Pubdate: Sat, 28 Dec 2013
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Ana Campoy


As Colorado prepares to become the first state to allow 
recreational-pot sales next month, legalization opponents are 
concerned that its experience trying to police medical marijuana 
suggests it isn't ready for fully legal weed.

On Jan. 1, retail outlets in Colorado will begin selling the drug to 
anyone 21 or older, tacking on a 25% tax that is intended to fund an 
elaborate regulatory system, as well as provide revenue for public 
schools and other programs.

Colorado officials, who have spent the past year devising rules to 
regulate the recreational-pot market, are confident that they can 
pull off the next phase of the nation's experiment in marijuana 
legalization. But the state, which began allowing people with 
"debilitating medical conditions" to legally use marijuana in 2000, 
is still struggling to handle the problems created by a flood of pot 
that followed.

Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize pot 
outright last year. But Washington isn't set to begin pot sales until 
later in 2014, making Colorado the bellwether recreational-marijuana market.

Dozens of medical-marijuana growers and dispensaries are still 
operating without full licenses as Colorado officials work through a 
backlog of requests originally filed in 2010, when the state first 
began regulating the medical-pot trade. A state system that uses 
software and radio-frequency ID tags to monitor pot production and 
sales launched only recently, drawing complaints from businesses, 
which say it is cumbersome and costly.

Officials in neighboring states complain that Colorado pot is 
illegally ending up in their jurisdictions. Colorado hospitals report 
rising emergency-room visits from people who consume potent marijuana 
brownies and oils, and get more stoned than they bargained for. A 
recently released survey of American teens has fueled concerns that 
they are getting access to medical pot, and some youth counselors say 
more teenagers are running into legal troubles over marijuana use.

"It's very, very difficult to keep this out of the hands of young 
people," said John Suthers, Colorado's attorney general, a Republican 
who opposed pot legalization. "Colorado will do the best possible job 
that it can, but this is not going to be easy."

Advocates of marijuana legalization say that problems such as drug 
smuggling and pot use among teens existed long before medical 
marijuana, and that some wrinkles are to be expected in the 
implementation of any new regulatory system.

"Overall, Colorado's system has been a great success," said Mason 
Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit 
group that is pushing for recreational-marijuana laws in several 
states. "It has taken a massive amount of marijuana that was 
otherwise unregulated and uncontrolled out of the street."

While 19 other states and the District of Columbia have now adopted 
laws allowing medical marijuana, Colorado was among the first to set 
up a state-run pot regulatory system--and to begin addressing the 
challenges of policing the legal-weed market.

"You really don't have anything to draw from," said Ron Kammerzell, 
senior director of enforcement at the Colorado Department of Revenue, 
which oversees the state's pot industry. "You're blazing the trail."

In Deuel County, Neb., an area of roughly 2,000 people across the 
border from Colorado's northeast corner, Colorado marijuana seizures 
have grown steadily in the past three years, said Sheriff Adam 
Hayward, adding that officials intercepted a 70-pound pot run last 
month. "You just can't help but run into this thing," said Sheriff 
Hayward, who has had to triple his jail budget to $150,000. "You're 
stopping somebody for a simple traffic infraction and it turns into a 
felony arrest."

At YouthZone, a Glenwood Springs, Colo., nonprofit group that aids 
juvenile delinquents, the percentage of youngsters with pot-related 
charges referred by the courts jumped to 23% in 2013 from 10% in 
2009. Lori Mueller, who runs the group, is concerned that rate could 
increase as recreational pot hits stores.

"Our young people right now are the guinea pigs," she said.

Drug-related expulsions in Colorado surged by more than 40% to around 
750 in the 2009-10 school year, when medical-pot dispensaries began 
to proliferate, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education.

The drug expulsions, which include offenses other than pot, have 
dropped somewhat in the past couple of years, but remain well above 
2008-09 levels. Last school year, the first time officials attempted 
to track marijuana offenses, pot was the top cause for expulsions 
among schools surveyed by the education department.

Nationwide, a federally funded survey released last week found that 
in states with medical-marijuana laws, 34% of 12th graders who 
reported using marijuana in the prior 12 months said that one of 
their sources was another person's medical-pot prescription.

Fred Severyn, president of the state chapter of the American College 
of Emergency Physicians, said he was seeing more marijuana-induced 
anxiety attacks and chest pains. Some users were tricked into eating 
pot-laced goods, including two members of a church group who recently 
showed up with "altered mental status," said Mr. Severyn, an emergency doctor.

In the Denver-Aurora metro area, pot-related emergency-room visits 
more than tripled to 3,871 in 2011 from 2004, according to the latest 
estimates from the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network. Marijuana 
advocates say the drug is less harmful than alcohol, pointing to the 
thousands of deaths tied to excessive alcohol use reported in the 
U.S. each year, compared to none from marijuana overdoses.

Larry Wolk, Colorado's chief medical officer, said it wasn't clear if 
the rise in drug-related expulsions and emergency-room visits was 
tied to recent marijuana laws. But the state is planning to launch a 
campaign to educate parents and children about the risks of marijuana 
as recreational pot hits stores.

The potential impact of the pot laws on public health "can't be 
ignored," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom