Reefer Madness or Pot Paradise? The Surprising Legacy of the Place Where Legal Weed Began.

In Columns by Hal PetersonLeave a Comment

On June 19th, Manhattan Democrat Sen. Liz Krueger announced the bill she sponsored to legalize recreational marijuana will not be voted on this year. “It’s only a delay, not the end of the road.” Hopefully more than a delay based on what is currently happening in Colorado, five years after legalization, as reported by the New York Times columnist Jack Healy.   

Serenity Christensen, 14, is too young to set foot in one of Colorado’s many marijuana shops, but she was able to spot a business opportunity in legal weed. She is a Girl Scout, and this year, she and her mother decided to sell their cookies outside a dispensary.

But on the other side of Denver, legalization has turned another high school student, David Perez, against the warehouse like marijuana cultivations now clustered around his neighborhood.

These are the ripples of five years of legal marijuana. Colorado’s first-in-the-nation experiment has reshaped health, politics, rural culture and criminal justice in surprising ways giving a glimpse of what the future may hold.

Since recreational sales began in 2014, more people here are visiting emergency rooms for marijuana-related problems, and hospitals report higher rates of mental-health cases tied to marijuana. At the same time, thousands of others keep a few marijuana gummies ready before bed.

Some families rattled by their children’s marijuana problems have moved seeking refuge in less permissive states. But overall, state surveys do not show an increase in young people smoking pot.

However, the racial divide in drug arrests has persisted showing that African-Americans in Colorado were still being arrested on marijuana charges at nearly twice the rate of white people.

The ‘Drug Talk,’ Rewritten

Doctors, educators and state officials have been particularly worried about the effects of legalization on Colorado’s youth. Would a proliferation of recreational pot shops make marijuana seem innocuous to teenagers, despite studies showing that it is harmful to their developing minds? Would teenage pot use spike? How would it affect graduation rates and school discipline?

Five years in, surveys show that most Colorado teenagers may have tried it, and 80 percent are not current marijuana users. However, a Snapshot video’s shows classmates smoking on the edges of school. Instead of dime bags, there is now a buffet of concentrates, tinctures and edibles — still illegal for young people, but easy to come by.

Some school administrators say they are catching more students using marijuana and fewer drinking. The share of teenagers arrested for marijuana offenses has fallen by about 20% but black youths and adults are still getting arrested at much higher rates than white or Hispanic Coloradans. Black people in the state were arrested on marijuana charges at double the rate of white ones, according to the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice.

Some parents said that marijuana was becoming too normal, another legally permissible health risk with slick marketing, like alcohol or cigarettes. But marijuana shops cannot advertise on billboards. To some parents, this is not enough. They say their children smell marijuana on hikes, and count dispensaries on their rides home from school.

‘Nothing Is Completely Safe’

The numbers seem clear: Nearly twice as many Coloradans smoke pot as the rest of America. Now, the battle between legalization’s supporters and foes is focused on whether heavier pot use is hurting people’s health. Dr. Andrew Monte, an emergency and medical toxicology physician and researcher at the University of Colorado Hospital, notes that more people are arriving at emergency rooms for marijuana-related reasons.  Some are heavy marijuana users with severe vomiting. Others are children who have eaten edibles, accidentally or not. They come to the E.R. disoriented, dehydrated or hallucinating after consuming too much marijuana.

Researchers also reported that patients in the E.R. with marijuana-related cases were five times as likely to have a mental-health issue as those with other cases.

Advocates say, compared with the 72,000 drug overdose deaths in America in 2017 crimes spawned by the opioid crisis, marijuana addiction is too innocuous to even merit attention. Others’ say the risks of marijuana dependence are real, and are being overlooked as medical and recreational marijuana use spreads to 34 states. While legalization efforts failed this year in states including New Jersey and New York, Illinois last week became the 11th state to authorize recreational marijuana.

Law-enforcement officials say that legalization has also created fertile soil for black-market cultivations that pop up in basements. Legalization advocates said that regulating marijuana would starve cartels and illegal marijuana trafficking. But some officials say it has made the problem worse.

Last month, police and federal drug-enforcement agents raided 240 homes around Denver and Northern Colorado that were illegally growing marijuana, the largest sweep since legalization. Jason Dunn, the United States attorney in Denver, said it was a sign Colorado had become “the epicenter of black-market marijuana in the United States.”

A copy of the posting has been sent to Sen. Krueger. Will it change her mind, probably not? Should it, yes.  To quote Tennessee Ernie Ford, both he and she, have sold their souls to the company store.

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