1 ounce
    • Visitors – 1⁄4 ounce
  • The most you can possess at any one time as a resident OR a visitor is 1 ounce.
  • Adults can grow up to 6 plants for personal use.
    • Up to 3 of these plants can be in the flowering stage.
    • A household of two or more adults can cultivate a total of 12 cannabis plants.
  • You can share or give 1 ounce or less of marijuana to someone 21 or over as long as no money changes hands.
  • You can learn more about Colorado’s laws and penalties over at NORML or get an overview of the laws from the City of Denver.
A Word About Medical Marijuana

With the passage of Amendment 64, it might seem that the medical marijuana system that was established in Colorado in 2000 would no longer be necessary. But it remains in existence for those who qualify under certain medical conditions and gives those patients important added benefits. Here’s an overview of medical marijuana in Colorado:

  • To purchase or obtain medical marijuana, you are required to apply for and be issued a “red card” by the state.
  • In order to apply for a red card, patients must get a recommendation from a doctor who can document that the patient “suffers from a debilitating medical condition that may benefit from medical marijuana.” These conditions include:
    • Cancer
    • Glaucoma
    • Nausea
    • HIV or AIDs
    • Epilepsy
    • Seizures
    • Chronic pain
    • Chronic nervous system disorders
  • Patients possessing red cards can obtain marijuana from:
    • State-licensed dispensaries
    • A primary caregiver
      • Colorado requires that the caregiver be 18 years or older and someone who has been formally designated as the patient’s caregiver
      • Patients are restricted to only one primary caregiver
      • Caregivers must be registered with the state
    • Self grow
      • Patients can grow up to 6 plants for personal use.
        • Up to 3 of these plants can be in the flowering stage.

Here’s how medical marijuana regulations, as opposed to recreational marijuana regulations, work in favor of patients:

  • Patients do not pay the additional marijuana sales taxes that are paid by recreational customers.
    • This means the cost of medical marijuana is significantly lower.
  • Patients can possess up to 2 ounces of usable cannabis, which is double the recreational limit.
  • Medical marijuana sales remain legal in some Colorado municipalities that have banned recreational sales.
  • To learn more about medical marijuana in Colorado, including how to apply for a red card, visit the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment.
Buying Marijuana

You’re 21 years old and want some marijuana. Where can you get it?

  • Adults 21 and over can only buy marijuana at licensed retail shops. That means:
    • No delivery services
    • No internet sales
    • No food trucks or restaurants selling marijuana-infused dishes
      • Note that some cities and municipalities have banned recreational marijuana sales altogether
  • Licensed retail shops have become more plentiful since the first stores opened in 2014, but 71% of the Colorado’s 321 jurisdictions continue to ban all medical or retail marijuana dispensaries, according to Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division.
    • But it should still be fairly easy to find a retail source since, as of early 2017, there are over 600 storefronts you can walk into to buy medical or retail marijuana.
    • That is more than triple the number of Starbucks locations in the state.
  • As another reminder, all recreational marijuana purchased in Colorado must be consumed in Colorado.
    • There have been widespread reports that law enforcement in neighboring states often sit in wait near state lines to nab anyone who doesn’t follow the letter of the law, so be sure you don’t leave Colorado while possessing marijuana.
What to Expect at the Store
  • Shops are allowed to be open from 8 AM to 12 AM.
    • Certain cities and municipalities have different rules. For example, in Denver, stores must close at 7 PM.
  • A doorman checks IDs before you buy, just like at a bar.
  • An ever-increasing variety of strains and edibles are becoming available.
  • There are no free samples.
  • Opened marijuana products are not allowed inside stores.
  • And neither is consumption. Just like opening a bottle in a liquor store is illegal, lighting up in a marijuana store is as well.
  • Certain kinds of paraphernalia–like pipes, bongs, and storage containers–will be on hand for purchase.
  • Other kinds of paraphernalia–for example, extraction equipment–will have to be purchased elsewhere.
  • Be prepared to pay cash since stores do not take credit cards or checks. But most stores will have an ATM on-site for customer convenience.
  • Be aware that many medical dispensaries converted their licenses to recreational licenses.
    • Some stores function as both medicinal and recreational marijuana sources.
    • In these cases, the store may have separate sections and/or different products for medical marijuana patients who possess a red card.
    • These sections and/or products will be clearly marked in some way designating them as “medical only.”

