Pubdate: Fri, 07 Jun 2013
Source: Colorado Statesman, The (CO)
Copyright: 2013 The Colorado Statesman
Author: Miller Hudson


Ten years ago I left Paris on the Friday before Halloween riding the 
high-speed, Belgian THALYS train headed for Amsterdam. Although most 
Europeans call it All Souls Day, their holiday is similar to ours, 
and my coach was packed with college students, many in costume and 
most of them drinking heavily.

They were bound for Amsterdam and the Netherlands' recently opened 
coffee houses - then, they would be on to the city's synth-beat dance halls.

Marijuana was the draw, trance dancing, the high and communal hotel 
rooms the payoff.

Both the train station and the airport, as I would learn when I flew 
out on Monday, were bursting with tourists.

Free shuttle buses waited at curbside to whisk these merry makers to 
their preferred destinations.

A colossal North Sea storm had flooded parts of downtown the night 
before and it would continue to rain heavily throughout the weekend. 
My intention to visit the Rijksmusuem on Saturday was abandoned when 
I discovered a three-hour line that had to be endured in a drenching 
downpour. Rembrandt would have to wait for another trip. It seemed 
like it would be far more fun to learn something about the marijuana 
bars. The most interesting one I found was a coffee house that shared 
one side of the first floor in a 17th-century commercial building 
with a police sub-station. Only a hallway separated them. When I 
entered the coffee house, several police officers were there sipping 
coffee. I joined them, and, as is usually the case, all but one spoke 
excellent English.

These officers felt there had been little or no criminal downside to 
legalization; that it had, in fact, dried up revenues for many street 
level drug dealers.

They also enjoyed their proximity to a coffee house since it provided 
a venue where they frequently picked up tips from neighbors and 
informants, who might hesitate to be seen walking into a police 
station, regarding illegal activity in the neighboring community. 
Throughout our conversation a steady stream of customers purchased 
their joints and traipsed out into the early Baltic gloom of rain 
slickened streets.

Cash registers were ringing across the city, in restaurants and 
shops, as youthful visitors killed time until the clubs opened again.

The economic impact was evident to anyone who bothered to watch.

A few years ago, several of the border towns in the Netherlands, 
among them Maastricht, became increasingly concerned about the high 
volume of purchase-only customers who were crossing over from Germany 
and Belgium. These customers tended to be loutish in behavior and 
frequently indulged in various petty vandalisms. So they petitioned 
the Dutch Parliament to let them deny marijuana sales to 
non-residents. Once their bill was approved, Amsterdam swiftly moved 
to assure travelers that its coffee houses would remain open to all. 
There was simply too much money at stake.

I recount all of this because it provides a frame of reference for 
what we may expect in Colorado once recreational marijuana sales open 
on January 1, 2014.

If you think LoDo is a crowded place on Friday and Saturday nights 
today, just wait. Pot heads from across the Midwest and points West 
will descend on the Queen City of the Plains like Miller moths in 
June. Ski trips will spike as weekend jocks flock to slice our 
knee-deep powder on a mellow high. It won't be just Applejack's that 
earns a stop as mountain shuttles ferry travelers to our mountain 
resorts. So, what were Colorado voters thinking when they approved 
first Medical marijuana and now adult-use doobies for all? A large 
part, I suspect, was the desire to decriminalize marijuana offenses. 
Drug laws have operated in a discriminatory fashion that destroys 
lives and opportunities for decades.

As Gary Johnson, the former Republican Governor of New Mexico and 
2012 Libertarian Presidential candidate, likes to say, "Seventy 
percent of those serving marijuana sentences in my state are black or brown.

How many people in this room believe they've been smoking 70 percent 
of the grass?"

Whatever the merits of the medical marijuana argument may be, and 
they are reportedly considerable for some patients, it was rapidly 
evident that its introduction was the proverbial camel's nose beneath 
the wall of our legal tent. Who knew there was an epidemic of chronic 
pain among single men under the age of 35 in Colorado? Yet, there has 
been little public complaint regarding their backdoor access to quality reefer.

The marijuana offered today is a long way from the ditch weed of the 
'70s. Monsanto may not have been on the job, but there is no 
suppressing human ingenuity.

Individuals who would have a stroke if they ate a genetically 
modified organism (think corn, wheat and soybean products) don't seem 
to have any problem smoking GMO-engineered ganja.

The potency of the cloned marijuana buds on sale today is a good 10 
or 15 times that of their recent ancestors.

A couple of hits will take you places that would have required a 
couple of joints 30 years ago.

A public health emergency?

