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Regulation still ineffective

By: The Gazette Op/Ed
March 22, 2015 Updated: March 22, 2015 at 6:25 am
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Partygoers dance and smoke pot during the annual 4/20 marijuana festival April 19 in Denver, with the state Capitol building visible in the background. Ten sheriffs from three states sued Colorado on March 5 for legalizing the sales and use of marijuana.

The promises of Colorado’s Amendment 64 largely hinged on two words blazing from campaign signs dotting the state before the historic November 2012 vote that legalized recreational marijuana for people 21 and older: Regulation works.

But how it would work was described only in general terms and sound bites before voters headed to the polls to make a decision Gov. John Hickenlooper later would call “reckless” and “a bad idea” and new Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman declared “not worth it” to dozens of state attorneys general last month.

See also: State prevention efforts criticized

The pro-Amendment 64 campaign’s website claimed that “by regulating marijuana like alcohol, Colorado can further reduce teen marijuana use, minimize teens’ access to marijuana, reduce exposure to more dangerous drugs and take sales out of the hands of criminals.”

After the first year of the drug’s recreational legalization, professionals working on the front lines of marijuana’s impact — at police departments, addiction treatment centers, child welfare organizations — say Colorado put commerce ahead of kids, communities, public health and safety. The state opened itself up for the drug’s trade without establishing and enforcing many crucially important limits and without adequately funding the data collection and analysis required for Colorado — and the rest of the United States — to determine whether marijuana legalization is wise.

See also: No tax windfall from medical, retail sales

Colorado officials can’t even say how much marijuana is produced and sold in the state because a black market continues to thrive. The seed-to-sale tracking program highly touted by state officials and marijuana-industry leaders does not address diversion of the drug after the point of sale.

“I realize the story keeps changing and that plenty of people now want to describe abject regulatory failures as an experiment or one big startup experiencing typical growing pains,” said Ben Cort, director of professional relations for the Center for Addiction Recovery and Rehabilitation at the University of Colorado Hospital. “But the ugly truth is that Colorado was suckered. It was promised regulation and has been met by an industry that fights tooth and nail any restrictions that limit its profitability. Just like Big Tobacco before it, the marijuana industry derives profits from addiction — state officials euphemistically call that heavy use — and its survival depends on turning a percentage of kids into lifelong customers.”

The costs of launching a regulatory scheme for the sale and distribution of cannabis were anyone’s guess — and they still are as Colorado heads into its second year of the drug’s legalization for recreational use. Potential unexpected costs are on the horizon as Colorado is mired in legal questions about lower-than-projected tax revenues and suits filed against it by the state governments of Nebraska and Oklahoma. Those states’ attorneys general have asked to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court to explain why Colorado’s regulation not only isn’t working but is harming their states and the rest of the country.

Indeed, Colorado hasn’t lived up to many of the basics of the regulatory framework approved by the state Legislature in 2013 and 2014, much less to the campaign promises of Amendment 64. State reports do not answer many questions about how marijuana is produced, sold, distributed and used:

• The state has not launched a system to test marijuana and THC-infused foods and drinks, called “edibles,” for contaminants. It promises to do so this year.

• In the past year, tests conducted by news organizations have found discrepancies between the potency levels recorded on marijuana product packaging and the goods inside. Colorado has outsourced potency testing to privately held businesses, awarding 16 licenses for testing facilities by the end of last year. But such testing is not required for marijuana and THC-infused products used for medical purposes — the bulk of Colorado’s marijuana market.

• Colorado officials have not released even aggregate data showing the potency of marijuana sold in accordance with state law.

The problem of determining the impact of Colorado’s legal marijuana runs much deeper than what state officials are able to report. The state does not have the funding, tools or training to gauge marijuana legalization’s impact on public resources and communities. Fully equipping state guardians of public health and safety to collect and analyze this data must become a priority, said Ed Wood, director of DUID Victim Voices, a national group advocating for stronger drugged-driving laws.

“Colorado owes it to our country to accurately and fully report on marijuana’s consumption, sale, distribution and societal impact, but that level of data do not exist and may never exist if Americans don’t demand greater accountability of this state,” said Wood, whose tireless voice in state legislative halls has demanded better data collection and reporting since his son was killed by a drugged driver.

State marijuana regulators have focused less on analyzing the data they have collected, choosing instead to direct most of their time and resources to keeping the state’s cannabis industry from forcing the hands of federal officials who have opted not to enforce federal law. It’s an abdication of responsibility in Washington, D.C., that former Attorney General John Suthers has noted in defense of Colorado against the legal challenges mounted by Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Then there are the data Colorado officials know the state does not collect and must if it is ever going to have a shot at understanding the impact of the drug’s legalization. In January, a governor- appointed task force started meeting to determine the priorities and processes for gathering marijuana- related data. The costs of procuring, analyzing and reporting that voluminous information are many months — and maybe even years — away from being determined, said Marco Vasquez, chief of the Erie Police Department and a task force member.

“While the commercial marijuana industry continues to ramp up, Colorado still operates in a zone of not knowing what it doesn’t know about marijuana and the expansion of drug legalization, and people are getting hurt,” said Vasquez, who is also a former director of investigations for the Colorado Division of Medical Marijuana Enforcement. “Voters were sold a bill of goods, and I don’t think they really understand what they did.

“The industry behind it is another Big Tobacco that has millions and millions of dollars to spend on influencing media and public policy — which will always outpace the findings of reputable science and the public workings of government.”

