Aspen Ideas Festival: Jury’s still out on Colorado’s legal pot
If Colorado’s 18-month-old legal-marijuana experiment were a hospital patient, doctors’ future prognosis might be termed cautiously optimistic, according to the state’s pot czar.
“The rollout is going successfully,” said Andrew Freedman, whose official title is director of marijuana coordination. “There have been minor blips along the way. We need five years to figure out more long-term success.”
Freedman spoke Friday at two separate sessions of the Aspen Ideas Festival focusing on Colorado’s nascent, voter-approved recreational marijuana program.
He said people’s worst fears of drug cartels moving in, proliferation of weapons and a spike in marijuana use by children have not come true. The biggest problem so far has been with edibles, which have caused an increase in poison-control center calls and emergency-room visits, Freedman said.
But other issues, such as social and cultural changes as well as how law enforcement deals with stoned drivers and how the federal government ends up dealing with the subject, could take as long as a decade to come into clear focus, he said.
“It’s a story that hasn’t been written yet,” Freedman said.
Jordan Lewis, founder of Silverpeak Apothecary in Aspen, participated in an Ideas Festival morning session at the Hotel Jerome and said he believes the state is on the right track socially and medically as it relates to marijuana. However, because marijuana is still considered a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government — meaning it has no medicinal benefit and is highly addictive — he has no access to the banking system.
That means he does business in cash, which causes problems, he said. For example, the federal government penalizes him for paying his taxes in cash, Lewis said. Also, the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t allow him to take normal business-related deductions on his taxes.
“It’s hard to grow a business in this environment,” Lewis said. “Something’s got to give.”
Mark Kleiman, a leading drug-policy expert, took issue with Colorado’s law that says if a driver has five nanograms of marijuana in their system after failing a sobriety test they are charged with DUI.
“I’m appalled at five nanograms,” he said. “Stoned driving is just not a problem.”
Kleiman suggested coming up with a mouth swab test that would give a more accurate reading of a person’s sobriety.
Freedman agreed that the law is imperfect and needs to be refined, though he said the state had to start somewhere.
Lewis said he was “remarkably pleased” with the results of a recent study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse that surveyed a million teens in states with legal marijuana or medical marijuana and found no increase in teen consumption.
Freeman said he routinely sends underage minors into dispensaries with fake IDs and has found that 96 percent of the businesses catch the problem.
The main problems have come in the area of edibles such as gummy bears, which can affect people differently and appeal to children, Freedman said.
“They’re like candy cigarettes,” he said. “What kind of message are you sending?”
However, the problem has two easy solutions, Freedman said. First, edibles need to be packaged in childproof packaging that looks as much like prescription drugs as possible. Second, a public education campaign urging people not to leave edibles lying around would be beneficial, he said.
Freedman also cautioned residents not to think of marijuana as a massive money-maker. Colorado has taken in $68 million in marijuana tax revenue during the past 18 months, he said. After paying for enforcement expenses as well as prevention and treatment, that leaves between $20 million and $40 million for education. Colorado’s overall budget is $26 billion.
“It isn’t trivial, but (that builds) one to three schools,” Freedman said.
The state believes it will eventually receive between $100 million and $150 million in marijuana tax revenue.
The main thing that legalization will do is stop the injustice of sending people — especially minorities — to prison for marijuana offenses, according to Freedman, Lewis and Kleiman.
The most important consideration for other states considering legalization is not whether to do it, but how it should be handled if it happens, Freedman said.
Kleiman said he believes national legalization will occur “somewhere in Hillary’s second term.”
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