January 2014

A grand experiment

A decade ago, few of us would have predicted that people would be able to walk into a shop and buy marijuana for recreational use. Yet that day has arrived. Pot is or soon will be available in retail outlets in approximately two dozen towns and cities in Colorado. And, in a few months, it will be available in the state of Washington as well.

For libertarians, Baby Boomers and potheads of all stripes, and the long-time critics of this nation’s endless, costly and counterproductive “War on Drugs,” the repeal of “Pot Prohibition” is a great event. First off, it never made sense that marijuana should be demonized – banned from even medical use – while alcohol was freely available. There is no evidence that marijuana is any more of a health threat or a “gateway” drug than booze. In fact, many people would argue that pot is a lot safer, having caused not a single known overdose fatality.

Equally important, if weed is available legally, this should deal a blow to the power of drug cartels, taking one of their more lucrative illicit products right out of their hands. No need for people to smuggle bricks of marijuana over the Mexican border in backpacks and crevices of cars when it’s being grown openly in Colorado.

There are other reasons to celebrate as well:

• Law officers should now be able to focus more on far-more-dangerous drugs such as methamphetamine.

• Pot may lose some of its allure over time as its “forbidden thrill” is stripped away.

• Tourism in Colorado is likely to boom.

• People suffering from seizures, intractable pain, glaucoma and other conditions will find it easier to obtain cannabis to see whether it can alleviate their symptoms. There has been a lot of press about the helpful effects of THC, the active ingredient in pot, on various medical problems, and while some of that may be hype, it’s impossible to believe there aren’t some genuine medical benefits to this plant.

Schools and municipalities will see their coffers swelling as they rake in the (rather steep) taxes being levied on pot sales.

But, before we all launch into a chorus of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” we need to keep in mind that there are lingering concerns about legalization, as Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane and Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell point out in an article on Page 9.

One of the most serious is the question of how much additional exposure this will result in for children. Yes, teens and even pre-teens were already able to get their hands on pot if they wanted to. But will the presence of marijuana in people’s homes mean that a great many more minors will start smoking or even eating the substance? And as Lane points out, there will be impacts from second-hand smoke from pot just as there are from tobacco.

Another concern is whether large numbers of drivers will hit the streets stoned. Driving while impaired has always been illegal, but will the easy availability of marijuana mean a surge in the number of such incidents? There has been speculation that many young adults in particular might opt for pot instead of alcohol, and that this might be a good thing for overall driving safety, as pot-smokers are generally less-aggressive, slower drivers than drunks are. But if people start combining weed with wine and then getting behind the wheel, safety is likely to take a nose dive.

Yet another concern is whether – contrary to predictions – the black market in pot will burgeon, as people buy ganja here and smuggle it to other states, or even steal it from stores and grow sites. And if pot taxes are so high that the drug remains cheaper to buy illicitly, underground sales will just continue.

And while tourism-related businesses will welcome an influx of visitors, this may be problematic if a lot of those folks decide to move here to enjoy ganja year-round. Our state is already staring down the barrel of major water shortages in the next 50 years, given current population predictions; we aren’t ready to handle millions beyond those estimates. (Particularly when one considers the amount of irrigation water that might eventually be required to grow what is expected, at least, to be a new and booming agricultural industry!)

Besides these worries, some puzzles remain to be solved. For example, where are tourists supposed to go to enjoy the quarter-ounce they’re allowed to purchase under Colorado’s new laws? Smoking pot in public is banned; many hotels and motels don’t allow smoking at all; and you can’t have pot at Denver International Airport, or smoke while you’re driving. There may be a lot of cars with out-of-state licenses sitting in distant corners of parking lots with rolled-up, shaded windows. (Or people knocking on random doors, saying, “You don’t know me, but I’ll give you a free toke if you let me smoke this in your living room!”)

Nevertheless, we remain convinced that this grand social experiment is worth attempting, considering all the horrific consequences that Pot Prohibition has had over the decades: people imprisoned for selling small amounts of a plant that is now legal; sick folks suffering the side effects of prescription pills when they might have done better smoking pot; billions of dollars spent chasing after drug offenders; cartels kidnapping, torturing, and killing to protect their profits.

And perhaps worst of all, unintentionally giving our kids the message that alcohol, the drug that undoubtedly causes the most crime, death and other social ills, is somehow benign because it’s legal.

Make no mistake: There will be problems as a result of marijuana’s legalization. But let’s try very hard to solve them before there is any talk of rushing to return to the bad old days when it was banned.

Legalization makes sense. Now we need to make it work.