Legal Weed: Is Colorado leading a green rush?
The U. S. government refers to the drug as cannabis, but most people call it weed, marijuana or pot.
Maybe you haven’t noticed it, but the U.S. is in the midst of a marijuana revolution. Just consider a few facts:
• For the first time, a majority of Americans say marijuana should be legalized. According to an October 2013 Gallup Poll 58% favor ending pot’s prohibition. Gallup first asked Americans that question in 1969 and only 12% favored legalization.
• Since New Year’s Day 2014, it's been legal for adult residents of Colorado to use marijuana in their homes. During the summer of 2014 people living in the state of Washington will be able to legally light up.
• Bill Gates, Microsoft’s founder and a resident of Washington, says he voted for the legalization proposition.
• A decade ago pot smokers were hush-hush about their use of the drug. Today, many entertainers openly discuss smoking pot. Marijuana use is frequently among the jokes in late night monologues, its part of the plots of many network TV shows and Showtime's program Weeds focuses on a suburban mom's life as a pot dealer.
• President Barack Obama, while not endorsing smoking weed, considers marijuana as being no worse than alcohol, according to The New Yorker.
• The Denver Post recently hired a marijuana editor and established a website known as The Cannabist that focuses exclusively on marijuana and the pot culture.
• This will be a "watershed year in the battle over whether marijuana should be as available as alcohol," The New York Times predicts. As many as 17 states are considering following Colorado and Washington’s lead in legalizing the recreational use of marijuana and 14 other states may soon join the 20 states and Washington, D.C. that currently permit medical marijuana.
• Jack-in-the-Box, a major fast food chain in the West, is currently marketing a box full of food called the “Munchie Meal.” It’s only available after 9 pm. Jack-in-the-Box is certainly targeting stoners in its Munchie Meal ads.
• Related marijuana businesses are booming in Colorado, including pot tour groups, “Everyone wants a slice of the pie,” reports The Guardian. “Businesses are opening every week.”
• Some predict that in five years marijuana, which the U.S. government currently labels as a highly addictive, non-medicinal drug, will be legalized throughout the country.
Many feel the smoky winds of change wafting across the Rockies and beyond.
As I reviewed media stories and videos about the implementation of Colorado’s new recreational weed law, I recalled jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron’s 70s song entitled, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” I think if Scott-Heron was alive today he’d admit when it comes to marijuana the revolution is indeed being televised, tweeted and talked about.
Marijuana is the third most popular recreational drug in America (behind alcohol and tobacco) and it’s been used by nearly 100 million Americans. According to a 2010 government survey, some 25 million Americans have smoked pot in the past year and more than 18 million regularly light joints or fire up their bongs even though it’s illegal in many states. That’s 4 million more than in 2007.
Tobacco vs. alcohol vs. pot
Let’s look at the impact these three recreational drugs have on people’s health.
Tobacco: Smoking harms nearly every organ of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Each year, 480,000 people die from smoking tobacco. The total number of smoking related deaths is over 10 times higher than all the people killed in all the wars fought in U.S. history, the CDC reports. It would take 800 marijuana joints used in one sitting for weed to kill someone, but that person most likely would pass out before dying, according to WikiAnswers.
Alcohol: Some people are happy and serene when they get drunk on alcohol. Other drunks become violent and hurt people. (Many alcoholics abuse their wives when drunk.) While marijuana is used to treat certain medical conditions such as pain, alcohol is very toxic to the human system with about 88,000 annually dying from consuming too much alcohol, according to the CDC. Excessive drinking cost the U.S. $223.5 billion in 2006. However, studies show that moderate consumption (one drink a day) of alcohol, particularly red wine, can reduce heart disease.
Marijuana: The tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in marijuana is what causes a state of euphoria. While most people smoke marijuana, it can be mixed into food or brewed as a tea. People high on pot are typically happy and laid back. Most marijuana users experience altered perception and heightened senses, such as an enhanced sense of taste causing many potheads to crave food – known as having "the munchies.” (Maybe they should go to Jack-in-the-Box.)
Does marijuana have adverse health effects? This question isn’t easy to answer because of conflicting scientific studies. Most researchers agree the carcinogens in marijuana smoke are harmful to people’s lungs. However, when it comes to the impact weed has on other health areas — the heart, brain and mental health — the scientific community hasn’t reached a consensus. “Some experts say smoking weed can have lethal effects on the body and mind, while others say it's less toxic and addictive than booze and cigarettes.” according to ABC News.
NOTE: Children should never consume drugs, except those prescribed by a doctor.
Pot possession arrests
A major difference between tobacco, alcohol and marijuana is the first two are legal while weed isn’t. In 2012, nearly 750,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana violations, according to the FBI. Nearly four times as many blacks as whites are arrested for pot.
The FBI statistics show that 42.4 percent of all U.S. drug arrests in 2012 were for possession of marijuana. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) estimates that someone is arrested for marijuana possession every 48 seconds in this country.
Many people conclude that in the eyes of the law marijuana use should be treated no differently than drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco. (See sidebar story to learn how the pot prohibition began.)
CLICK IMAGE ▼ TO ENLARGE
Why was pot first prohibited?
The beginning of marijuana prohibition in the U.S. is an interesting and complex story that really requires more space than a short sidebar article.
Suffice it to say: Marijuana has long been considered a "good" drug used for medicinal purposes since 2737 B.C. when Chinese emperor Shen Nung used it to treat the pains of rheumatism. (Currently, marijuana is used to treat 18 diseases or conditions, according to the Mayo Clinic. Topping the clinic's list is pain and MS.)
From 1850 to 1942, the U. S. government listed pot as a useful medicine for nausea, rheumatism and labor pains and it was easily obtained at local stores or pharmacies, says RandomHistory.com.
Until the Great Depression most Americans were unaware of marijuana.
In the 1930s, a propaganda campaign (see above ad) was waged to convince the public that pot was an evil drug that needed to be eradicated. A key player in this campaign was Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the new Federal Narcotic Bureau. He is quoted in a series of news articles stating that violent crimes were caused by potheads.
Testifying to Congress in 1937, Anslinger said, “Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.” Within months, weed was effectively outlawed in the U.S. when Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act.
Marijuana possession laws have “ruined people’s lives by sending them to prison for using a substance safer than alcohol,” said Noah Member of the Marijuana Policy Project according to the International Business Times.
He believes marijuana should be regulated much like alcohol. And an ever increasing number of Americans agree with him, even some eye-raising conservatives. (We’ll discuss these right-wing reformists later.)
As voters have revised their thinking on legalization it’s spurred a drastic change throughout the land. Rather that examine the steady change in state laws dealing with pot possession and medical marijuana, I’ll direct you to a timeline developed by The New York Times.
Currently, 17 states no longer jail adults for possessing small amounts of marijuana: Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Most of these states instead impose a civil fine. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. (See the map at the top of this page or for more details on current state laws, see NORML's interactive map.)
As mentioned earlier, adults in Washington and Colorado can legally use marijuana.
Since the Centennial State was the first to implement legalization, Colorado has been under the media microscope in the U. S. and many other countries.
As a result of Colorado's relatively problem-free transition, legalization is expected to rapidly spread to other states.
Even the feds acquiesced to the wave of change and decided not to fight the new legislation. Attorney General Eric Holder said he wouldn't challenge the two state’s new pot laws and directed the Justice Department to focus instead on serious trafficking cases and keeping the drug away from children.
Pot law benefits: Increased tax revenue; reduced costs
In a Huffington Post blog, Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, highlights some key issues that resulted in the constitutional amendment being approved by voters in 2012. Among them:
• “police should spend their time on more important things"
• “taxing marijuana would turn a money-losing prohibition into a money-generating system.”
It cost $7.7 billion per year to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate marijuana offenders, according to a report by Katherine Beckett and Steve Herbert, two University of Washington professors.
“Studies show,” the report points out, “that increased law enforcement attention to drug crimes is associated with higher, rather than lower levels of serious crime…”
UPDATE: So rather than spend money and time arresting pot smokers millions has been raised in recreational pot sales, which has continually grown each month. A total of $7.3 million in recreational pot taxes has been collected between January and March. (That figure does not include medical marijuana sales taxes or licensing fees.) During the first three months of 2014, Colorado has collected about $12.6 million in marijuana related taxes and fees.
As more and more marijuana retailers open their doors, Colorado is on a pace to collect over $50 to $60 million annually from new marijuana sales. And the high rate of taxes hasn’t fazed pot smokers. Weed sales have been brisk in Denver, despite the 29 percent taxes assessed on recreational pot sales in the city.
Colorado's governor tells other states to be cautious
UPDATE: Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) urged other states considering following Colorado’s example to proceed with caution. He made his comments at the Feb. 22 National Governors Association.
Many states are eying Colorado’s new multimillion dollar tax windfall from marijuana sales and are considering legalizing pot in their municipalities.
However, Hickenlooper said state governments need to be ready for “unintended consequences,” according to The Christian Science Monitor. He said the top priority in his state now is to protect children from any adverse effects of marijuana legalization.
“Polls show a larger number of kids expect to experiment with it because they think it’s not as dangerous as they used to think because now it’s legal.” Hickenlooper told Politico. He plans to funnel millions of pot tax revenue into drug prevention programs.
After Colorado spends the first $40 million of its estimated $100 million in weed sales tax for school construction, the governor plans to use much of the new revenue on teenage substance abuse programs.
Despite his urgings that other states take a wait and see approach on changing pot laws, Hickenlooper said some fellow governors told him that’s a difficult position to take because there’s “a wave in their state that (legalization) is coming soon.”
A model for other states
As part of the initiative approved by 55% of Coloradoans, the first $40 million in pot tax revenue is earmarked toward building schools. Not only is education benefiting from legalized weed, but the government’s costs of running jails and prisons will decline as a result of reduced arrests and imprisonments.
With many states struggling financially is it any wonder that Colorado, which once was the site of a gold rush, is now leading a national green rush?
Colorado’s smooth transition to legalize pot is a model for other states, such as Alaska, Arizona, California, Oregon and Rhode Island, which may follow Colorado and Washington in 2014. Other states (including Florida) have initiatives on this year’s ballot which will legalize medical marijuana.
Many feel the smoky winds of change wafting across the Rockies and beyond. They envision marijuana legalization sweeping across the nation during the next few years.
If you still don’t believe in the reality of this revolution, listen to the recent comments made by two conservatives:
• Right wing evangelist Pat Robertson told The New York Times in 2012, “We should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol. I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.”
• Sen. John McCain, a former hardliner on drug control, told the Arizona Daily Star in September 2013: “Maybe we should legalize. We're certainly moving that way as far as marijuana is concerned. I respect the will of the people.” –TDowling
© 2014 Thomas Dowling