So now that you’ve bought marijuana, where can you smoke it?

  • It’s legal to smoke marijuana in Colorado if you are:
    • On private property
    • Outside the view of the general public
  • If you own a home, you are free to consume your marijuana there
  • If you rent, this could be problematic if your residence is a non-smoking one or if your landlord has rules against marijuana use on his or her property
  • If you’re a tourist, this is an even bigger problem since marijuana cafes or smoking lounges are still prohibited and hotels are not allowed to have more than 25% of their total rooms designated as smoking rooms.
  • Fortunately, some private clubs have now opened that sell day memberships to tourists
  • And more and more 420 friendly lodging is becoming available

You can’t smoke marijuana:

  • In public
  • In view of the general public (in Denver, this includes hotel balconies)
  • At the retail shop where you bought it
  • Anywhere smoking is banned:
    • Which includes bars, restaurants, many hotels, and many places of business
    • Concerts and sporting events
    • Anywhere it is prohibited to have an open container of alcohol
    • Which includes your vehicle
  • On federal land, which includes:
    • Ski resorts (many ski resorts lease federal land, making marijuana possession and consumption on the property illegal)
    • National parks
    • Federal courthouses
    • National monuments
    • Military bases
    • On some Indian reservations

If caught smoking marijuana somewhere that it is banned, you will not go to jail. You’ll simply be asked to cease your consumption and you may be fined a maximum of $100, but that’s it. (This does not apply to federal land since the feds have their own marijuana-related laws.) Colorado law does impose a maximum of 15 days in prison for public consumption, but this is a worst-case scenario.

What the General Public Thinks
  • The marijuana movement in Colorado has been dubbed the “Green Rush” for a reason since a large portion of the population has wholeheartedly embraced legalization.
    • The state itself is enjoying marijuana-related revenue from tourists and locals alike.
    • And Denver is now considered to be a global epicenter for legal marijuana activity and tourism.
  • Of course, not everybody was on board with legalization–considering that 45% of the state voted against it.
    • And Amendment 64 does give cities and municipalities the right to ban:
      • Recreational marijuana stores
      • Marijuana product businesses
      • And/or commercial grow facilities
    • Cities that wish to ban any or all of the above must pass an ordinance via the city council or hold a vote on the ban on even years .
    • And don’t forget, your employer can terminate you for smoking marijuana, even outside of work.
  • Ski resorts have been very slow to embrace legalization, and it remains illegal to possess and consume marijuana at many of them.
    • Many ski resorts lease federal land, making marijuana possession and consumption on the property illegal.
    • Resorts are also protective of the family-friendly atmospheres they’ve worked to establish and are hesitant to disrupt them by allowing marijuana on their properties.
    • And, finally, skiing can be dangerous and most resorts believe smoking marijuana can compound the risks.

Police Enforcement

Driving High

In 2014, the Colorado Department of Transportation began a campaign called “Drive High, Get a DUI”, and that sums it up pretty nicely. If you drive while high, you can get a DUI and you will face the same penalties as with a DUI.

What it means to drive high:

  • The THC content of your blood cannot surpass 5 nanograms per milliliter.
  • Many cannabis activists and DUI lawyers suggest never driving after consuming marijuana in Colorado since the THC content limit is so low.
  • There is not yet a breathalyzer test for marijuana, so THC content is measured through a blood test.
  • Colorado also updated its open container law to include marijuana meaning if there is evidence of consumption or there are open containers in your car with marijuana in them you can be charged with a DUI.


