What are the Marijuana Laws in Colorado?

Colorado Flag over Marijuana
Photo by: Lukasz Stefanski/Shutterstock

Many cannabis consumers find themselves confused – and often overwhelmed – by the bewildering array of marijuana laws in Colorado. The mainstream media often presents inadequate and sometimes contradictory information regarding the legal dimensions of Colorado marijuana law.

So, where does a consumer begin? Below is compact digest of Colorado marijuana law.

Marijuana Laws in Colorado

10/1/2016 Update


As reported in The Cannabist, the following changes took place on 10/1:

  • Recreational marijuana stores can sell up to an ounce of retail marijuana and its equivalent in concentrates (8 grams) or other products like edibles (80 10-milligram servings of THC).
  • The words “candy” or “candies” cannot appear on marijuana or marijuana packaging, unless part of the marijuana establishment’s name.
  • Every single standardized serving (a serving consists of 10 mg of THC) of an edible retail marijuana product must be individually marked, stamped or imprinted with the new universal symbol.

1. Some Historical Background

The last 15 years has witnessed a virtual revolution in Colorado cannabis law. Here is a short summary of key legislation:

A) Ballot Amendment 20 (Approved November 7, 2000; Effective June 1, 2001):

  • Removes state (not Federal) level criminal penalties for the use, cultivation, and/or possession of marijuana for medical use, providing the patient has documentation of their condition from a physician.
  • Approved medical conditions: Cancer, HIV/AIDS positive, seizures (including those characterized by epilepsy), persistent muscle spasms (as found, for example, with multiple sclerosis), glaucoma, cachexia, and severe pain (In the foreseeable future, PTSD may be added to this list.)
  • A patient or primary caregiver who has been issued a Medical Marijuana Registry identification card may possess no more than two ounces and up to six marijuana plants (No more than three of which can be mature, flowering specimens).

B) House Bill 1284 (Effective June 7, 2010)

  • Created a regulatory framework for dispensaries.
  • Gave local communities the right to ban or place restrictions upon the “operation, location, and ownership” of dispensaries

C) Senate Bill 109 (Like House Bill 1284, above, became effective June 7, 2010)

  • Intended to prevent fraud and abuse,
  • Physicians who authorize the use of medical marijuana:
    • must perform a physical exam
    • must not be any disciplinary restriction by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)
    • must not possess a financial relationship with a dispensary

D) Amendment 64 (Passed November 6, 2012; became effective January 1, 2014)

  • This truly pioneering piece of legislation, globally-unique at the time of its adoption, was an instrumental legal step towards the legitimate, mainstream use of cannabis.
  • Enacted as Article 18, section 16 of the state constitution, the law addresses “personal use and regulation of marijuana” for adults 21 and over as well as commercial cultivation, manufacture, and sale.
  • Provided for the regulation of marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, namely for recreational use.
  • The commercial sale of marijuana to the general public began on January 1, 2014.

2. Purchasing Marijuana

  • You must be at least 18 years old 21 years of age to purchase recreational marijuana in Colorado.
  • You do NOT need to be a resident of Colorado to purchase marijuana in Colorado.
  • All legal purchases of marijuana in Colorado require a government-issued ID card, such as a driver’s license.
  • Going from store to store and buying marijuana for re-sale on the black market is called “smurfing.” Smurfing is illegal.

3. Marijuana Possession

  • Colorado marijuana law allows for the cultivation of limited amounts in an enclosed, locked space.
  • Adults may legally grow up to six plants, three of which can be in the flowering stage.

4. Marijuana: Allowable Amounts

As of June, 2016, tourists and residents alike may purchase 28 grams in a single transaction (Flowers, edibles, and/or concentrate, 28 grams, TOTAL).

As of October 1, 2016, the Colorado Department of Revenue Marijuana Enforcement Division (or “MED”) revised the rules regarding concentrates, labelling them the “Marijuana Equivalency Guidelines.” Here is a breakdown:

  • 1 ounce flower = 8 grams (g) of concentrate
  • 1 ounce flower = 800 milligrams (mg) of edibles
  • These new rules apply to recreational (not medical) sales.

**Buyer beware: These proportions can be confusing! Do your math. You may purchase up to one ounce of THC, including concentrates.

5. Customer Tracking

Despite the cap on purchasing amount, there is nothing in Colorado law that requires dispensaries to track customer purchases.

One concern among consumers is the fear of a state or federal list of cannabis purchasers. Not true. In fact, Colorado law expressly forbids it. No more personal information is gathered at a dispensary than an individual making a purchase at a local liquor store.

6. The “Out-of-State” Matrix

In June, 2016, Colorado passed HB 1261, which allowed for the first time — non-Colorado residents to purchase the same amount as residents: One ounce (Previously, non-residents had been limited to just a paltry quarter of an ounce per purchase).

A word of caution: The possession of a legitimate medical marijuana card from your home state may not be valid in another state. Wyoming, for example, does not recognize the medicinal use of marijuana or a medical marijuana card, period.

On the other hand, Colorado registration cards are acceptable in other states, such as Nevada.

Currently, only six of 25 states (Arizona, Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire, Nevada, & Michigan) will accept out-of-state registration cards. State laws are always changing, so be sure to do your homework before you travel.

7. Consumption

Colorado marijuana law regarding consumption is especially ambiguous: *When using marijuana in Colorado, discretion is the keyword.

