Pubdate: Mon, 01 Jul 2019
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2019 The New York Times Company
Author: Jack Healy


DENVER - Serenity Christensen, 14, is too young to set foot in one of
Colorado's many marijuana shops, but she was able to spot a business
opportunity in legal weed. She is a Girl Scout, and this year, she and
her mother decided to sell their cookies outside a dispensary. "Good
business," Serenity said.

But on the other side of Denver, legalization has turned another high
school student, David Perez, against the warehouselike marijuana
cultivations now clustered around his neighborhood. He said their
skunky aroma often smacks him in the face when he walks out his front

These are the ripples of five years of legal marijuana. Colorado's
first-in-the-nation experiment has reshaped health, politics, rural
culture and criminal justice in surprising ways that often defy both
the worst warnings of critics and blue-sky rhetoric of the marijuana
industry, giving a glimpse of what the future may hold as more and
more states adopt and debate full legalization.

Since recreational sales began in 2014, more people here are visiting
emergency rooms for marijuana-related problems, and hospitals report
higher rates of mental-health cases tied to marijuana. At the same
time, thousands of others make uneventful stops at dispensaries every
day, like the hiking guide in the college town of Boulder who now
keeps a few marijuana gummies in a locked bag to help her relax before

Some families rattled by their children's marijuana problems have
moved, seeking refuge in less permissive states. But over all, state
surveys do not show an increase in young people smoking pot.

And while low-level marijuana charges have plummeted, the racial
divide in drug arrests has persisted. State numbers show that
African-Americans in Colorado were still being arrested on marijuana
charges at nearly twice the rate of white people.

"You don't see drug-addled people roaming the streets, but we haven't
created a utopia," said Jonathan Singer, who was one of just two state
legislators who endorsed the Colorado ballot measure that made it
legal for adults 21 and over to buy, consume and grow recreational

Mr. Singer nodded to his 3-year-old, who sat in the back seat one
afternoon as they headed to a picnic. "The fact that I'm willing to
have this conversation in front of my daughter," he said, "shows how
much we've destigmatized this."

The 'Drug Talk,' Rewritten

This is the world reconfigured by legalization - the world that
18-year-old Ethan Pierson grew up in. He was born the same year that
Colorado's first medical-marijuana law took effect. He watched
dispensaries bloom along the commercial streets leading to his high
school in suburban Lakewood.

"If you live in Colorado, it feels like somebody's always smoking next
to you," said Mr. Pierson, who abstains.

Doctors, educators and state officials have been particularly worried
about the effects of legalization on Colorado's youth. Would a
proliferation of recreational pot shops make marijuana seem innocuous
to teenagers, despite studies showing that it is harmful to their
developing minds? Would teenage pot use spike? How would it affect
graduation rates and school discipline?

Five years in, surveys show that most Colorado teenagers are like Mr. 
Pierson: They may have tried it, but 80 percent are not current 
marijuana users. State surveys show that teenage marijuana use has 
fallen slightly since medical marijuana sales ramped up in 2009, and has 
been basically flat since full legalization.

But Mr. Pierson and other students and parents said that legalization
had changed marijuana's image and availability.

Older siblings or even parents can now buy it legally and pass it
along. Classmates take Snapchat videos of one another smoking on the
edges of school. Instead of dime bags, there is now a buffet of
concentrates, tinctures and edibles - still illegal for young people,
but easy to come by.

"It's easy to conceal," Mr. Pierson said. "They carry it around in
their purse or pencil bag."

Some school administrators say they are catching more students using
marijuana and fewer drinking. School disciplinary numbers show that
marijuana is a leading reason students are punished or handed over to
the police. But the overall number of students being expelled for drug
infractions has actually fallen since legalization, in part because
Colorado lawmakers sought to get rid of "zero tolerance" policies at
schools around the same time pot was legalized.

