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EDITORIAL: Time for legislators, regulators, governor to address legal marijuana

By: The Gazette Op/Ed
December 20, 2015 Updated: December 20, 2015 at 12:25 am
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photo - A worker tends to marijuana plants in a "bloom room" at a medical marijuana grow operation in a commercial building in Colorado Springs Tuesday, April 7, 2015. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
A worker tends to marijuana plants in a "bloom room" at a medical marijuana grow operation in a commercial building in Colorado Springs Tuesday, April 7, 2015. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

Colorado’s world-renowned venture into commercialized marijuana has failed to deliver what voters were promised: an industry regulated like alcohol.

In 2016, the Colorado Legislature and Gov. John Hickenlooper should try to give voters what they were promised.

Throughout 2015, a Gazette series titled “Clearing the Haze” has revealed a discrepancy between public perceptions of the drug, driven by corporate messaging developed by the industry, and truths revealed by the world’s body of reputable medical science and public records. State government, we have found, fails to ask hard questions about marijuana and the problems and costs it imposes on the public, and there is scant tracking of outcomes other than gross revenues. Amendment 64, which legalized pot, was drafted with the aid of marijuana-industry lawyers. Critics believe it puts industry interests ahead of public health, safety and quality of life. The following are ideas and recommendations for improvements.

Provide a more accurate look at marijuana’s impact on Colorado and the nation

Law enforcement officials, educators and health care providers at publicly funded institutions, and employees of several state agencies, have reported to The Gazette’s editorial board that state government has provided no adequate funding or guidance for marijuana data collection and its standardization.

Colorado’s elected and publicly appointed officials are quick to cite tax revenue collected from marijuana sales, especially when providing sound bites to news organizations. They rarely provide detailed and specific figures related to the costs of marijuana use and regulation. Legislators and Hickenlooper have the opportunity to establish a legitimate accounting system that provides a cost-benefit analysis of the world’s most progressive marijuana retail system. The public needs to know, in simple terms, how much taxpayers spend on problems associated with marijuana use, such as emergency room visits, workers’ compensation, traffic fatalities, the care of drug-endangered children, increased law enforcement and school discipline. We encourage state policymakers to devise a system of information that will help ensure voters get what they were promised before enacting Amendment 64.

Immunity for public employees

Legislators should consider a whistleblowers law designed to protect public employees in reporting concerns about marijuana sales, production, transportation and use. This is particularly needed in schools, where we count on teachers, administrators, coaches and custodians to inform us of threats to the health and welfare of children.

Exclude marijuana profiteers from the development of drug-prevention campaigns

State officials have repeatedly sought input about drug-abuse mitigation campaigns from marijuana-industry representatives. It is like inviting tobacco companies to help devise a tobacco-prevention initiative. This is also a problem for marijuana education programs that educate students on how to use marijuana and not on the perils of use.

Meanwhile, state officials have circumvented the work of certified prevention specialists staffing the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health — the one state agency uniquely charged by the Legislature with addressing substance-abuse prevention. We recommend designing all marijuana awareness and prevention campaigns under direction of the Office of Behavioral Health. The agency’s recommendations should be third-party peer reviewed by prevention-science experts in other states. These campaigns should be developed with input — but not oversight — of the governor’s office, the Colorado attorney general and the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.

Drug policies rooted in reputable science

The nation’s top medical associations stand opposed to the legalization of marijuana. Decisions about Colorado’s marijuana policies are rarely based on sound science and are determined with little input by people with appropriate formal training and expertise in brain science, marijuana’s impact on the body and the treatment of substance-use disorders.

This became apparent when marijuana advocates tried to add PTSD to the state’s list of qualifying conditions for “medical marijuana.” Significant research shows the drug worsens the condition. Yet, an appointed state committee — composed largely of appointees with no formal training in psychiatry — supported the addition of PTSD to the list. Only a vigorous protest by the Colorado Psychiatric Society prevented implementation of the state committee’s recommendation.

The Legislature should consider creating a balanced panel of physicians and medical researchers to make recommendations on legislative and executive policies that regulate marijuana.

More effective age restrictions

Colorado’s efforts to keep marijuana out of the hands of adolescents is failing, in part because it allows 18-year-olds to buy medical marijuana licenses for the treatment of illnesses, many of which are contrived. Diversion from high school seniors to younger teens is common — and difficult for parents and public officials to track. In its recently revised marijuana policy statement, the American Society of Addiction Medicine recommends no one under 25 consume the drug. Before that age, research has shown, the brain is not fully mature and is more vulnerable to addiction — a chronic, lifelong illness that starts during adolescence. Colorado lawmakers should close loopholes permitting teenagers to abuse medical marijuana under the ill-defined guise of “chronic pain” and stiffen requirements for those under age 21 to access the drug.

