Legal pot: Has is lived up to the hopes?

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PROCESSED MARIJUANA SEIZED AFTER A ROBBERY ATTEMPT

Processsed marijuana, apparently packaged for resale, was seized from the home of 20-year-old Samuel Gordon of Cortez, who was killed May 24 in an apparent robbery attempt. Courtesy of Durango Police Department.

It was a dream among the Baby Boomer counter-culture – talked about by many, but believed realistic by few.

Legalizing cannabis, they said, would make society more enlightened and more honest. Responsible adults could openly indulge in a mind-expanding drug instead of clandestinely obtaining and consuming it in secret.

Crime would drop and Mexican drug cartels would be weakened as street dealing declined and the black market shrank to insignificance. Tax coffers would swell as revenue flowed in from licensed retail shops that dealt in a safer product grown in a controlled environment.

Drunk driving might even decline as drivers – particularly young males who get the majority of DUIs – turned from alcohol to pot and drove less aggressively, or just stayed home playing video games and feeding their munchies. And possibly, with the “forbidden fruit” allure of the drug gone, its use might actually dwindle once new users satisfied their curiosity and decided they didn’t really like the effect anyway.

For years, legalization proponents painted that rosy scenario. Then, in 2012, Colorado voters finally passed Amendment 64 to allow the recreational use of marijuana, becoming the first state to do so and setting in motion a social experiment whose results may not be fully understood for a long time.

The first recreational pot stores opened for business in January 2014 and currently number around 1,000 statewide, most in the Denver/Boulder area. (Sales and use of medical marijuana had been approved by voters a decade before, so a cultivation/distribution system was already in place and many outlets merely expanded.)

But how is the experiment going after these initial years of legalization? The results are mixed.

True, most of the marijuana bought and used in the state is now obtained through legitimate dealers. And, thanks to relatively steep taxes imposed by the legislature, a new source of revenue has been created for both the state and local governments that have chosen to allow sales and cultivation.

But all is not peace, love and flowers in Cannabis Land.

Legalized pot has brought a number of negative consequences, according to a comprehensive 2015 report commissioned by the bipartisan, nonprofit Police Foundation titled “Colorado’s Legalization of Marijuana and the Impact on Public Safety – a Practical Guide for Law Enforcement.”

“Legalization of marijuana is a complex issue and many unanticipated consequences have challenged Colorado law enforcement,” the report says. It states that while data is still being collected, some conclusions can be drawn based on information gathered by Denver police, including:

There has been a significant rise in Denver’s homeless population, both people coming to the state looking for work in the industry and folks just wanting easier access to their drug of choice. The report says 18-to-26-year-olds in particular are showing up in pursuit of cannabis-related jobs.

* There is a much higher rate of burglaries at pot stores compared to liquor stores (13 percent of Denver’s licensed outlets in 2012 and 2013, vs. 2 percent of liquor stores).

*This is most likely fueled by the large amounts of cash generated by transactions, since banks and credit-card companies remain reluctant to handle industry money. Although the U.S. government allows banks to work with legitimate marijuana businesses, bank officials worry about the conflict with federal laws, which still ban cannabis, and about the fact that the cash itself can smell of the weed. (This has caused an unexpected problem for law enforcement because drug-sniffing dogs hit on a substance that is now legal; the Police Foundation says they may have to be retrained.) Most cannabis businesses continue to be cashonly, and police say dealing in such large amounts of currency makes moneylaundering more likely.

* And a black market for pot stubbornly continues to thrive, despite the drug’s easy availability at retail shops. Illicit commercial grow operations also appear to be on the increase. (See “Pot: A growing menace on public lands,” Free Press, January 2016.)

The recent murder of a Fort Lewis College student, 20-year-old Samuel Gordon of Cortez, appeared to be related to a large quantity of weed that police say was being grown at his residence. Four Arizona men allegedly invaded his Durango home in what police say was a robbery attempt during which the victim was fatally shot. At press time, the suspects had been arrested and were awaiting charges.

A subsequent search of Gordon’s residence turned up 10 pounds of marijuana packaged for resale, along with more than $20,000 in cash. Several ounces of cocaine were found during the search of the suspects’ vehicles.

Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin predicted an increase in such incidents.

“We never had that before – you never saw home invasions when (marijuana) wasn’t legal,” he told the Free Press during an interview.

“If you look at the cost in retail stores compared to a street dealer who isn’t licensed and permitted, it’s cheaper, so there you go – it’s created its own market. Anything that’s legal has a tendency to be black-marketed. That just the way our society works – there’s a lot of folks making money off of it.”