In a fourth-floor juvenile courtroom in Denver, where children stand
in front of a magistrate on charges including curfew violations and
fighting, the number of marijuana possession cases is thinning out.
The share of teenagers arrested for marijuana offenses has fallen by
about 20 percent since Colorado voted to legalize, but black youths
and adults are still getting arrested at much higher rates than white
or Hispanic Coloradans, according to a state report. In 2017, black
people in the state were arrested on marijuana charges at double the
rate of white ones, according to the Colorado Division of Criminal

Some parents said that marijuana was becoming too normal, another
legally permissible health risk with slick marketing, like alcohol or
cigarettes. But marijuana shops cannot advertise on billboards. They
are required to check identification at the door. They are supposed to
be located at least 1,000 feet from schools. Edibles can no longer
look like gummy bears or fruit or be called "candies."

To some parents, this is not enough. They say their children smell
marijuana on hikes, and count dispensaries on their rides home from
school. Before play dates, Ben Cort now asks other parents whether
they keep marijuana in the house before his daughter visits a new
friend's home. Sujata Fretz, a physician in Denver, said she found
herself having a conversation with her 13-year-old son about marijuana
that was shaped by the proliferation of the industry.

"I'm forced to have a conversation with my kids because it's more
public and out there," Dr. Fretz said. "I can't just say, 'Hey drugs
are bad' when it's legal and there are stores that sell it. My goal is
to get them to not use marijuana."

'Nothing Is Completely Safe'

The numbers seem clear: Nearly twice as many Coloradans smoke pot as
the rest of America. The number of adults who use has edged up since

Now, the battle between legalization's supporters and foes is focused
on whether heavier pot use is hurting people's health. It is a
high-stakes question, and Andrew Monte, an emergency and medical
toxicology physician and researcher at the University of Colorado
Hospital, is on the front lines, trying to decipher what the numbers
are saying.

Hospital data analyzed by Dr. Monte and others indicate that more
people are arriving at emergency rooms for marijuana-related reasons.
He has treated many of them. Some are heavy marijuana users with
severe vomiting. Others are children who have eaten edibles,
accidentally or not. They come to the E.R. disoriented, dehydrated or
hallucinating after consuming too much marijuana.

"There's a disconnect between what was proposed as a completely safe
drug," Dr. Monte said. "Nothing is completely safe."

And researchers have reported that patients in the E.R. with
marijuana-related cases were five times as likely to have a
mental-health issue as those with other cases.

Five years of legalization have yielded stories of haunting deaths: A
father of three who shot his wife dead after eating edibles. A young
man visiting Colorado whose family blamed his suicide at a ski resort
on the marijuana he had consumed. Rising numbers of drivers in fatal
traffic crashes who test positive for marijuana (though a positive
test does not necessarily mean the driver was high).

But none of the emergency-room visits tracked by researchers in recent
studies ended with a patient's death. And Dr. Monte, who has treated
and studied so many cannabis cases, said that thousands of Coloradans
every day safely use marijuana.

A retired farmer in Southern Colorado takes it as a balm for his
aching feet. It was how a woman in Denver surmounted the nausea and
pain after a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. Veterans fought to
use it for post-traumatic stress. Children use it for severe seizure
disorders. It is how Alli Fronzaglia, who runs a women's hiking group,
relaxes before bed.

"It's not wreaking havoc," she said. "There are people using
responsibly in Colorado."

Stephanie Angell, 63, used to think she was one of them. Then she
began smoking heavily every day, after she learned she had multiple
sclerosis in 2014. She started smoking after waking up, and then
gravitated to the thick, amberlike extractions that offer higher
concentrations of psychoactive THC. Dispensaries offered specials, she
said, like Edible Wednesdays.

"I began to smoke morning, noon and night," she said.

Compared with the 72,000 drug overdose deaths in America in 2017, with
the crimes and loss spawned by the opioid crisis, marijuana addiction,
users say, can seem too innocuous to even merit attention. State
health data have not shown a surge of patients seeking addiction treatment.

But Ms. Angell said her habit had left her life dull, like a worn
pencil. She lost interest in cross-stitching and other hobbies and
felt like she had to smoke before going to the movies or to dinner.

Ms. Angell still supports legalization. But she and other heavy users
say the risks of marijuana dependence are real, and are being
overlooked as medical and recreational marijuana spread to 34 states.
While legalization efforts failed this year in states including New
Jersey and New York, Illinois last week became the 11th state to
legalize recreational marijuana.

