Navigating Colorado's Recreational Marijuana Laws

What is legal and what is not

By Joel Warner | Last updated on January 23, 2023

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Pot is big business. In the first 10 months after Colorado legalized and regulated marijuana use for adults, the state’s recreational and medical marijuana industries logged more than $500 million in sales—with $60 million going to the state in taxes, licenses and fees. But questions remain.

Where Can You Smoke?

Toking in public is still a no-no, and it can be expensive: up to a $999 fine. Denver criminal defense attorney David Lane points out that if you’re sampling inconspicuous marijuana products like edibles and vape pens from the local dispensaries, it’s going to be pretty difficult for folks to notice. “What the law really means is you can’t smoke a joint in front of a cop,” says Lane.

Can You Fly With Marijuana?

Even if you’re traveling from Colorado to Washington state, where marijuana is also legal, the skies aren’t friendly for pot. That’s because airline travel is federally regulated, says Lane, which means state marijuana laws are overruled. The good news is if you get caught with a small amount of pot at Denver International Airport, you won’t be going to federal prison. “DIA has weed disposal bins,” says Lane. “They don’t fine you, they don’t charge you; they just take your marijuana away.”

Can You Drive After Consuming Pot?

Colorado’s marijuana DUI law is set at 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, but that’s more inference than limit; it’s a ball-park figure. You can still get busted by law enforcement for being below that amount. That’s why Denver DUI attorney Jay M. Tiftickjian recommends waiting 24 hours after smoking before getting behind the wheel. Also, keep any pot in the trunk; it’s still illegal to have an open container of cannabis products in the passenger section of your vehicle, whether it’s medical or recreational use. “If it’s sitting next to you in your driver seat, you may have it legally under state law, but an officer can still smell it and they could start a [DUI] investigation,” says Tiftickjian. “And that can lead to bad places.”

Can You Be Fired?

Yes. Neither Colorado’s medical nor recreational marijuana laws require employers to allow pot use—so you could be out of a job if your boss finds out you partake. In fact, a recent Mountain States Employers Council survey has found that one in five state employers have stepped up drug testing policies since January 2014. But the Colorado Supreme Court is currently considering the case of Brandon Coats, who says he was unfairly fired in 2010 by Dish Network for using medical marijuana. “You have a statute that says you cannot terminate someone for legal off-duty activity,” says Denver employment lawyer Diane King. “But it’s tricky, because what do you do if you have something that is legal at the state level and illegal on the federal level?”

Can You Expunge Now-legal Pot Crimes From Your Record?

Last year, the Colorado Court of Appeals overturned the 2011 conviction of a woman for a minor marijuana crime because her appeal was pending when Colorado voters legalized marijuana with Amendment 64. That case could lead to others appealing minor pot convictions. Keep in mind, however, that Colorado legalized possession of only an ounce of marijuana or less—something that was already a low-level petty offense before the law changed—and some might think it’s not worth the time and money to remove such minor blots from their records. Still, appellate lawyer Walter H. Sargent believes the lingering repercussions of a marijuana conviction, no matter how minor, shouldn’t be underestimated. “The penalty itself under state law for these crimes may seems relatively minor,” he says, “but the effect of having this criminal conviction on your record may influence a lot of other things in your life. I hear so often people saying marijuana is legal in Colorado. Under Colorado law, certainly some practices are legal, but Colorado is bound by federal law, just like everybody else.” For more information on this area of law, see our overviews of criminal defense, DUI, and drug and alcohol violations; or reach out to an experienced cannabis attorney, if you’re in the retail marijuana space, or criminal defense attorney, if you run afoul of the law. or reach out to an experienced cannabis attorney.

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