How an officer can stop you:

  • An officer can stop you for another offense, such as speeding, an illegal turn, etc.
  • And they can stop you if they have probable cause that you are driving impaired. This includes:
    • Swerving
    • Illegal actions (speeding, etc.)
    • Other suspicious driving activity

What happens when they stop you:

  • They will conduct a field sobriety test, just like for alcohol.
  • They may consult a drug recognition expert.
  • If probable cause is established, you will be taken to a precinct where you will be asked for permission to draw your blood
    • If you refuse and the officer thinks you’re under the influence of drugs, Colorado’s Express Consent Law says he or she can require you to undergo a blood draw.
    • If you continue to refuse, you risk losing your driver’s license.

Penalties for a first offense include:

  • Imprisonment of 1 day – 1 year
  • A fine of at least $350 but no more than $5,000
  • 48-96 hours of community service
  • Possible license suspension for 90 days
    • You may also be required to install an ignition interlock device

Read Colorado’s laws regarding driving drugged.

Other Legal Information

State laws:

  • Public Intoxication or Disruption
    • While there aren’t specific laws for being high in public, in general, most marijuana law follows that of alcohol. If you’re disorderly and under the influence of marijuana, you can be arrested.
  • Public Display (and/or consumption) of Less Than 2 Ounces:
    • This is a petty offense with up to 15 days in jail and a maximum $100 fine
  • Possession of More Than an Ounce:
    • 1-2 ounces is a petty offense with a $100 fine
    • 2-6 ounces is a misdemeanor with 1 year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine
    • 6-12 ounces is a misdemeanor with 18 months in jail and up to a $10,000 fine
    • More than 12 ounces is a felony with 1 to 1 1⁄2 years in jail and a maximum $100,000 fine
  • Possession with Intent to Distribute:
    • Possession of 8 ounces or more is considered possession with intent to distribute and will enhance whatever sentence is imposed
  • Sale or Distribution:
    • 5 pounds or less is a felony with 1 to 3 years in prison and a $1,000 – $100,000 fine
    • 5-100 pounds is a felony with 2 to 6 years in prison and a $2,000 – $500,000 fine
    • 100 pounds or more is a felony with 4 to 12 years in prison and a $3,000 – $75,000 fine
  • Sale or Distribution to Minors:
    • 5 pounds or more is a felony with 3 to 12 years in prison and a $3,000 – $75,000 fine
    • Sale to a minor under the age of 15 adds a mandatory minimum of 4 years in prison to whatever sentence is imposed
  • Cultivation:
    • 6 to 30 plants is a felony with 1 to 3 years in prison and a $1,000 – $5,000 fine
    • More than 30 plants is a felony with 2 to 6 years in prison and a $2,000 – $500,000 fine
  • For a great explanation of all marijuana-related crimes and penalties, see NORML’s list of Colorado Laws & Penalties.

City and municipal laws:

  • Some cities and municipalities have passed their own marijuana laws, including the ban of retail stores within their city limits. Be sure you know the laws that apply to your location.

Going Into Business


The Colorado Department of Revenue’s Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) is responsible for overseeing the recreational marijuana industry in Colorado, including the management of the licensing process. Licenses were initially available for four types of businesses, but MED later added one additional license for a current total of 5:

  • Retail Marijuana Stores – the stores that sell recreational cannabis
  • Retail Marijuana Production Manufacturing – the manufacturers of recreational products and concentrates
  • Retail Marijuana Cultivation – the growers and harvesters
  • Retail Marijuana Testing Facility – facilities that conduct marijuana-related research and testing for other MED licensees.
  • Retail Transportation – businesses that transport marijuana between producers, processors, and retailers

Originally, only existing medical marijuana business license holders in good standing with the state could apply for recreational marijuana business licenses. On July 1, 2014, however, that rule was changed to allow anyone who meets the license application criteria to apply and, as of early 2017, the state continued to accept applications and issue licenses. You can even sign up to receive routine email notices from the state on all things related to marijuana licensing.

