Thursday, October 2, 2014

Low-Down on the Rocky Mountain High: Decriminalization in Colorado

Following the decriminalization of marijuana in Colorado, observers wondered whether bitter anarchy would break out, or would all the hype about reefer madness waft away in a green haze.
Colorado State Seal

From Wikipedia:

Colorado Amendment 64, adults aged 21 or older can grow up to six cannabis plants (with no more than half being mature flowering plants) privately in a locked space, legally possess all cannabis from the plants they grow (as long as it stays where it was grown), legally possess up to one ounce of cannabis while traveling, and give as a gift up to one ounce to other citizens 21 years of age or older. Consumption is permitted in a manner similar to alcohol, with equivalent offenses proscribed for driving. Consumption in public remains illegal. Amendment 64 also provides for licensing of cultivation facilities, product manufacturing facilities, testing facilities, and retail stores. Visitors and tourists in Colorado can use and purchase marijuana, but can not take it out of the state, and it is prohibited at Denver International Airport.

The following reports conflict with traditional concerns over decriminalizing:

The conservative media watchdog website Daily Caller offered the following:

Six months after Colorado became the first state to sanction the legal sale of recreational marijuana, it is nearly $11 million richer in retail sales taxes.

Revenues are up.

The Drug Policy Alliance then published the following results:

The organization also reports a 5.2 percent decrease in violent crime in Denver, where most marijuana stores are located, and a savings of $12 million to $40 million by years’ end for not having to enforce old marijuana possession laws.

Crime is down.

Marijuana shops are not abusing their new freedom and peddling the drug to kids:

Over the past six months, regulators from the state Marijuana Enforcement Division have sent underage customers into 20 marijuana retail stores in Denver and Pueblo to attempt to buy pot. All of them were turned away.

This outcome is not surprising to me. In 2003, Orange County Superior Court Judged delivered a presentation calling for the decriminalization of controlled substances. Like many in the audience, and particularly of a conservative bent, I disagreed with the policy, and expressed my disagreement with him and other openly.

One factor for decriminalization, Gray offered, was that by taking away the deviant aspect associated with illegal substances, law we could make drug use "boring".

In Colorado, kids aren't getting high, or they aren't trying to flout the law with fake IDs, probably because decriminalization has made MJ, the gateway drug, a door not worth walking through.

Now, Daily Caller has an alternative slant to it. What about a mainstream publication? What conclusions did they come to on this issue?

In Forbes Magazine, columnist Jacob Sullum starts out by retelling the story of a teacher who had voted against decriminalizing marijuana, who then opened up an MJ business, which is now thriving. Sulllum repeats the moderate stance of embattled Democratic governor John Hickenlooper, who found that letting residents grow and smoke their grass has not put the state six feet under, as feared:
Gov. John Hickenlooper
 It seems like the people that were smoking before are mainly the people that are smoking now. If that’s the case, what that means is that we’re not going to have more drugged driving, or driving while high. We’re not going to have some of those problems. But we are going to have a system where we’re actually regulating and taxing something, and keeping that money in the state of Colorado…and we’re not supporting a corrupt system of gangsters.

Recreational use did not increase, neither did crime, nor costs to public safety.
Forbes cited other studies which point out the marijuana use declined in Colorado as legal restrictions loosened, then disappeared entirely. Notice that decriminalization reduced the perverse incentives of black market enterprises like gangs and crime syndicates.

Forbes also investigated whether easy access to weed led to more traffic accidents.

Despite one study which pointed to an increase in drivers arrested for DUI -MJ, the truth is that the chemicals from smoking the drug remain long after the effects wear off.

Safe streets, more revenues, less crime, no uptick in recreational use: decriminalization in Colorado has not become the Reefer Madness scenario which policy experts had feared.

The more liberal website Policy.Mic summarized the results of Colorado's reforms:

1. Colorado's cash crop is turning out to be even more profitable than the state could have hoped.

. . .

2. Denver crime rates have suddenly fallen.

Mic. reproduced a graph exposing the federal expense of the War on Drugs, in which the rates of addiction remain flat, but government spending explodes.Limited government conservatives could argue that ending the War on Drugs would fortify the War on Debt.

Are there any reports suggesting that the turnabout in Colorado is all smoke and mirrors?

The New York Times (yes, the same biased, marginalized media conglomerate that Prints only the News that Fits) presented contrary anecdotes:

Law enforcement officers in Colorado and neighboring states, emergency room doctors and legalization opponents increasingly are highlighting a series of recent problems as cautionary lessons for other states flirting with loosening marijuana laws.
 
There is the Denver man who, hours after buying a package of marijuana-infused Karma Kandy from one of Colorado’s new recreational marijuana shops, began raving about the end of the world and then pulled a handgun from the family safe and killed his wife, the authorities say. Some hospital officials say they are treating growing numbers of children and adults sickened by potent doses of edible marijuana. Sheriffs in neighboring states complain about stoned drivers streaming out of Colorado and through their towns.
 
Then back-tracks from the gloom and doom:
 
Despite such anecdotes, there is scant hard data. Because of the lag in reporting many health statistics, it may take years to know legal marijuana’s effect — if any — on teenage drug use, school expulsions or the number of fatal car crashes.

The NYT article highlights another concern: interstate consumption of marijuana. The results of decriminalization have not (apparently) created the market frenzy for drug use (legal or illegal) outside of the state. Highway patrol and sheriffs in other states give mixed accounts on MJ use (and abuse)

Other consequences include children using the product:

Many of Colorado’s starkest problems with legal marijuana stem from pot-infused cookies, chocolates and other surprisingly potent edible treats that are especially popular with tourists and casual marijuana users.
 
On Colorado’s northern plains, for example, a fourth grader showed up on the playground one day in April and sold some of his grandmother’s marijuana to three classmates. The next day, one of those students returned the favor by bringing in a marijuana edible he had swiped from his own grandmother.
 
These anecdotal accounts should motivate parents and caregivers to pay attention. MJ critics cannot blame the substance, as much as the lack of substantial attention to the children. Pro-legal MJ advocates do recognize the problems associated with the massive shift in policy, yet they argue that after eighty years of criminalization, a steep learning curve remains to reintegrate a controlled substance into a regulated yet legal status.
File:Discount Medical Marijuana - 2.jpg
Medical Marijuana Clinic in Denver, CO

Slate.com also explored the same unintended consequences of legal MJ in CO. Because there are no long-term studies, the article reported, Governor Hickenlooper told his fellow Governors to wait before considering similar reforms in their states.

I agree with the governor's caution on the subject, yet not because MJ decriminalization will turn out to be a failure, but so that future states will include the safe and precise regulations to protect children and ensure against sudden, drug-related accidental deaths. Besides, the same concerns can equally apply to alcohol consumption. The solution to these accidents is not removing the substance, but rather education and a modest expectation from American citizens to make better choices and learn from their mistakes.

Isn't that what a free society is all about?

Based on media reports and empirical studies of MJ decriminalization, Colorado's Amendment 64  has not created the crime wave and drug epidemic which opponents had feared. Unintended consequences, like food poisoning and tragic accidents related to MJ consumption, can be resolved with clearer legislation. Colorado's rise in revenue, the drop in crime, and proper legal respect and enforcement have paid off, and decriminalization is not turning out to be a hazy hope, but a green reality.

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