World Watches as Colorado Marijuana Law Takes Effect

By R. Scott Rappold
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

Jan. 9, 2014 – More than a week after marijuana prohibition came to an end in Colorado, the joy has faded as residents adjust to the new normal of having the most liberal marijuana laws in the U.S.

Long lines are gone from the 37 -- and counting -- pot stores around the state, from Denver and Boulder to ski resort towns.

Jan. 1 was a different story. Thousands stood in line for hours to be among the first to legally buy the drug for recreational purposes, under a measure overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2012.

They joked and shared stories about their hometowns. Those who had driven all night to Colorado caught some sleep in line.

"The big surprise for everyone is how happy people were -- even when they were waiting 3 hours in the cold weather -- how happy they were to be part of this historic event," says Mike Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group in Denver.

But this is not the statewide smoke-out in the Wild West that some have portrayed. In huge sections of the state, including Colorado Springs, nothing changed. Local officials had opted out of allowing pot shops.

Elliott notes the irony that customers who came from out of state had nowhere to smoke. It was illegal to smoke in their hotel rooms because of clean-air laws. It was illegal to smoke outside in public. It was also illegal for them to bring their "souvenirs" back to their home states.

It's the type of thing that happens when you legalize a drug that remains illegal on the federal level and in 48 other states. Washington State also approved recreational marijuana in 2012.

And while Colorado voters clearly support an end to the pot ban, many harbor concerns about the public health impacts of bringing pot from the back alleys to the store. Will legal marijuana create a new generation of potheads out of today's young people? Will highways become unsafe as stoned drivers take to the road?

The burden is on a marijuana industry struggling to prove its legitimacy and a state government trying to convince the public and the federal government that weed can be safely regulated.

And they know the world is watching.

From Medicinal to Recreational

Colorado has long been one of the most tolerant states when it comes to cannabis. Voters in 2000 approved marijuana for medical use. Before 2012, penalties for small-scale possession were similar to a traffic citation.

Banking on the changing attitudes -- the presence across the state of neighborhood shops that sold medical marijuana had resulted in little crime and much-needed tax revenue for cities -- pot supporters sponsored a measure to make recreational marijuana legal, called Amendment 64. It allows anyone 21 or over to possess up to an ounce of pot, and it went into effect in December 2012.

It also created a framework for state-licensed stores to sell marijuana and marijuana products, such as brownies.

In the 14 months since the vote, much of the effort by state and local officials has been to limit the potential public health hazards of legal pot.

Schools and Kids

Amendment 64 was sold to voters as a way to regulate and tax what had long been a black market. The first $40 million in state excise tax revenue will go to school construction and the rest to pot regulation.

But some worry legal pot will hurt schools and the kids who learn. During the 2012 election, the Colorado Education Association, the state's teachers union, was one of the main opponents to Amendment 64.

"The more access there is to marijuana, the more probability there is that students will be using at higher levels," wrote association Vice President Amie Baca-Oehlert during the campaign. "We want to cut off access and have our students find other ways to cope with things that are going in their lives."

The National Institute on Drug Abuse released a report in December that found rising marijuana use among high school students. Sixty percent of 12th graders viewed marijuana use as not harmful.

Colorado schools have begun to separate marijuana from other drugs to better track legal pot's influence on schools going forward. The Denver Post reported in November that marijuana was the reason behind 32% of the 720 expulsions in Colorado schools in 2012-2013, the first year it was tracked.

Schools have long taught students about marijuana. The state has a program called "Speak Now Colorado" that encourages parents to talk to their kids. Christine R. Harms, director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center, believes it's up to the parents.

"We will really tell parents to consider how very detrimental marijuana is to the adolescent brain and to keep it away from kids," Harms says.

But Elliott says banning has failed to keep pot out of schools, because drug dealers have no motivation to keep pot out. He said the marijuana industry does.

"A responsible-use campaign is critical to this. Obviously if teen marijuana use goes up, there are going to be a lot of people questioning the wisdom of this (legalization) policy," he says.

State officials plan to do sting operations at pot stores to discourage sales to minors.

Impaired Driving

Shortly after voters legalized marijuana, state lawmakers adopted a blood-test standard of THC, the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana, to determine who is too high to drive.

It's unclear whether Amendment 64 has made highways more dangerous. Colorado State Patrol spokesman Jeff Goodwin says the agency has not separated marijuana from other drugs and alcohol in its reporting, though the state patrol will begin doing so in 2014.

Marijuana supporters have criticized the strict standard, noting that heavier users can be less impaired than others while having the same amount of THC in their bloodstream.

'From Seed to Sale'

Another major concern is the safety and ingredients of the marijuana itself. Edibles, oils, and other pot-infused products could contain anything. The USDA doesn't regulate a product the feds still consider illegal.

Colorado is moving forward with a mandatory testing program of its own in 2014. Labels will indicate a product's potency, where the marijuana was grown, and a list of nonorganic pesticides and herbicides used in its production.

Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division spokeswoman Julie Postlethwait says the agency hopes to have a testing program in place within 6 months. Medical marijuana has not been subject to such testing and labeling requirements.

Also, the state recently put in place a tracking program called "from seed to sale." Each recreational pot plant is fitted with a radio frequency identification tag.

"If we do run into a health concern, we can track the marijuana to the plant and the place it was grown," Postlethwait says.

Encourages Addiction?

Scientists and addiction specialists have long debated the addictiveness of pot.

Some experts say heavy use can lead to psychological addiction. Users develop a tolerance and a craving when not using the drug. Former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders summed up the accepted science when she said on CNN, "Marijuana is not addictive, not physically addictive anyway."

Pot has long been called a "gateway drug," eventually leading users to harder drugs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse report on teen drug use does not address the "gateway drug" argument, though it does say that use of illegal drugs other than pot is going down among high schoolers.

Elliott acknowledges the public health concerns. But he says he sees the pot industry as "part of the solution, not the problem."

"What we are pushing hard is the public education, to enjoy your legal purchase, but remember, don't give it to kids. Don't sell it to anybody else. Don't consume it publicly. Don't take it out of state. Don't drive impaired."

Colorado is one of two U.S. states where it's legal to smoke marijuana for recreational use. Here's how the law works:

  • Must be 21 or older
  • Can buy 1 ounce at a time (Colorado residents)
  • Restricts non-residents to a quarter-ounce at one time
  • Secondary sales illegal
  • No public smoking
  • No indoor smoking where cigarettes are banned
  • Cities decide whether to allow pot shops
  • Can grow up to six plants if 21 or older
  • Cannot take out of state

SOURCES: Kondrad, E. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, Jan.-Feb. 2013. Mike Elliott, executive director, Marijuana Industry Group. Julie Postlethwait, spokeswoman, Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division. Christine Harms, director, Colorado School Safety Resource Center. Jeff Goodwin, spokesman, Colorado State Patrol. News release, National Institute on Drug Abuse. Denverpost.com: "World's first recreational marijuana sales begin in Colorado," "Pot problems in Colorado schools increase with legalization," "Audit: Serious flaws in Colorado's regulation of medical marijuana." Gazette.com. Westword.com. Cnn.com: "Former surgeon general calls for marijuana legalization." Foodsafetynews.com: "Colorado introduces new standards for marijuana-infused food."

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