Not everyone is enthused about the experiment voters have launched in 
Colorado. Opponents abound, but our shared American respect for 
democratic choices has restricted them to grumbling about 
implementation; challenging the scope, reach and effectiveness of the 
state's proposed rules and regulations governing public sale. Two 
separate and distinct groups have emerged to register their concerns 
and objections. (1) Educators and parents who are deeply worried 
about the diversion of marijuana to children, particularly teenagers. 
They buttress their argument with studies that indicate regular 
marijuana usage prior to the age of 19 can adversely affect brain 
development. (2) Medical and addiction treatment professionals who 
fear that legalization will unleash an avalanche of health care costs 
as marijuana becomes a gateway drug for more serious and damaging 
consequences including psychosis, amotivational syndrome and 
depression. At a recent Denver Post marijuana forum, Dr. Paula Rigg 
with the University of Colorado Medical School's Department of 
Psychiatry cited the fact that taxes on nicotine and alcohol 
historically covered just 10 percent of their public health impacts. 
She sees no reason to believe marijuana will prove any different.

Proponents like to point to our President as a heavy teen-toker whose 
career appears to have turned out well. Whatever should be expected, 
Colorado has scrimped on mental health and addiction services for 
decades. Dr. Libby Stuyt, the addiction psychiatrist who runs the 
Circle Program at the state hospital in Pueblo, points out that she 
already has a six-month waiting list for the scant 20 beds funded by 
our state budget.

She expresses particular concern about adolescent susceptibility to 
brain insult from marijuana and expects to see an influx of 
applicants next year.

The Legislature expanded its funding of mental health services during 
the 2013 session, largely as a response to the Aurora theater 
massacre, in hopes of better identifying the most profoundly 
disturbed among us. Critics claim this isn't likely to work, so 
perhaps these monies can help provide treatment for any sudden spike 
in addiction disorders.

Unfortunately, much of the scientific research that both sides point 
to was conducted more than a decade ago, long before the high potency 
marijuana strains available today even existed.

Very little new marijuana research is being funded. Proponents point 
out that local mental health programs receive nearly 60 percent of 
their revenues from court ordered marijuana referrals, which will 
presumably dry up in the new legal environment. Questioning 
motivations has become a cottage industry.

The truth is that no one probably knows how this will turn out, 
although passions are running high. Also at the Denver Post marijuana 
forum last week, a member of the audience arose at the close of the 
session and loudly challenged anyone who claimed that marijuana did 
not serve as a gateway drug. He grew sufficiently belligerent that he 
had to be escorted from the room. Undoubtedly, there are individuals 
with a predilection for addictive behavior.

I have a friend who went on a health kick several years ago and began 
consuming vitamins and additives in industrial quantities (if two 
pills were good for you then ten should be better) - transforming 
herself into a supplement-gobbling dervish.

I suspect she probably shouldn't start smoking anything.

A kick-start for the economy?

On this question, proponents have substantial evidence in their 
corner. The medical marijuana industry has grown almost exponentially 
in Colorado, sopping up vacant warehouse space along the Front Range 
for its grow operations while employing hundreds of semi-skilled 
workers - those who have had the hardest time finding jobs in our 
post-2008 economy.

It's fast becoming big business, perhaps approaching $200 million in 
sales during 2012. I had an opportunity to visit Medicine Man's 
operations in Montbello. The medical marijuana growth operation has 
33 employees, a $3.5 million dollar grow operation, a pharmacy and 
more than a thousand regular customers. The owners are preparing to 
double the size of their current grow operation as they ramp up for 
the anticipated recreational market.

Theirs is a sophisticated, closely monitored and highly technical business.

Female seed clones must be fooled into budding under artificial 
light, the grow rooms need to be kept virtually sterile as any 
pollination would produce unwanted seeds. "The girls" must remain virgins.

Each of their last two grow room supervisors has departed to consult 
for brand new facilities. Surprisingly, they love state regulation, 
even if they haven't seen much of it.

Just a few minutes on the Internet will lead you to seed banks, 
wholesalers, product exchanges and equipment suppliers.

Anyone who followed the development of Colorado's legislative 
recommendations witnessed the growing clout of this industry.

Medical marijuana licensees hired experienced Statehouse lobbyists.

They in turn successfully won exclusive rights to launch the adult 
use marketplace for their existing medical marijuana clients.

More than a thousand medical marijuana shops have been approved in 
Colorado and another 300 remain in the pipeline.

In Denver there will soon be more marijuana shops than liquor stores.

The city council took a straw poll this week that found only one 
member openly opposed to commercial expansion, 10 in favor, and one 
on the fence.

Albeit, even the supporters cushioned their yes votes with caveats 
about protecting children, neighborhoods and minority communities. 
But don't kid yourself; this horse is out of the barn, over the hill 
and on its way to grandmother's house.

And once weed tourists begin filling hotel rooms, crowding 
restaurants and throwing their money around, we will witness the 
chamber of commerce begin to circle the establishment's wagons around 
this honey pot.

Our local entrepreneurs like to brag about Colorado's opportunity to 
lead the nation in developing a spanking new industry - envisioning 
themselves as the eventual kingpins of a continent-wide marijuana 
empire. Truth be told, we will only know we've hit the jackpot when 
hedge funds and Philip Morris start sniffing around town, and that 
won't happen until they're sure the federal government won't attempt 
to strangle this baby in the cradle.