The Police Foundation report notes that, with total taxes exceeding 20 percent in Denver, for instance, a recreational consumer might pay more in a legal outlet than he would on the black market.

Nowlin said he sees no upside to legalization, citing pot being more available in homes, kids seeing it consumed by their parents, and arguing this is different from alcohol.

“The biggest thing is more people under the age of 21 are finding it readily available,” he said. “We’re seeing more and more of it showing up in schools.”

The other major impact of legalization locally has been increases in people driving under its influence, he said.

“It’s definitely increased our crime rate here when it comes to marijuana use and driving under the influence. We’ve already had one fatality connected to that that occurred not too long ago.”

The consumption of cannabis-infused food and drinks, which many consumers prefer to smoking pot, is also creating problems, he said.

“Edibles are so dangerous – they’re out there in numerous amounts and there’s not any clear markings on them. I know the state legislators are still working on regulating that, but this is just one of the things we’re seeing.”

The perils of edibles are noted in a report by the Colorado Health Institute released (appropriately enough) on April 20, 2015. It says they affect users differently, taking up to four hours to produce effects vs. the nearly instant impact of smoking.

At first, the dosages of THC (the high-producing ingredient in pot) allowed in edibles came from the medical market and were designed for clients who needed frequent doses and didn’t want to smoke continually. The report says a single cookie might contain 10 doses, something recreational users didn’t understand. Rules were changed to limit doses, and the legislature now is requiring edible products (not just their packages) to be stamped or marked to make it clear they contain THC.

Nowlin said another concern is that some people cultivate more plants than allowed by law, which can be a concern for neighbors. (One resident complained at a county commission meeting the pungent smell in her subdivision was so strong her daughter was unable to exercise outdoors.)

On a larger scale, Colorado’s cannabis is also a concern for the state’s neighbors, none of whom allow recreational marijuana sales. The Police Foundation report says law-enforcement agencies nationwide seized 3.5 tons of Colorado cannabis in 2012 that was headed to other states – up more than 300 percent from 2009, before pot became legal here.

But Nowlin said the overall picture is complex and certainly the situation is not entirely negative. “We’re still gathering information– is it good, bad or indifferent? There are so many studies that go back and forth – pro and con.

“The good thing is it’s definitely a medical aid to people with debilitating diseases or chronic illnesses, even PTSD.”

Other that that, Nowlin said, “I couldn’t offer an opinion other than I hate to see the crime go up, I hate to see crashes, fatalities and injuries. It was bad enough with just the alcohol and marijuana’s just added to it.”

Still, pot proponents argue that legalizing recreational use has diverted much of what was formerly a wholly criminal, tax-free enterprise to legitimate businesses and away from street dealers, many of whom trafficked in other drugs as well.

While recognizing that problems remain, the Marijuana Policy Project, a strong advocate of legalization, sums up its position in a statement titled, “The Sky Has Not Fallen.”

Nearly $1 billion in sales in the state last year, or about 70 percent of the marijuana purchased, took place in strictly controlled stores, it says, creating jobs and tax revenues. The state economy has boomed, court cases for pot possession have plunged, and the list of positive effects goes on.

“I think it’s been incredibly successful,” Mason Tvert, the project’s communication director, told the Free Press. “Marijuana usage rates have not really changed, but the marijuana that’s being produced and sold is primarily distributed by regulated businesses instead of criminals on the underground market.

“These sales have generated millions in tax money for the state and localities, but that’s really just a bonus, because the primary goal was to take marijuana out of the underground market and that’s largely been accomplished.”

Tvert said much of the rest is distributed though a “gray market” in which individuals buy the substance from retail outlets to resell it in areas where stores are not allowed.

“Of course, there still remains some illegal activity since some localities are not allowing a regulated system and are creating an environment in which an underground market thrives, but just a few years ago all of the marijuana bought by adults for recreational use was purchased on the underground market.”

Tvert maintains the driving force behind the underground trade is the ban on legitimate shops in certain localities. For instance, he said, people will buy legal weed in Denver, then resell it in Colorado Springs, where recreational-marijuana sales are prohibited, to people willing to pay more who don’t want to make the trip.

“People who disliked marijuana then still dislike it, but by and large I think people recognize it has not been a problem and the claims that it would attract crime or cause other problems of that nature have not panned out.