Since the opening of recreational pot shops on Jan. 1, 2014, some data support that regulation is not having its intended effect:

• Colorado youths remain among the nation’s heaviest cannabis users, with usage increasing at the second-highest rate in the nation. They use strains of the drug widely considered among the world’s most potent. Denver schools reported a 7 percent increase in drug-related arrests on campus during the 2013-14 school year over the previous year, jumping from 452 to 482 arrests. Middle schools across Colorado reported 951 drug violations, a 10-year record. County and state education officials attribute the increases to marijuana.

• Local addiction treatment centers are reporting more admissions for marijuana addiction. Among them is the CU adult-treatment hospital, which is continuing to track numbers, said Cort, the center’s director of professional relations.

• Colorado hospitals are reporting sharp increases in the number of children admitted for marijuana exposure, including accidental ingestion. A state committee charged with rule-making for edibles disbanded in November without reaching consensus.

• Black-market sales are booming at such high rates that they’ve been blamed for cannabis tax revenues that are tens of millions of dollars short of initial projections and campaign slogans. While speaking to a conference of other attorneys general last month, Coffman blasted legalization advocates’ linchpin argument that regulating sales would eliminate the black market, reduce associated criminal activity and free up law enforcement agencies’ resources. “Don’t buy that argument,” she said, according to U.S. News & World Report. “The criminals are still selling on the black market. … We have plenty of cartel activity in Colorado (and) plenty of illegal activity that has not decreased at all.”

• More than 30 hash-oil explosions occurred last year, prompting local and state authorities to call for laws prohibiting oil production in residential homes. At the end of last month, Colorado Springs authorities responded to a fire caused by hash-oil extraction in a home just south of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “We’d never even heard of a hash-oil explosion before marijuana legalization,” said Vasquez, the Erie police chief.

• Colorado is only beginning to learn how to collect information about marijuana-related driving arrests. In 2014, the Colorado State Patrol issued 674 marijuana-
related driving citations. The agency typically issues about
20 percent of the state’s DUI citations each year.

Then there are the more mundane problems faced by Coloradans like John and Lisa Young and their teen daughter, who couldn’t escape the odor of marijuana wafting into their Lakewood apartment from a neighboring unit. The couple insisted the management firm supervising the property enforce its stated ban on the drug’s use — living up to the drug-free-community signs posted in its administrative offices — or move their family to a unit where they wouldn’t be bothered by the odor of pot. At the end of their nine-month lease last year, the Youngs and the property management firm agreed that the Youngs needed to live somewhere else.

“At every level of governance — from the state Legislature and governor’s office to homeowners’ associations — Colorado has shown many times in just one year that it cannot muster the political will to regulate legal marijuana as it must be, that it doesn’t have the resources to enforce many of the regulations on the books,” Lisa Young said.

The current level of regulation effectiveness may have been foretold.

In January 2013, debates among members of a governor-appointed task force charged with recommending to state lawmakers rules for the implementation of Amendment 64 focused more on money than on matters of public health and safety.

When task force members ranked eight primary “principles” on which their deliberations were to focus, “Be responsive to consumer needs and issues” was placed second only to “Developing guidance for certain relationships, such as employer/employee … ” — an area of cannabis regulation that remains fraught with problems for Colorado employers.

Last on the list? “Promote the health, safety and well being of Colorado youth.” What else ranked lower on the list than “consumer needs?” This principle: “Ensure our streets, schools and communities remain safe.”

In early March 2013, the New York-based drug-abuse-prevention advocacy group The Partnership at drugfree.org released a survey of 1,603 adults living across the country — 200 of whom were Coloradans with children ages 10-19, and 200 of whom were parents of children in the same age range in Washington state, which also voted to legalize recreational cannabis. The survey provided one of the first glimpses of the restrictions on cannabis that adults 18 and older — and specifically parents surveyed — expected.

The research findings were announced in July 2013 at the University of Denver, where a couple of hundred people gathered to learn more about the challenges of regulating legal cannabis from an expert panel that included former Colorado Attorney General Suthers and former senior White House drug policy adviser Tom McLellan, a world-recognized substance abuse researcher and co-founder of the Philadelphia-based Treatment Research Institute.

The panel noted that while Coloradans surveyed expressed overwhelming support for tight cannabis regulation, they may not have understood what a large and complex undertaking that would be.

“Horribly naive,” McLellan said during an interview after the event. “It appears people here are horribly naive about how regulation works and what it costs.”

Consider:

• High percentages of parents (90 percent of Colorado parents and 91 percent of Washington parents) said marijuana should be banned in public places where tobacco is banned. Today, public use of the drug is illegal, but police in Colorado Springs — where recreational sales are prohibited — wrote 52 citations for public pot smoking last year, and Denver County reported a 451 percent increase in public use citations. Vaporizers and e-cigarette devices have made it difficult to police public use.

• Of Colorado parents surveyed, 87 percent said “marijuana advertising should still be banned.” And when forced to choose, a majority of parents identified the No. 1 place where it should be permissible to advertise marijuana as “nowhere.”

Today, marijuana is advertised locally in free publications available in convenience stores, on prominent storefront signs and on 24/7 social media networks and websites. “Sesame Street’s” beloved Cookie Monster recently was painted on the wall of Wellstone Medical Marijuana, a Colorado Springs dispensary — but quickly removed after lawyers for Sesame Workshop sent a cease and desist letter.

“Cognitive dissonance. That’s what I see here,” Suthers said of the survey’s results during the 2013 presentation. “You can’t say you want legalized marijuana and then you don’t want your kids exposed to it.” He added: “History (with alcohol and tobacco regulation) suggests we’re not going to be very successful at (banning the commercialization of a legal industry). Don’t count on any corporate responsibility. Don’t look for the online folks to cooperate.

“I just don’t want anybody to fall into this notion that we are going to regulate this and everything is going to be fine.”

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