Colorado six months after legalizing marijuana 

Pot and recreation

The eyes of America are on Colorado, so far the only state where legal marijuana for recreational use by adults is available (with Washington state not far behind). And the folks involved in marijuana issues in Colorado and elsewhere are well aware of that.

So, last week, the national organization Drug Policy Alliance held a teleconference marking six months of marijuana legalization. I learned a lot about what’s going on there, but the assessment from Mike Elliott of the Colorado Marijuana Industry Group (MIG) seems to sum things up pretty well:

“The main point here is that predictions that opponents were making that marijuana reform would cause the sky to fall and we’d see increases in crime and traffic fatalities and teen marijuana use, the economy would basically be dismantled and destroyed, that tourism would go away, that people wouldn’t want to come here, that we’d lose conventions — all that has been shown now to be utter nonsense. …

“When it comes to the drug war here, everyone is basically agreeing that the drug war has been a failure, but no one has quite known how to get out of it and how to prevent things from getting worse. Here we are, we’ve had a great year and … I think it’s pretty obvious here that we’re not hurting anything.”

By and large, other than a handful of careless people leaving edibles lying around where kids could get their hands on them (a lot of people leave liquor lying around where kids do get their hands on it), there’s not much bad to say about legalization in Colorado. 

Tourism has gone up in the state, although some of that could be attributed to the Denver Broncos making it to the Super Bowl. Plus there was a lot of good snow for skiing in the mountains. But the Denver Post has noted the “toking tourists” frequenting bed-and-breakfasts in Colorado. Hey, talk about your “Rocky Mountain High.”

Plenty has been said about the economic impacts, such as the nearly $22 million in state taxes and fees from recreational and medical marijuana that came in during the first four months of the year, and that doesn’t even include local sales taxes such as the 3.5 percent Denver charges. The MIG estimates there are 10,000 people licensed to work directly in the marijuana business — jobs that wouldn’t be there otherwise — in addition to ancillary work done in construction, and by electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and lawyers, not to mention a boom in commercial real estate.

Art Way, senior drug policy manager for the Colorado Drug Policy Alliance, cited Uniform Crime Reporting data showing that there’s been a 10 percent drop in crime from last year in Denver, including a 5.7 percent drop in violent crime. Maybe those folks are mellowing out. 

One of the biggest fears is that legal marijuana will get into the hands of young people. Last week, the Colorado Department of Revenue reported in 20 tests conducted over the past few months that not one pot shop would sell to underage people sent in to attempt to buy marijuana. Illegal pot dealers don’t ask for proof of age when they sell their wares.

A fair chunk of the tax money in Colorado is going to education, and the industry there is bending over backward to do things right and present a legitimate image. With a slow legalization rolling out in Washington state in a couple of weeks, and votes on legalization expected in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada in 2016, Colorado is the test case that will make a difference everywhere else.

But there’s more on the public health and safety front. Tony Ryan, a retired 36-year police officer in the Denver Police Department and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, spoke about the impact on police culture.

“The War on Drugs is a very great distraction to law enforcement efforts as far as communities are concerned, if they start to look at real facts,” Ryan says. “In Colorado, legalizing the drug that is most enforced in the War on Drugs is a boon to not only the work of law enforcement officers — the ones who actually answer the calls — but also to how they stand in the public’s eye.

“Drug enforcement activity is probably one of the highest complaint sources for any police department in the country,” Ryan adds. “And most of the times when you see something going on where law enforcement officers are acting badly or improperly, [it] has to do with drug enforcement like a raid or something. … A lot of this is marijuana-related, and now in Colorado we’re not doing that anymore. Because marijuana is legal for adults, people over age 21, rightfully so. …

“They can do what people really want police officers to do — and that’s answer calls for service. Whenever somebody picks up a phone to call a police department to request service for a police officer or more, it’s really important to them.”

That was a long quote, but I felt it was important to get it all in. The militarization of our police forces across the country has been due in large part to the War on Drugs. A lot of the money for them to buy tanks and helicopters and other military-style equipment has come from drug war money. As the War on Drugs is dismantled, there’s a chance that we’ll see a lot fewer of these knock-down-your-door raids with flash-bang grenades.

“I think it’s pretty well-known that the War on Drugs has been an addiction in and of itself for law enforcement agencies ever since it was established,” Ryan says. “The total cost of the War on Drugs to taxpayers in our country is now over $88 billion a year — a significant portion of that goes to U.S. law enforcement agencies to enforce the War on Drugs.”

There are probably tweaks to be made in Colorado. A few weeks ago, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about her bad experience after eating too much of a marijuana-infused chocolate caramel bar. She overdosed. What she did was somewhat equivalent to a person who had never tried alcohol before chugging down a fifth of bourbon. Not a good idea. 

So there’s education to be done. But by and large, things are going well. The bottom line is that, although the law has been that marijuana cannot be sold, people are selling it pretty much everywhere. Elliott calls poses the this question.:

“The real choice is who you want selling it: Al Capone or a small-business owner with a license?” he asks. 

We’re learning more about marijuana here in Michigan as the Medical Marihuana Act gets tweaked — although some of that is driven by drug warriors who can’t see beyond the old battles — or through petition initiatives, as city after city votes to decriminalize possession and use. 

That’s what happens when you pull something out of a dank closet and let some sun shine on it instead of obfuscating things with lies and denial, of or even discussion.

As Stephen Gutwillig, deputy executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said during the teleconference, “All of this unprecedented momentum for reform results, at least in part, from the voters and regulators of Colorado demonstrating that marijuana can be controlled and brought under the rule of law. Colorado has changed the dialogue, and other jurisdictions are listening very, very carefully.” 

More by Larry Gabriel

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