"There's a real denial," Ms. Angell said. "It's a very subtle, subtle

Planting and Busts

There's a new kind of planting season in Pueblo County, home to wide
acres of pastureland and green chile fields that elected officials
want to remake as the Napa Valley of legal weed.

Law-enforcement officials say that legalization has also created
fertile soil for black-market cultivations that pop up in basements.
Legalization advocates said that regulating marijuana would starve
cartels and illegal marijuana trafficking. But some officials say it
has made the problem worse.

As licensed growers in Pueblo legally harvested 113,000 marijuana
plants from fields and greenhouses, police and sheriff's officers here
have been raiding houses converted to illegal cultivations that they
say export marijuana to other states. People cover the windows to hide
the glowing grow lights. They rewire the electric and water lines to
avoid the meters.

Last month, police and federal drug-enforcement agents raided 240
homes around Denver and Northern Colorado that were illegally growing
marijuana, the largest sweep since legalization. Jason Dunn, the
United States attorney in Denver, said it was a sign Colorado had
become "the epicenter of black-market marijuana in the United States."

Legalization coincided with a 20 percent rise in violent crime rates
in Colorado from 2012 to 2017, according to a state report, giving
ammunition to critics. But it is almost impossible to attribute broad
changes in crime rates to just one cause. Over the same period, the
number of marijuana-related arrests fell by half. The Denver Police
say that marijuana offenses - which make up less than 1 percent of
overall crimes - fell by about 25 percent since recreational sales
began in 2014.

Still, tiny rural places and struggling cities that were left out of
Colorado's booming economy have decided it is worth the gamble. So
marijuana shops are crowding into tiny towns near the Utah, Nebraska
or New Mexico borders - a concern for officials worried about
out-of-state trafficking. Farmland and open space are becoming huge
cultivations and processing centers.

"We were pretty broke," said Patricia Reigel, the mayor of Moffat, a
town of 119 people in the sagebrush of the San Luis Valley. It now has
two dispensaries and recently approved plans for a cannabis campus
that could eventually hold 43 cultivations and processing businesses.

A Green Party

When it comes to politics, legalization was just the

With a new, marijuana-friendly governor in office, bipartisan groups
of Colorado legislators passed a half-dozen marijuana laws this year
that were on the cannabis industry's wish list.

They approved marijuana-delivery services to bring weed to people's
front doors. Out-of-state investment and publicly traded cannabis
companies. Pot lounges - called "marijuana hospitality establishments"
- - that could allow consumption and be exempted from the state's indoor
clean-air laws.

The state also allowed medical marijuana to be used to treat autism,
or in place of opioids. Medical marijuana is less taxed than marijuana
sold as "recreational."

The laws were just one sign of the growing political clout of an
industry that does $1.5 billion in yearly sales here.

Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, campaigned on supporting marijuana. For
his cannabis adviser, he picked not a law-enforcement type or
public-health official, but a onetime owner of a Denver dispensary who
had run a marijuana consulting business.

But as the industry expands, some of marijuana's earliest supporters
and first entrepreneurs have raised concerns about being left out as
pot companies in the United States and Canada chase billion-dollar
valuations and hire powerful politicians like John Boehner, the
Republican former House speaker. As marijuana starts to look like the
next Silicon Valley, early advocates such as Wanda James, the first
African-American woman in Colorado to own a dispensary, now worry that
small businesses, women, and people of color - who were
disproportionately hurt by harsh marijuana laws - are now getting left
on the sidelines.

In Denver's working-class Elyria Swansea neighborhood, the newly
elected City Council member Candi CdeBaca supported legalization and
won an endorsement from Colorado Norml, the marijuana-reform group.
But she has also become a critic of the marijuana cultivation and
processing businesses that are concentrated in her largely Hispanic

David Perez, 17, said he had gotten used to the smell that leaks out
of marijuana businesses in his neighborhood. It was in the air one
afternoon as he walked to a friend's graduation party.

"Every time I go for a walk or go to the rec, I smell it. It's
everywhere," he said. He didn't like it, but he was used to it. "It
just feels normal."
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