Bankers and venture capitalists are beginning to shed their caution, 
and business managers are muscling up as well. A surprising 
percentage of operators, however, go out of their way to assure you 
they aren't users themselves and that they are only involved because 
of the marvelous business opportunity. You should accept that claim 
with a grain of salt.

Yet to be determined

Ninety years have elapsed since prohibition was repealed, and 
residual legal squabbles remain in Colorado's liquor industry.

While I was running Denver's Office of Excise and Licenses, 
mom-and-pop liquor stores complained incessantly that Walmart could 
retail Budweiser, and earn a profit, for less than they could 
purchase the same suds from a Colorado wholesaler. The fact that 
Walmart purchased their beer by the trainload at the brewery in St. 
Louis and then distributed it nationally to their stores with their 
own trucks can be viewed as either a good or a bad thing depending on 
both your point of view and your sense of economic fairness.

Grocery stores and other chains regularly chafe at the fact they can 
only hold a single Colorado liquor license.

Similar tensions will develop in the regulatory framework for adult 
use marijuana, which was miraculously cobbled together in less than six months.

Just wait a few years until Walmart decides to open its own smoking counters.

It seems likely that huge grow-only operations will eventually emerge 
simply as a matter of efficiency, and there will be increasing 
pressure to license co-ops where individuals can aggregate their 
home-grow allotments in shared, secure facilities. A more immediate 
conflict will arise over the legitimacy of smoke clubs where 
individuals can share a puff with friends and strangers.

Since public consumption is outlawed, and most tourists won't have a 
private property to visit and hotels and restaurants must keep their 
current smoking bans in place, there will have to an alternative 
provided. Attorney Rob Corry has already filed a challenge on behalf 
of a club he hopes to open. Will a toke on a private balcony 
constitute public consumption? What is the appropriate definition of 
marijuana intoxication? Although the Legislature established a 
threshold for driving under the influence, it doesn't match up with 
the federal standards for commercial driver licensing.

There are a lot of loose ends. The Colorado Supreme Court recently 
ruled that an employer may establish a prohibition against marijuana 
use even though private consumption is legal.

No set of rules can anticipate every eventuality.

A few years ago I received a call from an employee at one of the 
state's regional centers for the profoundly disabled.

She had been driving a state van while chaperoning nine residents on 
a field trip when a drunk driver struck her vehicle.

The other driver had been ticketed and arrested.

Fortunately no one in the van had been seriously injured other than 
the driver, who had struck her head on the doorpost.

She was taken to the hospital for observation. During routine blood 
tests marijuana was detected in her system.

She was suspended without pay until she could clear a urine 
screening. Needless to say, she found this bizarre turn of events 
unfair, as she had not, in her opinion, been at fault nor evidenced 
any reduced capacity.

She told me, "I don't know when I'll be able to get back to work. I'm 
a chubby girl and I understand this stuff can sit in my fatty tissues 
for months." We were on good terms at this point in our conversation 
and I half-jokingly suggested, "This might be a good time to take up 
jogging." She replied by explaining that if she wanted to jog, she 
probably wouldn't be so chubby in the first place.

Then she added, "Look, after a day at my job, I need to come home and 
let go of my stress. So I smoke half a joint before I start cooking dinner.

It helps me treat my kids right and get a good night's sleep later 
on. If you had my job, you'd probably want to smoke too."

I laughed and told her that if I had her job I probably wouldn't last 
a month without getting fired.

She returned to work after three weeks of abstinence (with an assist 
from workouts at the gym) and hasn't had a problem since.

I don't know whether she still takes a hit or two in the evening, but 
feel it's probably a good place for an application of "Don't ask, 
don't tell" principles.

Marijuana usage in the Netherlands is significantly lower than it is 
in the United States, and teen usage in Colorado has declined 
slightly since medical marijuana was regulated.

It may be true that tight regulation will make it tougher for teens 
to get their hands on pot than it is today when the cartels will sell 
pretty much anything to anyone.

An unexpected criticism comes from the political left, where several 
opponents object that marijuana legalization protects middle class 
families for using their drug of choice while poor kids will still 
get busted for crack offenses.

Of course, there may still be substantial costs to our public health 
care systems.

It would be nice if we had set aside some money to track all the 
parameters at dispute: crime rates, addiction incidence, diversion, 
health costs, usage, public safety, toxicity and potency.

The federal government has remained silent throughout Colorado's 
election, our subsequent implementation and now the risking of tens 
of millions of dollars in private investment. The Feds waste plenty 
of money on silly things, so perhaps they could help monitor these 
outcomes for us. It's not exactly leadership, but it would certainly help.

At Medicine Man I was encouraged to touch the buds on a Purple Haze 
to see just how sticky they were, oozing viscous THC. I licked the 
resulting goo off my thumb and forefinger only to have my tongue go 
numb for an hour or two. God only knows what smoking it would do.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom