Since voter approval of recreational marijuana in 2012, Coloradans have become accustomed to predictable jokes — yes, our mountainous state is very “high” — and good-natured curiosity from out-of-state friends and relatives.
But Colorado’s status as a guinea pig in the nations marijuana commercialization experiment has produced serious consequences and provided sobering lessons that can inform other states.
Many Coloradans believe adults should be allowed to use small amounts of marijuana in private. But there is a big difference between decriminalizing marijuana and allowing full-blown profit-driven commercialization.
We formed our nonprofit organization, Smart Colorado, after the passage of Amendment 64, which amended Colorado’s constitution to allow anyone 21 and older to use marijuana. Protecting kids is our sole purpose.
Our supporters include those who voted for and against marijuana legalization. And our nonpartisan efforts have been endorsed by Colorado’s four living ex-governors.
We’ve learned the hard way:
● What a daunting a task it has been for Colorado policymakers to devise a new regulatory framework and for regulators to enforce it.
● How aggressive and powerful the financial interests behind the billion-dollar marijuana industry have become.
● How difficult it is to ensure even the most minimal protections for kids in the midst of an intoxicating green rush.
As of January, Colorado had 424 retail marijuana stores compared to 322 Starbucks and 202 McDonald’s, according to the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. The state has licensed a total of 2,849 marijuana businesses, including manufacturing and cultivation facilities. Our most vulnerable neighborhoods have been overrun with these businesses.
Here’s advice for other states facing marijuana legalization:
1. Prioritize protecting kids
Ensure that education, health, and youth-serving organizations are at the table so that kids’ interests are always at the forefront of discussions.
Marijuana legalization initiatives often come with promises of tax windfalls. In Colorado’s case, some revenue was designated for schools. In reality, much of the new funds have gone to address challenges caused by marijuana legalization. While our schools have identified pot as the top issue they face now — Colorado, not surprisingly, leads the nation in teen use — marijuana tax revenue amounts to a drop in our state’s public education budget bucket.
“So far, the only thing that the legalization of marijuana has brought to our schools has been marijuana,” the superintendent of a large school district wrote recently.
2. Understand THC potency and why it matters
Colorado has no limits on THC, marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient. The potency of pot has more than doubled since the 1990s. The average potency of THC for marijuana buds in Colorado is now 17.1 percent, a level exceeding what Dutch health experts concluded should be considered a hard drug.
And yet it’s the brave new world of edibles and concentrates — they average 62 percent THC but have been recorded as high as 95 percent ‘’ that have turned Colorado’s marijuana into a fundamentally more dangerous drug (and one that comes in innocuous forms like candies, cookies or sodas and can be inhaled in new and dangerous ways). The result is a spike in marijuana-caused hospitalizations — including children — and even deaths.
Although the industry likes to compare marijuana to alcohol, these new products and potencies are nothing like a beer or a glass of wine. Research hasn’t kept up with the rapidly increasing potency so there’s no standard for what marijuana products are safe or can be used responsibly.
Don’t confuse these highly potent products with the low- or no-THC marijuana treatments associated with helping children with seizures or adults and athletes for pain.
3. Ensure the public has access to truthful information
The latest statewide survey of Colorado high school students shows they see pot as less risky, despite clear evidence that it harms growing brains. This is not surprising, considering the omnipresent marijuana ads, which highlight its “wellness” benefits with reassuring pictures of doctors. Youth prevention efforts, successful in curbing teen tobacco use, must be funded generously to counteract marijuana industry marketing.
Unfortunately, Colorado’s exploration of the new frontier of marijuana legalization echoes the age of the Wild West. Other states would be wise to learn from our experiences and proceed with caution.