Potency limits on marijuana and THC-infused products

Nothing in state law limits the THC potency of products sold in Colorado. Capping that potency would reduce the sale of THC concentrates, which begin at 85 percent THC, and force producers of edibles to reduce toxicity. Speaking in Massachusetts in June, Andrew Freedman, director of the Colorado Governor’s Office of Marijuana Coordination, recommended officials of the commonwealth consider average serving sizes of no more than 5 milligrams. Meanwhile, an average serving size in Colorado is 10 mgs. Freedman and the governor should make a similar proposal within their state and encourage legislators to pass an appropriate bill.

Better data regarding driving under the influence

Colorado lacks data needed to understand the depth and nature of its drugged-driving problem (DUID). Colorado does not collect, analyze and publish state-level DUID data and lacks the means to do so.

State lawmakers — along with county commissioners and City Council members — could demand intergovernmental agency coordination, data collection and analysis required to measure DUIDs. This would require separate DUI charges for alcohol, drugs and the combined use of alcohol and drugs — a practice used in 25 states. Data collected, analyzed and published should be based on roadside impairment assessments of DUI suspects, police reports, laboratory tests and judicial outcomes. We also suggest the Colorado Department of Public Safety’s Division of Criminal Justice be charged and fully funded to oversee the collection, analysis and publishing of this statewide DUID information.

State law makes it unreasonably difficult to convict marijuana-impaired drivers who present below and above the state’s 5 nanogram limit. This is a problem compounded by the lack of tools available to determine marijuana impairment.

Colorado’s poorly structured DUI laws, the limited means by which marijuana impairment can be determined and the lack of funding required to cover costs of necessary roadside blood testing have prompted too many law enforcement officers to look the other way even when they suspect a driver is marijuana-impaired. Federal data show a significant increase in Colorado highway traffic fatalities involving marijuana since the date of legalization. It is time for Colorado to face this serious threat to public safety.

Marketing guidelines

Pot advertising is a free-for-all. Guidelines and laws followed by the tobacco and alcohol industries are regularly violated. Colorado motorists should not be confronted with commercial marijuana billboards along public roadways. Businesses should not be allowed to offer marijuana for free. Cartoonish figures and other symbols that appeal to children should not be used to promote the use of pot. And in-school education programs should not teach kids how to use marijuana.

The Legislature and governor should devise and impose rational limits on marijuana marketing, just as states and the federal government place limits on promotions of alcohol and tobacco products.

Adequate funding of substance abuse treatment for youths

Though the governor repeatedly announces tax revenue numbers generated by pot sales, state government has not found money to support adequate treatment for minors struggling with marijuana addiction.

If Colorado is collecting enough in marijuana revenues to cover costs associated with the drug’s use, there should be enough money to fund addiction treatment for Colorado youths, the chief demographic disproportionately harmed by the state’s marijuana industry. At the very least, lawmakers should provide dollar-for-dollar matches for the charitable donations of privately held foundations that are helping cover these costs.

The state has commendably funded some pro-social activities and youth group meetings led by substance counselors. They are sorely needed but are not what is required to address the very serious medical condition of substance use disorder, which is typically accompanied by other mental health problems including depression and anxiety. Youths — and their families — need evidence-based medical treatment provided by specially trained clinicians.

Physicians at the University of Colorado and Denver Health have developed an affordable, efficient medical protocol that has been specially designed for delivery in our schools — where it is also needed most. This protocol is in practice at three Denver high schools. It is used in other states and supported by several Colorado educators. Colorado Access Behavioral Health recognizes it as an evidence-based practice. This protocol also has won support from insurance companies and interest from Medicare/Medicaid officials.

State lawmakers should consider institutionalizing and ensure funding for this treatment and clinical programs like it. They should ponder providing the funding needed to provide mental health and addiction treatment in every school across this state. The health of Colorado’s youths should be among their top priorities.

Conclusion

Those who advocate and oppose legal marijuana should agree on at least one thing: The system should protect health, safety and public revenues. In 2016, legislators, state regulators and the governor have an opportunity to learn from experience and start to regulate, with a focus on safety, Colorado’s medical and recreational marijuana markets. The world is watching, so let’s get it right.

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