Colorado pot legalisation: So far, so good

JOSH RICHMAN
Last updated 12:12 07/07/2014
marijuana
RICK WILKING / Reuters

A man holds a sign referring to Colorado legalizing marijuana with the state capitol dome in the background at a 4/20 rally in downtown Denver last year.

pot
JASON REDMOND / Reuters
Cloned marijuana plants are pictured at the Sea of Green Farms growing facility in Seattle. Legal weed is expected to go sale in Washington state on Tuesday (local time).

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Long a leader in making marijuana mainstream, California is watching Colorado blaze a trail for legalised recreational pot with avid eyes.

The mood in Colorado is good. Six months in, few of the predicted problems have materialized, tax revenue and tourism are booming, and public support for legal pot appears to be growing.

This week Washington state is poised to join Colorado in offering retail sales of recreational marijuana to adults, under a heavily regulated and taxed system that voters approved in November 2012.

Colorado voters approved legalisation in 2012 by a margin of 10 per cent, but a March poll found Colorado voters now favour it by a 22-point margin. And 61 percent believe it has made the state better or not changed it. Another poll in April found that most people believe it’s been good for the state, hasn’t made driving less safe and will save taxpayers money and increase personal freedom.

Still, there have been problems.

Hospitals are seeing more kids made ill by edible marijuana products like candy and baked goods, and more adults are having psychotic episodes. Opponents and supporters are still debating whether crime is up or down. And marijuana businesses are still trying to build working relationships with banks that are leery of the federal marijuana ban.

California voters approved medical marijuana in 1996. And as the state prepares to take another stab at legalisation after voters defeated a 2010 measure, it’s looking at Colorado as a template in progress.

“There was this hushed anticipation of what might happen … but the sky didn’t fall,” said Amanda Reiman, California policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, which will help lead a 2016 ballot measure campaign to legalise recreational marijuana in the Golden State. “We didn’t see people quitting their jobs and becoming lazy stoners. We didn’t see kids dropping out of schools by the hundreds. We didn’t see people peddling pot in schoolyards.”

But, she said, “I’m glad we didn’t go first.”

Colorado and Washington state “are both laboratories right now, opportunities for us and other states to see what works and what doesn’t.”

As of January 1, Coloradans 21 and older can buy and possess up to an ounce of marijuana at a time. They can also grow up to six plants for personal use, and nonresidents can buy up to a quarter-ounce.

Buyers at licensed retail stores pay 12.9 percent in state sales taxes, plus a 15 percent excise tax. The levies brought in a total of almost US$11 million ($12.5m) by the end of April, with strong month-to-month growth. The excise tax’s first US$40 million (NZ$45m) is earmarked for school construction.

As the revenue rolls in, supporters of legal marijuana say jobs abound and tourism is up — 2013-14 was the state’s best-ever ski season.

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“There are so many positive indicators,” said Michael Elliott, executive director of Colorado’s Marijuana Industry Group trade association. “It’s tough for us to take credit for all this, but I certainly think we’re helping and not hurting.”

Elliott estimated about 10,000 Coloradans now work in the marijuana industry, not counting construction workers, landlords, accountants, attorneys, labelling and packaging companies, testing labs and many others who are also benefiting from the boom.

Yet opponents say there isn’t enough data yet, and there are too many troublesome anecdotes to call the law a success.

The increase in young children ingesting edible marijuana products began with the commercialization of Colorado’s medical marijuana sector in 2009 but shot up again with this year’s recreational legalisation, said Dr. George Wang, an emergency physician and toxicologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora. Its emergency room saw eight cases in 2013 but 12 so far this year; seven children needed intensive care, and two needed breathing tubes.

“They’ve all stayed in the hospital typically for a day or two … until the symptoms resolve.”

Marijuana-related adult emergency-room visits are up too, said Dr. Andrew Monte, an emergency physician and toxicologist at the nearby University of Colorado Hospital. But, he said, this happens whenever any new medicinal or recreational drug hits the market.

“People don’t quite know how to use it yet, dosing has not been established and people don’t know what the side effects are,” so people are showing up with short-term psychiatric problems, he said.

“We’re going to have this peak, and then it will decline … as the industry and the public become more educated regarding its use,” said Monte, who, with Wang, sits on a legislative advisory panel reviewing state marijuana policies. “That’s the type of learning curve I hope other states would get from Colorado.”

New laws enacted in May require that marijuana edibles be sold in child-resistant, opaque, resealable packaging. The state is also now deciding how edibles can be shaped, stamped or colored to show they contain marijuana. And Elliott said the industry is moving away from high-potency edibles desirable as medicine toward lower doses that give recreational users the pleasant high they seek.

“The free market is at work,” he said.

Statewide criminal justice data isn’t available yet, but Elliott and other supporters note crime in Denver decreased first five months of this year compared with the same period last year.

Indeed, the four kinds of violent offenses and five kinds of property offenses reported under the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports program were down 10.1 per cent. But a broader measure — 46 kinds of offenses included in the National Incident-Based Reporting System—shows crime rose 10.2 per cent in Denver.

Elsewhere, the Colorado State Patrol issued 289 citations for driving under the influence of marijuana from January through May, although drivers had also used alcohol or other drugs in 129 of those cases. Marijuana was involved in 12.5 per cent of all DUIs in those five months, a statistic the state only began tracking this year.

Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area—a group that helps coordinate federal, state and local law enforcement efforts—said it’s too early to say whether more minors are using marijuana, leading to more instances of unsafe sex, failing classes or dropping out of school. “We don’t want to lose a generation of kids,” he said.

Meanwhile, profitability has become a liability for many marijuana businesses. The federal ban makes many banks and credit-card issuers loath to let the businesses open accounts, so it has become a largely cash industry — and having a lot of cash around raises the risk of crime.

Whatever happens next, Colorado is teaching the nation that “the instincts of voters are right, that regulating marijuana works, and that it’s always better to manage a substance like marijuana in the light of day and under the rule of law than consign it to the shadows,” said Stephen Gutwillig, the Drug Policy Alliance’s deputy executive director.

But Gorman said that’s just “spin and half-truths.”

WASHINGTON STATE SALES START THIS WEEK

In Washington state, stores could begin operations as early as Tuesday - but pot regulators, business owners and analysts say pot could sell out in Washington within hours or days at the few shops slated to open on Tuesday. That is largely because of limited harvests by licensed growers and processors, or because they failed to clear regulatory hurdles to get their product to market.

Washington is also grappling with a backlog of hundreds of would-be growers who still need to be screened by overwhelmed investigators with the state Liquor Control Board, agency spokesman Brian Smith said.

The board has so far licensed fewer than 80 growers statewide, out of more than 2600 applicants. And only a fraction of their pot — roughly 5.2 hectares is in production, or about 10 football fields' worth — has gone through required lab-testing. Many harvests won't be ready by early July.

James Lathrop, owner of Cannabis City in Seattle, could find only one grower ready to ship on July 8, opening day, and plans to suggest customers stick to a 2-gram limit to stretch his supply. 

"What do you do when your shelves are empty? Do I just send everybody home? Do we try and stay open? I can't pay people if we aren't selling anything," he said.

US STATES EXPERIMENT WITH LEGALISED POT

Colorado: 55 per cent of voters approved Amendment 64 in November 2012; retail sales began January 1.

Washington: 56 per cent of voters approved Initiative 502 in November 2012; retail sales might begin this week.

California: 54 per cent of voters rejected Proposition 19 in November 2010; advocates plan to try again in 2016.

Oregon and Alaska: Voters will decide on ballot measures this November.

District of Columbia: Advocates will submit petition signatures Monday to qualify measure for November’s ballot.

-San Jose Mercury News / with Reuters

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