“I’m not going to suggest there have been absolutely no problems that have occurred, but there’s been no new problems. Anyone who was not entirely opposed to the idea of legal marijuana from the get-go, you would find that they generally agree it’s gone well.”

The Marijuana Policy Project report says the state took in more than $135 million in taxes and fees from the regulated pot market in 2015, of which $35 million was funneled to school construction projects. Local taxes and fees are not included in that sum.

The city of Cortez reportedly took in more than $285,000 in marijuana taxes in 2015.

“A lot of opponents said it would damage the economy and make Colorado an undesirable place for business and tourism,” Tvert said, “but we’ve had record-breaking tourism the last few years, record-breaking conventions, and a handful of cities listed in Forbes’ ‘Best Places for Business,’ including Denver at No. 1.”

Tvert said fears about a surge in underage users have not materialized. “Of course there were concerns about increased teen use, and while there’s not data to really know what’s happening overall, we do know there’s not been a dramatic spike.”

According to the Marijuana Policy Project report, rates of marijuana use among the state’s adults have not risen significantly and teen usage is unchanged since 2005.

And the jury still seems to be out on whether legal cannabis is causing more DUIs and/or traffic accidents – partly because it remains difficult to establish whether someone is legally impaired by marijuana.

Andrew Freedman, director of marijuana coordination for Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office, recently said it was noteworthy that despite heightened enforcement efforts and more people driving, there was a decrease from 2014 to 2015 in the number of citations issued for driving under the influence of marijuana.

For Cortez Police, Chief Roy Lane said the main impact of legal cannabis has been to add another enforcement responsibility.

“Mostly, the impact on us has been that we put on an additional officer to do compliance on marijuana to make sure the stores all function properly,” he said, although that officer also does liquor compliance. “I don’t know there’s been a huge impact on us other than that issue.”

One argument proponents offered when campaigning for legalization was that it would put an end to charging and prosecuting people for what was increasingly seen as a petty offense, thus reducing the burden on law enforcement, but Lane said he hasn’t really seen that benefit.

“I don’t see any less work for us with it being legal than there was in the past. I do see it causing us a little bit more work for us, just the compliance (part) of it.” Judging the long-term effects on law enforcement will take more time.

“For sure we’re seeing more marijuana out there in the community, but I don’t think we can say whether it’s been successful or unsuccessful for at least five years – until the state has settled on all the rules and regulations.”

Currently those regulations change so often, Lane said, “you enforce it one way one year and it changes the next, so getting your people trained is one of the biggest issues out there. How do you get the six or seven thousand officers in the state trained? They pass a law in July and want you to be trained by the first of August.”

“We’ve had surprises and it’s more complex that we thought it was going to be – it was such an easy sale for the state to do it and we were behind the eight-ball because it passed and went into effect almost before we had the regulations out.

“A lot of the impact I think we’ll see down the road is in the area of social services – especially in the treatment of kids, things like that.

“It’s just like beer now – I don’t think there’s any difference between alcohol and marijuana as far as being accessible to kids.”

Lane agreed that cannabis is less likely to spark aggressive behavior than booze, which remains by far most people’s drug of choice.

“People on marijuana are usually pretty docile,” he said. “I think alcohol is still the No.1 drug in our county and I don’t think we’ll see a time here when alcohol isn’t the No. 1 drug.”

Despite the ups and downs, the likelihood of Colorado returning to pot prohibition seems very slim. Lane said the state will not go back to the days when people had to obtain the weed through furtive meetings with “connections.”

“Never, ever,” Lane said. “To get it taken off the books, you’d have to have two-thirds of the voting public pass it, and that’s never going to happen. It’s here to stay.”

Colorado as a whole seems to agree. According to a Quinnipiac University poll taken last November, 55 percent of Colorado residents still favor legalization, compared to 39 percent who believe it has had a negative impact.

After all, no one is talking about returning to the days when alcohol was banned, despite the staggering toll it takes on society. The Centers for Disease Control says alcohol causes more than 100,000 deaths annually in the United States, including half of highway fatalities, and costs the country more than $220 billion a year.

And despite all the concerns that were raised prior to the passage of Amendment 64, in places where recreational marijuana is sold, people walk down the streets and go about their daily lives as they did before.

Nowlin said that while he is not happy with pot’s legalization, “It’s a constitutional right. We protect people’s right to possess and consume marijuana in their own home.

“That’s your right and nobody can interfere with that.”

And he agreed with Lane that’s very unlikely to change.

“I don’t think you can put that beast back in the box,” Nowlin said.

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