Pubdate: Fri, 03 Jan 2014
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2014 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.


Other States Can See How Legalization Works Out In The Stoner

On New Year's Day, Sean Azzariti, a former Marine who did two tours in
Iraq, became the first American in a century to buy pot legally, as
Colorado's state-licensed marijuana stores opened for business. Thus
began a great social and economic experiment in drug legalization--but
also with any luck a federalist education for the other states
wondering whether to follow.

In 2012, voters in Colorado approved a state constitutional amendment
ending the prohibition of growing, selling or consuming cannabis, and
by all accounts the Jan. 1 transition was seamless. Thousands of
residents and drug tourists lined up outside three dozen outlets to be
part of the precedent (and presumably the afterparty). The stores used
to be medical marijuana dispensaries and so were already set with
inventory, retail space, staff and customers. They simply hung up a
new shingle.

As in 19 other states, "medicinal" use has been legal in Colorado
since 2000, though the distinction with recreational consumption was
always mostly notional. About 3% of Coloradans have marijuana cards
and can supply most anyone who wants to get high. The irony is a pack
of cigarettes is probably harder to obtain than a joint or drug-laced
baked goods, which sums up the politics of Boulder.

Yet regulating commercial sale like alcohol and permitting
recreational use outright for the general public is still an important
legal and cultural passage. Under Colorado's rules, any resident over
age 21 can buy up to an ounce per transaction, while visitors are
limited to a quarter-ounce. An ounce is enough for about 60 joints.
Cash only, please.

People are allowed to smoke on private property but not in public.
Zoning laws let some communities keep out the pot business if they
prefer, such as Colorado Springs, so about three-quarters of the 136
licenses issued so far are for the Denver area.

Cannabis prices climbed slightly on opening day as demand outstripped
supply, but they could decline over time. Marijuana is expensive only
because of prohibition; there's a reason it's called "weed."
Competition may transform what is now both an in-state cottage
business and a transnational criminal market, and prices will find an
equilibrium like any other commodity.

Colorado imposes a 25% markup using sales taxes for wholesale
processors and store fronts, on top of other state and local taxes.
Legalization advocates predict a revenue windfall, but that won't
accrue if underlying pretax prices plunge.

Taxes and regulations are also difficult to enforce because of the
left-over black market and the fact that marijuana is so cheap and
easy to grow. Plants are inherently harder to control than liquor:
Moonshine excepted, few people are distilling their own spirits in
their garage, and unlike a keg, a bag of pot can be slipped into a
pocket or glove compartment.

Low prices, advertising, the perseverance of the underground marijuana
economy and the general social normalization of marijuana use will
naturally encourage more consumption, which carries troubling
implications for young people and problem users who smoke all the
time. States ought to monitor changes in Colorado's rates of
marijuana-related crime and delinquency, teenage use, drug dependence
and addiction, and accidents on the roads or ski slopes. Some adults
seem to be able to smoke responsibly, but like alcohol the effects of
pot on the juvenile brain are not benign.

Marijuana possession remains a federal crime until Congress changes
the Controlled Substances Act, which is supposed to trump state law.
But the Obama Administration is suspending enforcement to allow
Colorado to undertake its experiment, with Washington state to follow
later this year.

The feds say they'll intervene if governments can't prevent
distribution to minors or trafficking across state borders, but those
are both inevitable and no one should expect that Attorney General
Eric Holder's troops will arrest people as they cross into Utah. Those
are President Obama's voters.

The larger question is whether the benefits exceed the costs to U.S.
society. On top of tax receipts, the legalizers promise to build more
schools and roads as resources are shifted away from law enforcement
and imprisonment. That's almost certainly oversold because few
marijuana users end up in jail today and no one knows the costs of
more drug use. Legalizers also invoke individual liberty, even if the
only places liberals support less government are in personal behavior
and national-security surveillance.

Marijuana politics are changing, especially in California, the West
and New England, but the consequences of legalization are unknowable
in advance. Perhaps the gains will be everything the stoners claim,
though bong-inspired visions tend to be defeated by reality.

Colorado and Washington voters may come to regret their decision if
they notice a surge in drug use, or more violence, or a generation of
underdeveloped young people. Legalization, once achieved, will be hard
to reverse. Better, then, to let Colorado go first, and watch what
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D