With days to go before recreational pot use becomes legal in Colorado, those of us who live in Boulder are wondering what will change. Marijuana use is already ubiquitous. Open up the free newspapers on campus at the University of Colorado, and ads for "medical" marijuana fill the pages. Funny how a "medicine" whose primary benefits are restricted to glaucoma, chemotherapy-induced nausea and peripheral neuropathy -- conditions far more likely to afflict the elderly -- is being marketed to college kids. But, come January 1, pot entrepreneurs will be able to push Purple Haze, Blue Rhino and Sour Diesel without the fig leaf.
The state has issued 136 licenses for recreational pot retailers, mostly in Denver. Although voters passed Amendment 64, making private recreational use of marijuana legal in the state, pot dealers still face some obstacles to plying their trade. Federal law makes the sale of marijuana a crime, despite Attorney General Eric Holder's assurance in August that he's not much interested in prosecuting marijuana cases.
In November, federal drug enforcement authorities raided several Denver dispensaries and growing facilities with suspected ties to foreign drug cartels. It turns out that the establishments that were raided weren't just growing and selling marijuana; they also were stockpiling weapons and trading harder drugs. And banks, which are regulated by the feds, won't set up accounts for businesses that are still considered criminal enterprises by federal statute. What's more, several political jurisdictions in the state have banned recreational pot stores within their boundaries.
These impediments aren't likely to make much of a dent in the access to legal weed, however. Getting high -- which never has been particularly difficult in places like Boulder -- will become all that much easier starting January 1. As one friend asked me recently, does that mean she'll be expected to serve marijuana brownies at her next party? Will employers have to look the other way when workers take a few tokes during their breaks? Will drivers have to worry as much about stoned septuagenarians driving too slow as about teenagers driving too fast?
Even before marijuana becomes legal, the effects of the drug are apparent in everyday life in the city I now call home. The work ethic in Boulder already leaves something to be desired. Try finding someone to put in a full eight-hour day doing home repair, painting or yard work in this college town. If they show up by 10, you're lucky -- and don't be surprised if their eyes are a little bloodshot after lunch and they knock off work by 3. I imagine it only will get worse once pot is legal.
My dad painted houses for a living. He was always on the job by 8 a.m. and stayed until it was too dark to work or the job was finished. The only people with similar work habits now seem to be immigrants -- who, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, use marijuana at less than half the rate of American-born adults.
But the real damage will be to Colorado's youth. Young brains are especially vulnerable to marijuana use, with studies showing that becoming drug-dependent is far more likely among people who start using marijuana in their teens. Drug-related school suspensions are a major problem in Colorado -- with more than 5,000 occurring in the last year for which there are records.
Colorado teens already use marijuana at higher rates than others, with Boulder teens using at three times the national rate. One in four Boulder teens currently uses pot, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, and more than one-third have used it in the previous 30 days. Of those Colorado youth who are users, 11 percent use the drug daily. And kids are experimenting at younger and younger ages, with almost one in 10 middle school students in Adams County north of Denver admitting they used marijuana in the previous 30 days.
Colorado is already the butt of many a Rocky Mountain high joke, but the issue is a serious one. Marijuana legalization is likely to make Colorado a less desirable place to live, work, study and raise a family. But by the time Colorado voters figure that out, the damage already will have been done.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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