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Colorado and the Great Pot Experiment of January 1 2014

January 1, 2014 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Colorado Marijuana Guide: 64 Answers to Commonly Asked Questions

In 1937, the Federal United States government banned (or criminalized) the recreational use of marijuana (this is different than for patients (e.g. cancer) who receive physician’s approval to use marijuana for medical purposes – the key words are “recreational use”).

Last year a Pew poll discovered that a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana for the first time in more than four decades. Also in 2013, CNN (with M.D. Sanjay Gupta) ran a sympathetic marijuana program, showing positive effects for many patients with a wide range of ailments, including cancer.

According to surveys, for 320 million American citizens, pot is the third most popular recreational drug, after tobacco and alcohol (if everybody agrees that all three fall into the same category to compare/contrast).

Today, January 1 2014, the Rocky Mountain State of Colorado became the first place in the enitre world where marijuana sales will be regulated “from seed to sale” and Colorado (and non-Colorado) residents can buy small amounts of marijuana for recreational use at Colorado state-licensed shops, plus grow a few pot plants at home.

In Europe, the Netherlands has long had an informal “soft drug” decriminalization policy (including pot), and patrons can buy marijuana products in Amsterdam coffee shops, but it is still illegal to grow it. Portugal has “decriminalized” almost all forms of drug use, but selling even pot remains a crime and has punishment laws. In Latin America, Uruguay has approved legally for state-sanctioned marijuana sales, but these government shops (in some states, like Washington, recall that whiskey and vodka were unavailable other than at state-operated stores until recently) are still not open. So Colorado state is the first to legally and administratively oversee the entire smoke-cycle of pot.

Why Colorado? Let’s start with democracy, when state governments ask voters to what they want or don't want. Some states, especially in the western United States, put many “amendments” or “propositions” on the voters’ ballot (recall famous California Propositions that asked voters if they wanted to pay more or less taxes). In fall 2012, Colorado voters approved Amendment 64, which legalizes sale of pot, and it was added to Colorado's constitution about a month later (66% voted Yes, and that's a higher Yes vote by Colorado voters compared to many other Amendments). So, nobody in Colorado or anywhere else can say selling pot is “unconstitutional”, since it is in the Colorado state constitution.

For one short intense year, the state has been busy to how to exactly put this new “legal” mode for pot throughout Colorado. That is, it is one thing to made legal pot, another to manage the growing, selling, and use within the state of Colorado (since in the rest of the 50 states, D.C., commonwealths, pot is still illegal to grow, possess, and use, unless to use with a physician’s prescription in some states and still totally banned in others).

Both Colorado and Washington (it passed a similar law last year and will have state-sanctioned pot shops by late spring, 2014) has state tax levies on pot of about 25% (Colorado also has a sales tax of 2.9%). In Colorado's amendment, the first $40 million in taxes raised annually by marijuana sales must go toward the state's public schools (one Colorado state projection was $578.1 million a year in combined wholesale and retail marijuana sales) – and even without pot taxes, Colorado public schools’ standards and quality are above many other states, and this means better-paid teachers, more IT equipment, improved maintenance, and new buildings, with state-of-the-art laboratories. It’s hard to argue against building new schools (No voter ever states: "Yes, it's OK to continue with public schools on par with the Congo".) and retaining top science teachers fleeing to other states due to low salaries. So there is an economic incentive to benefit children and public education.

The first question may be: What does "recreational" pot use mean, exactly? The Colorado constitution wording refers only to "retail marijuana" — and similar to the state’s management of alcohol, it is legal for a licensed retail establishment to sell marijuana to anyone of “legal age” or 21 years old. In fact, the Colorado constitutional amendment states explicitly that marijuana "should be regulated in a manner similar to alcohol." (The Washington State Liquor Board has been entrusted with pot management; interestingly, after privatization in mid-2012 of hard liquor, DUI and other alcohol-related crimes have decreased in Washington state, but that is another story.) Also, cannabis can only be smoked on private property with the owner's permission. A hotel, restaurant or club all must draw up its own regulations or framework -- just like smoking lobbies (there are city or State ordinances) or if smoking is allowed at a "private party" (a cigar night?), not "open" to the public -- but a hotel or restaurant is indeed a “public place”, not a private property.

Now the new Colorado pot amendment did not suddenly come about in a pot void. Colorado already had some of the most liberal laws regarding pot, such as making not illegal the “possession and usage of up to one ounce of marijuana for recreational purposes”.

There is also the case re discrimination in drug enforcement. For the record, for as long anybody remembers, each year, police throughout the U.S. make more than 750,000 arrests for marijuana offenses. African-Americans, according to police statistics, are more than three times as likely to be arrested for such offenses as white Americans are, though they are no more likely to use the drug. The Seattle City prosecuting attorney said that that state prosecutors had stopped indicting people for marijuana possession, because local Seattle jurors found “the (pot) prohibition so objectionable that they tended to acquit on principle”. Several years ago the same prosecutor stopped prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana-possession cases, and then the same prosecuting attorney publicly endorsed the 2012 Washington state proposition on recreational pot sales and usage.

What made the new Colorado constitutional amendment much broader was that it also states that a Colorado resident in the state can: “legally possess, transport, display and use marijuana accessories and up to one ounce of marijuana, but not in public or in a way that endangers others." And the law also allows a Colorado resident to possess up to six marijuana plants "with three of fewer being mature, flowering plants", but the growing must take place in an "enclosed, locked and non-public space" – in other words, use the unused bedroom, buy top-grade artificial lighting, and don’t let children come near it.

Now if one harvests and tries to sell the buds of these “mature, flowering plants (what poetic language!)”, the state can come after the Colorado resident, since it is illegal to grow and sell the any of the weed grown without the proper licenses (see where the Colorado state “administration” of pot comes in). A Colorado resident is free to give away one ounce or less "without remuneration" to someone 21 or older.

Who can buy pot legally in the State of Colorado? Simple: Anyone aged 21 or older with a valid Colorado ID can purchase up to one ounce; residents of other states who are 21 or older can purchase up to a quarter of an ounce in Colorado. Also, Denver also recently “decriminalized possession” of up to one ounce of marijuana for those between the ages of 18 and 21 – that is, instead of prison and a large fine, the arrest means a “fine”, like a traffic ticket, of $150.

Where can you buy pot and who can legally sell it? This sounds like an stoner’s alternative universe or science-fiction, but current Colorado state law requires pot vendors to apply for licenses to sell pot through the Colorado Department of Revenue's Marijuana Enforcement Division (I don’t make these names up)

Official Colorado Department of Revenue's Marijuana Enforcement Division Web Site

and receive "all relevant local jurisdiction approvals.” More than 130 licenses were granted but a total of 30 shops (about half are in Denver and were originally in the medical marijuana dispensing business for some time, so there was a pot “infrastructure” already in place) received all the State approvals and opened for business today. Now, the opening prices are quite high: $195 for an ounce of medium-grade pot (so around $50 - $65 for a quarter-ounce, the amount that a person can legally purchase at one point-of-sale).

However, you know what you buying, and although you are restricted to just that amount at one sale, nobody will stop you if you go to each of the 20 stores and build up a large stash, literally speaking – but you could be arrested with the large amount – the point is that is OK for once-twice-a-week “recreational” pot smoking, but don’t store up a warehouse to re-sell to others.

Like the draconian regulations on tobacco smoking (smokers are more or less driven to smoke within their homes or in the middle of the ocean, alone), smoking marijuana in public or in areas outlined in Colorado’s Clean Indoor Air Act (and Colorado is a progressive environmental state, let’s be sure about that) is restricted.

Identical to laws about alcohol use and driving vehicles (whether cars, planes, ships), a Colorado citizen cannot drive while stoned on pot. Nor can the Colorado citizen distribute pot to minors or transport it across state lines (that is, if you buy pot and drive it to a friend in Kansas City, that is illegal). Five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, equivalent to two deep “tokes” via marijuana “joint”, can result in a DUI (“Drunk Under the Influence”) in Colorado – with all the identical alcohol DUI punishment. If a driver refused a police blood test, the driver will lose his or her license for a year – same like for alcohol.

The Denver International Airport has banned possession of marijuana on airport property to restrict illegal interstate trafficking. However, until recently medical marijuana had been legal to bring to the airport as long as it didn't go through security checkpoints. But – and this where it gets tricky – pot could be in chocolate brownies, cookies, infused olive oil (after all, pot is organic) – how can the TSA agent determine Granny’s brownies are filled with marijuana or not at the inspection line?

Now, one report has said if a driver went to a shop, bought ¼ ounce, put it in his trunk, then went to the airport to pick up his friend and parked the car – that ¼ ounce would be illegal under the Airport regulations, but not illegal if the car was parked in downtown Denver or at the owner’s house. All this is a legal swirl, as during the next several years Denver will probably have all kinds of legal precedents and a multitude of rulings, new regulations – all studied closely by other states.

And after the grand pot experiment in Colorado? As in Colorado, Washington State voters approved a ballot initiative to legalize the drug in November 2012, and vendors could open their doors as early as May or June of 2014, according to the Washington State Liquor Control Board -– barely five months from now, and probably the heavy concentration of shops will be in the Seattle-Tacoma corridor.

By 2020, probably seven to twelve more states would have legalized marijuana, including potential candidates New Hampshire (the state legislature has a vote on recreational marijuana in early January), Alaska, California, and Nevada. California is the prize state, with 38 million residents and enormous economy. Imagine pot shops added to gambling/shows Las Vegas' visitor offering mix – when huge tourist dollars start flowing in and revitalizing local economies in some states, other states will wake up and smell the tax dollars and begin reviewing similar legislation -- however, if there are painful, societal disruptions, like in the next six months throughout Denver a lot more crime, more DUI , the arrival of Mafia-like gangs -- states will resist pot legalization, and that will be the end of the Colorado experiment.

Die-hard hold-out states that retain criminal penalties for even small pot possession will see many frustrated local residents spending their paychecks on flights to Colorado and soon Washington, adding tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of tourism dollars to those state economies -- there is already talk of pot-friendly hotels that welcome the visitor with tips on pot and smoking (of course, on the other hand, hotels have the discretion to ban pot, just as some hotels are entirely smoke-free -- it just depends on how the hotel positions itself in the marketplace) Others with medical ailments who cannot obtain pot legally in their own states will fly in -- including those challenged by the terrible consequences of chemotherapy treatment.

Given all the hoopla in Colorado, is marijuana legal in the eyes of the U.S. Federal government? The quick answer is No, marijuana remains illegal under Federal law, specifically the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, meaning that the FBI or DEA can arrest people smoking pot in their homes in the city of Denver. Then why is Colorado as a state proceeding with recreational use of pot?

In August 2013, U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memorandum instructing Federal prosecutors to more or less allow states (one-by-one, so it opens up a patchwork of radically different regulations regarding pot, say for residents in a small Wyoming or Idaho town with repressive laws a mile away from the borderline of Colorado or Washington states) regulate the sale of marijuana, so Colorado residents, under Colorado state law, can go about buying and using pot, according to Colorado state laws – without fear of U.S. Federal arrest. It is a curious, epochal “wait-and-see” period in the nation’s marijuana laws and society, and also reflects States' rights and regulations vis-a-vis Federal laws.

After the end of Prohibition (when there was no alcoholic beverages made or sold in the U.S. from 1920 – 1933, an amazingly long 13-year period), there were some towns that remained alcohol-free or "dry" for many decades after Prohibition had been repealed. I even lived in such a town surrounded by other "wet" towns and cities that allowed alcohol to be sold and bought – Arlington, Massachusetts* (it went “wet” or alcohol sales were allowed several years ago, but there are still places like that; ironically and paradoxically, the Tennessee county where Jack Daniels whiskey is made is also “dry” See: Is It Against the Law to Drink Jack Daniels Whiskey in Lynchburg, Tennessee?). Small cities like Greeley and Colorado Springs, plus about 50 other towns throughout Colorado, have opted out of the new pot law, so not all of Colorado allows small pot sales and growing -- yet a Colorado resident in those cities and towns can drive to buy it somewhere else in Colorado, just like a person in Moore County cannot buy nor sell Jack Daniels or any other liquor, but can consume liquor in his or her home, purchased in another Tennessee town.

Yet, there are groups (the Colorado Governor and Denver City Mayor both lobbied long and hard against pot legalization, and tried to stall shop sales for a year or more, but they were overruled -- it is tough to argue against a 66% Yes vote, too) against the “recreational use” of pot, since the money (some Denver pot shops will go from $30,000 gross sales monthly to $250,000 or in annual terms, suddenly from $300,000 a year to over $3,000,000 – making the owners millionaires in just a few years) draws the attention of criminal elements coming into Colorado, with perhaps undesired consequences. Some find marijuana sales, even after all the television programs showing positive effects for cancer patients, PTSD, and other medical issues, to be simply still "selling drugs" -- not a regular, wholesome business like a real pharmacy or a car repair shop or Starbucks. Banks still are leery of accepting marijuana shops' cash receipts -- for obvious reasons. Others fear that children will be targeted as “early” users (recall the “cool” smoking ads or the high-alcohol content party drinks masquerading as more like soft drinks aimed at children), or that stoned drivers will crash all over the Colorado interstate highways in droves.

It will be interesting to see how Colorado and Washington (and other) states fared by end of 2014, a bold new world, and hopefully a world where there is better health, better oral health, better health treatment programs, less crime, less obesity, fewer DUI arrests (and victims) for any drug, less alcohol and tobacco usage, a sharp decline in hard drug usage, an increase in higher-paying jobs, and finally -- better public education that does not absolutely require marijuana taxes for new buildings and increased teacher salaries. There is something sad and strange simultaneously about the last hope/wish.

*Of course, just yards beyond the Arlington city limits, there were many liquor stores lined on both sides of Massachusetts Avenue in the city of Cambridge.

 
 

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