*Under the marijuana laws of Colorado, you may NOT smoke marijuana openly and in] public, such as on streets, sidewalks, and parks. Doing so may lead to being ticketed the same way as you would be penalized for violating the liquor ‘open-container’ law.

Private cannabis clubs: In Colorado, there do exist commercial establishments for cannabis consumption, but at the moment, they operate in a legal “gray area.”

For example:

  • Unlike cigar clubs, cannabis clubs need to abide by indoor clean air regulations of the Colorado Clean Air Act.
  • Private cannabis clubs vary in policy: Some allow indoor smoking, others permit inside vaping and/or outside smoking.

*A word of caution: In Coats v. Dish Network (2013), the Colorado Court of Appeals held that since possessing marijuana is a federal offense, employers are not obligated to abide by state statutes regarding employee use off-the-job.

*The consumption of cannabis in apartment buildings, indoors or outdoors, is usually up to the discretion of the owner/landlord.

*Driving under the influence (DUI) is strictly prohibited.

8. Transporting & Moving Marijuana

The marijuana laws of Colorado are unique to Colorado, and to Colorado only; they do NOT apply in other states. Below are some additional considerations:

A) “Open Container” Laws

*Beware: So-called “open-container” laws also apply to cannabis!

It is illegal to transport marijuana if

  • it is in an open container
  • it is stored in a container with broken seals
  • there is any evidence of consumption

*Important: Plastic bags do NOT qualify as a “sealed container!”

B) “Gifting”

Under Colorado law, a person 21 or older may give another person (also 21 or older) up to one ounce of marijuana.

C) Airports

The marijuana laws of Colorado do NOT apply to many airports. Frequently, such facilities (such as Denver International Airport) fall under the authority of the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), a Federal agency!

D) The U.S. Mail

*When it comes to sending or mailing marijuana out-of-state, there is one, simple rule: Don’t do it.

*The US Postal Service is seizing more packages of marijuana being mailed out of Colorado. Here are some figures:

  • 2010: 15 packages seized
  • 2013: 207 packages seized
  • 2014: 320 packages seized

9. The Federal Government

There remains much confusion about marijuana laws in Colorado and their relation to Federal law. Remember: There is a difference between state law and federal law, yet each jurisdiction is not mutually exclusive!

Here is a quick summary:

A) The Federal Controlled Substances Act

*Under this law, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 substance. What does this mean?

  • There exists a high potential for dependency
  • Officially, there is no accepted medical use

NOTE: In October, 2009, President Obama issued a memo to federal prosecutors encouraging them not to prosecute people who distribute medical marijuana in accordance with state law(s).

In August, 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a statement reminding state authorities that

Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.

State governments are expected to enforce their own, respective regulations on cannabis.

The DOJ reserved the right to challenge state marijuana laws, at any time, whenever the agency deems necessary.

B) Federal Property

  • You CANNOT possess marijuana on ANY Federal This restriction includes:
    • National parks
    • National forests
    • National monuments

Be aware that many ski resorts (The runs not the towns themselves) are often located on federal land. Frequently, resorts will have their own smoking regulations.

C) Federal Penalties

Possession of marijuana on Federal land can incur the following penalties:

-First offense: Up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine

-Second offense: Minimum 15-day jail term that can be extended up to two years

Three or more offenses: A $5,000 fine and a jail term ranging from 90 days to up to three years.

The Legal Future

The growth of the Colorado cannabis market is phenomenal: In just the first year of legalization alone (2014), combined sales of retail and medical marijuana reached $700 million. Despite record growth, consumers need to remain aware of potential federal obstruction.

Like it or not, possession of marijuana is still considered a federal crime.

*Contained within the US Constitution is the so-called “Supremacy Clause” (Article VI), which essentially states that federal law trumps state law. If a marijuana legalization case ever reaches the US Supreme Court, it could have (potentially) enormous consequences for the industry. Stay tuned!

*Since 2001, the US Supreme Court has rendered several decisions relating to marijuana, primarily over the use of drug-sniffing dogs and thermal imaging devices. However, these cases focused upon Fourth Amendment limitations on search and seizure, not the legal status of cannabis.

*In 2016, Colorado consumers experienced a partial legal victory: In Nebraska and Oklahoma v.Colorado, two neighboring states attempted to put an early end to Colorado’s cannabis industry — not by banning cannabis, per se, but by overturning the regulatory and tax apparatus on recreational pot sales. In theory, the goal of the plaintiffs was to reduce the amount of cannabis traffic spilling into nearby states. The crux of the suit was the claim that Colorado law was preempted by the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution. Fortunately, the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case. So, for now at least, Colorado cannabis law holds steady. . .


The cannabis consumer is confronted with a vast and intricate kaleidoscope of laws and regulations regarding possession and/or use. In the end, the marijuana user needs to be aware of the following key points about cannabis law:

1) The law is always changing and morphing. What constitutes a legal standard on Monday may be outdated by Friday. Never assume anything. Do your homework!

2) Be aware of the strange inter-play between state and federal law. Neither is mutually exclusive of the other.

3) Always remember that the marijuana laws of Colorado apply only to the geographic confines of Colorado.

4) Colorado law does not operate in a vacuum. In other words, different states have different rules, sometimes significantly so. What applies in one state may be acceptable, non-applicable (or even illegal) in another.

Be safe. Be smart. Stay informed. And enjoy!