  • The City of Denver continued to adhere to the original restrictions until 2016, when they finally began allowing anyone meeting basic criteria to apply for a license.
    • However, as of early 2017, they were no longer accepting applications for licenses and announced that when they do so sometime in the future they will issue licenses via lottery.
  • Colorado Springs, the state’s second most populous city, continues its outright ban on all recreational businesses.
Who Can Apply for a License?

To apply for a license, you must meet all of the criteria the state has set forth. Get comfortable because they are lengthy:

  • Must be 21 years of age
  • Must be a Colorado resident for at least one year prior to the application date
  • Or share ownership with a Colorado resident that has been a resident for at least one year prior to the application date
  • May not have any Controlled Substance felony conviction in the ten years prior to the application date or five years from May 28, 2013, whichever is longer
  • May not have any other felony convictions that have not been fully discharged for five years prior to the application date
  • May not be financed in whole or in part by any other person whose criminal history indicate a lack of good moral character
  • May not have a criminal history that indicates a lack of good moral character
  • May not employ, be assisted by or financed by any other person whose criminal history indicates a lack of good moral character
  • May not be a member of law enforcement or an employee of a local or State Licensing Authority
  • May not employ any person at the business that has not passed a criminal history record check
  • If you meet the criteria, you can begin the application process.

The fees associated with submitting an application and obtaining a license are steep:

  • Retail Marijuana Stores – $2,500 application fee / $2,000 license fee
  • Retail Marijuana Production Manufacturing $2,500 application fee / $1,500 license fee
  • Retail Marijuana Cultivation – $2,500 application fee / $1,500 license fee
  • Retail Marijuana Testing Facility – $500 application fee / $1,500 license fee
  • Retail Marijuana Transportation – $500 application fee / $4,400 license fee
After Getting a License

Once a license has been obtained, there are, of course, rules related to enforcement and compliance, such as where you can set up shop. These laws will vary from city to city, so be sure to research the ones applicable to your location.


Of course, one of the chief reasons for legalizing marijuana is to allow the state to collect taxes on it–and in the State of Colorado, marijuana is a heavily taxed product.

Here’s how it works and how much tax you can expect to pay:

  • A 15% excise tax – this is actually paid by the cultivators or growers when they sell marijuana to retailers but it is included in the price the store will charge you as a customer
  • A 10% marijuana sales tax
  • The customary 2.9% statewide retail tax
  • Any taxes local municipalities charge

Where does the tax money go?

  • All taxes related to marijuana sales in Colorado are deposited in two funds:
    • Building Excellent Schools Fund, which is used to renew or replace deteriorating public schools
    • Marijuana Tax Cash Fund, which is used on healthcare, health education, substance abuse prevention and treatment, and law enforcement

Total marijuana tax revenue in Colorado in 2016 reached $200 million.

Growing Pot

Personal Use

It is legal for individuals to grow weed for their own private consumption. The rules for recreational marijuana are:

  • Up to 6 plants per adult in a household
  • No more than 12 plants total in a household
  • No more than 3 plants per adult can be in the flowering stage (no more than 6 per residence)
  • Plants can be grown indoors or outdoors, but
    • Plants must be kept in an enclosed, locked area and kept away from children.
  • No matter what, homegrown weed cannot be sold to others
Commercial Use

Anyone holding a Retail Marijuana Cultivation License can grow weed for sale to processors and in turn retail stores. Licensees must first complete an application and be approved.

You can grow in:

  • Indoor
    • In fully enclosed, secure warehouses and greenhouses
    • Most recreational marijuana being grown in Colorado is grown indoors
  • Outdoor
    • Must be fully enclosed by a fence or other barrier, obscured from public view, and also must meet other security requirements

To learn more about Colorado’s commercial growing laws, learn more from the MED.

Resource Guide