Pubdate: Sun, 01 Jun 2014
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2014 The New York Times Company
Author: Jack Healy


DENVER - Five months after Colorado became the first state to allow
recreational marijuana sales, the battle over legalization is still

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.

"I think, by any measure, the experience of Colorado has not been a
good one unless you're in the marijuana business," said Kevin A.
Sabet, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which
opposes legalization. "We've seen lives damaged. We've seen deaths
directly attributed to marijuana legalization. We've seen marijuana
slipping through Colorado's borders. We've seen marijuana getting into
the hands of kids."

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.

It was only in January, for example, that the Colorado State Patrol
began tracking the number of people pulled over for driving while
stoned. Since then, marijuana-impaired drivers have made up about 1.5
percent of all citations for driving under the influence of drugs or

Proponents of legalization argue that the critics are cherry-picking
anecdotes to tarnish a young industry that has been flourishing under
intense scrutiny.

The vast majority of the state's medical and recreational marijuana
stores are living up to stringent state rules, they say. The stores
have sold marijuana to hundreds of thousands of customers without
incident. The industry has generated $12.6 million in taxes and fees
so far, though the revenues have not matched some early

Marijuana supporters note that violent crimes in Denver - where the
bulk of Colorado's pot retailers are - are down so far this year. The
number of robberies from January through April fell by 4.8 percent
from the same time in 2013, and assaults were down by 3.7 percent.
Over all, crime in Denver is down by about 10 percent, though it is
impossible to say whether changes to marijuana laws played any role in
that decline.

"Every major institution said this would be horrible and lead to
violence and blood in the streets," said Brian Vicente, one of the
authors of Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana in Colorado. "None
of that's happened. The sky did not fall."

The argument is being waged with fervor because both sides say
Colorado's successes and failures with regulating marijuana will shape
perceptions of legalization for voters considering similar measures in
other states and for leery federal law enforcement officials. After
the 2012 legalization votes in Colorado and Washington State - where
recreational sales are expected to begin this summer - Justice
Department officials gave the states a cautious green light. But they
warned that they might intervene if marijuana ended up fueling
violence or drug trafficking, or flowing across state lines or into
the hands of children.

Marijuana opponents like Thomas J. Gorman of the Rocky Mountain High
Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which helps law enforcement,
say Colorado is already falling short of those standards.

"In any other state if they were making as much money and growing as
much dope, they'd be taken out by the feds," Mr. Gorman said.

Few agree on how much legally purchased marijuana is being secreted
out of Colorado. Michele Leonhart, the head of the Drug Enforcement
Administration, told a Senate panel in April that officials in Kansas
had tallied a 61 percent increase in seizures of marijuana that could
be traced to Colorado. But according to the Kansas Highway Patrol,
total marijuana seizures fell to 1,090 pounds from 2,790 pounds during
the first four months of the year, a 61 percent decline.

Some sheriffs and police chiefs along Colorado's borders say they have
noticed little change. But in Colby, Kan., which sits along an
interstate highway running west to Colorado, Police Chief Ron
Alexander said charges for sale, distribution or possession related to
marijuana were rising fast. This year, he tallied 20 such cases
through May 23. Two years ago, there were six during that same time

Sheriff Adam Hayward of Deuel County, Neb., said he was locking up
more people for marijuana-related offenses. "It's kind of a
free-for-all," he said. "The state or the federal government needs to
step up and do something."

Criminal marijuana cases in Colorado plunged by 65 percent in 2013,
the first full year of legalization for personal recreational use, but
the police in some areas have been writing dozens of tickets to crack
down on public marijuana smokers. Police and fire officials across the
state have been contending with a sharp rise in home explosions, as
people try to cook hashish oil over butane flames. And despite a
galaxy of legal, regulated marijuana stores across the state,
prosecutors say a dangerous illicit market persists.

In February, for example, in the Denver suburb of Aurora, a
17-year-old planning to rob an out-of-state marijuana buyer instead
accidentally shot and killed his girlfriend, law enforcement officials

"Why break into a house to steal a TV or a computer that you have to
fence when you can steal mounds of cash or marijuana, which is like
liquid?" said George Brauchler, the district attorney who oversees
Aurora. "That's the kind of stuff we're starting to become more aware

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

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.

"This was kind of an unintended consequence of Colorado's new law,"
said John Gates, the district's director of school safety and
security. "For crying out loud, secure your weed. If you can legally
possess it, that's fine. But it has no place in an elementary school."

So far this year, nine children have ended up at Children's Hospital
Colorado in Aurora after consuming marijuana, six of whom got
critically sick. In all of 2013, the hospital treated only eight such

In March, the state logged what appeared to be its first death
directly tied to legal recreational marijuana when a 19-year-old
African exchange student, Levy Thamba Pongi, plunged to his death in
Denver. He and three other students had driven from their college in
Wyoming to sample Colorado's newly legal wares. Mr. Pongi ate
marijuana-infused cookies, began acting wildly and leapt from a hotel
balcony, officials said; the medical examiner's office said marijuana
intoxication had made a "significant" contribution to the accident.

In April, the shooting death of Kristine Kirk raised even more
concerns about regulating edible marijuana. Minutes before she was
killed, Ms. Kirk called 911 to say her husband, Richard, was "talking
like it was the end of the world" and had consumed marijuana and
possibly prescription medication for back pain, according to a police
affidavit. Police later confirmed that Mr. Kirk had bought the Karma
Kandy and a pre-rolled joint from a licensed marijuana shop that evening.

Those two deaths, combined with reports of groggy, nauseated children
visiting emergency rooms, forced the state to tighten its labeling and
packaging rules for edible marijuana. Regulators are also considering
whether to set lower limits on the amount of THC, the psychoactive
component of marijuana, that can be packed into one cookie or
chocolate bonbon.

Even supporters of legalization such as Mr. Vicente say Colorado needs
to pass stricter rules about edible marijuana. He said the state was
racing up a sharp learning curve.

"Marijuana was illegal for 80 years," Mr. Vicente said. "Now it's
legal, and everyone's just trying to figure out how to approach these
new issues."
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