Pubdate: Thu, 05 Feb 2015
Source: Cape Times (South Africa)
Copyright: 2015 Cape Times
Author: Valerie Hamilton


A YEAR into Colorado's "great social experiment", legal marijuana is 
part of the state's mainstream. But Colorado's drug laws are still at 
odds with its neighbours, and most of the US.

Denver's pedestrian mall is the city's busiest shopping district, an 
all-American high street where crowds bustle between glass-fronted 
rows of popular retailers.

Stores here offer shoppers a high-end array of merchandise, from 
children's toys to cowboy boots  and, since April, legal marijuana, 
displayed like so many strains of exotic tea in a mood-lit shopfront 
across from the Sheraton hotel.

Euflora Cannabis Dispensary's owner describes its look as "Starbucks 
meets Apple". The shop has three locations and a Twitter account. 
Yelp users give it four and a half stars.

When Colorado's voters took the historic decision in 2012 to legalise 
marijuana for recreational use, prognosticators on both sides 
predicted it would transform the state.

Supporters said it would fuel economic development by taxing millions 
in marijuana sales. Detractors said it would fuel youth consumption, 
traffic accidents and crime.

But more than a year into what Colorado governor John Hickenlooper 
has called "one of the great social experiments of this century", the 
state's marijuana business feels like business as usual.

"I haven't noticed a difference in the culture," Ashley Kilroy, 
executive director of marijuana policy for the city of Denver, told 
dpa. "I think for the people who live and work here... it's not that 
big of a deal."

The smattering of data produced in the first year of legal sales of 
recreational marijuana is hard to parse. Police have issued fewer 
citations for marijuana possession, Kilroy says, but more for public 
consumption. Crime was up slightly in Denver compared to 2013, but 
traffic fatalities were down.

The main problems authorities faced were ones no one had predicted: 
overdoses of edible marijuana products and home explosions from 
cannabis extraction accidents. Kilroy said Denver's fire department 
was now "the expert in the world" on cannabis extraction safety.

In October 2014, the state took in more than $60 million (R684m) in 
taxes on recreational marijuana and fees related to business 
operations - just more than half of the $100m (R1140m) proponents had 
projected. Economists differ on where those numbers could go. What's 
clear is that Colorado's marijuana business is growing into the mainstream.

Although consumption in public is illegal, adults over 21 can now buy 
marijuana at more than 380 shops across the state. In Denver, there 
are more than four times as many marijuana sellers - 205 - as there 
are Starbucks coffee outlets.

One in four Coloradans uses marijuana, according to a December 2014 
poll by the Denver Post, which has a full-time marijuana editor and a 
website, The Cannabist, with marijuana-related news and lifestyle 
articles, including recipes for marijuana mayonnaise.

But the very normality of Colorado's cannabis sector has a 
through-the-looking-glass quality, in the context of a country where 
marijuana remains illegal under federal and most state drug laws.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a reform advocacy group, 
609,423 people were arrested for marijuana possession in the US in 
2013, the year Colorado was processing its first retail licences.

While federal law gives states wide leeway in setting their own 
rules, the vast distance between Colorado's legal pot and drug laws 
elsewhere is uncharted territory.

And the neighbouring states of Nebraska and Oklahoma are unhappy 
about pot illegally crossing over the border and in December 2014 
sued Colorado to stop it.

The Obama administration has directed federal prosecutors to leave 
state-legal marijuana alone. But banks have still shied away from 
marijuana business clients, fearing they could violate money laundering laws.

As a result, many marijuana businesses operate entirely in cash, even 
paying monthly taxes with shopping bags full of bills, Kilroy says.

"It's an unstable environment," Michael Elliott, director of the 
Marijuana Industry Group, a trade organisation, told dpa. "It's 
creating a bunch of safety, accountability and transparency problems."

As the marijuana sector grows, these problems may become more 
pressing. The legal marijuana business in the US, including 
recreational and medical marijuana sales, grew 74% in 2014, to $2.7 
billion (R30.77bn), according to a new report by ArcView Market 
Research, a marijuana research and investment group in San Francisco.

Recreational marijuana use and sales are legal in Colorado and 
Washington states. Alaska, Oregon and Washington, DC, passed 
recreational marijuana laws in 2014.

Twenty-eight additional states allow marijuana for medical use, with 
varying restrictions.

A Gallup poll in November 2014 showed that 51% of Americans supported 
legalising marijuana entirely.

But Loretta Lynch, President Barack Obama's nominee to head the 
Department of Justice, responsible for enforcing federal drug laws, 
told a Senate confirmation hearing in January that she did not.

Asked what advice she would give a state considering marijuana 
legalisation, she said they should be informed that federal narcotics 
laws would still be enforced by the Department of Justice.  Sapa-dpa
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom