Ten years ago I left Paris on the Friday before Halloween riding the high-speed, Belgian THALYS train headed for Amsterdam. Although most Europeans call it All Souls Day, their holiday is similar to ours, and my coach was packed with college students, many in costume and most of them drinking heavily. They were bound for Amsterdam and the Netherlands’ recently opened coffee houses — then, they would be on to the city’s synth-beat dance halls. Marijuana was the draw, trance dancing, the high and communal hotel rooms the payoff. Both the train station and the airport, as I would learn when I flew out on Monday, were bursting with tourists. Free shuttle buses waited at curbside to whisk these merry makers to their preferred destinations.
A colossal North Sea storm had flooded parts of downtown the night before and it would continue to rain heavily throughout the weekend. My intention to visit the Rijksmusuem on Saturday was abandoned when I discovered a three-hour line that had to be endured in a drenching downpour. Rembrandt would have to wait for another trip. It seemed like it would be far more fun to learn something about the marijuana bars. The most interesting one I found was a coffee house that shared one side of the first floor in a 17th-century commercial building with a police sub-station. Only a hallway separated them. When I entered the coffee house, several police officers were there sipping coffee. I joined them, and, as is usually the case, all but one spoke excellent English.
These officers felt there had been little or no criminal downside to legalization; that it had, in fact, dried up revenues for many street level drug dealers. They also enjoyed their proximity to a coffee house since it provided a venue where they frequently picked up tips from neighbors and informants, who might hesitate to be seen walking into a police station, regarding illegal activity in the neighboring community. Throughout our conversation a steady stream of customers purchased their joints and traipsed out into the early Baltic gloom of rain slickened streets. Cash registers were ringing across the city, in restaurants and shops, as youthful visitors killed time until the clubs opened again. The economic impact was evident to anyone who bothered to watch.
A few years ago, several of the border towns in the Netherlands, among them Maastricht, became increasingly concerned about the high volume of purchase-only customers who were crossing over from Germany and Belgium. These customers tended to be loutish in behavior and frequently indulged in various petty vandalisms. So they petitioned the Dutch Parliament to let them deny marijuana sales to non-residents. Once their bill was approved, Amsterdam swiftly moved to assure travelers that its coffee houses would remain open to all. There was simply too much money at stake. I recount all of this because it provides a frame of reference for what we may expect in Colorado once recreational marijuana sales open on January 1, 2014.
If you think LoDo is a crowded place on Friday and Saturday nights today, just wait. Pot heads from across the Midwest and points West will descend on the Queen City of the Plains like Miller moths in June. Ski trips will spike as weekend jocks flock to slice our knee-deep powder on a mellow high. It won’t be just Applejack’s that earns a stop as mountain shuttles ferry travelers to our mountain resorts. So, what were Colorado voters thinking when they approved first Medical marijuana and now adult-use doobies for all? A large part, I suspect, was the desire to decriminalize marijuana offenses. Drug laws have operated in a discriminatory fashion that destroys lives and opportunities for decades. As Gary Johnson, the former Republican Governor of New Mexico and 2012 Libertarian Presidential candidate, likes to say, “Seventy percent of those serving marijuana sentences in my state are black or brown. How many people in this room believe they’ve been smoking 70 percent of the grass?”
In the Green Mile at Medicine Man, Colorado Statesman’s Miller Hudson poses at the end of just one row of developing marijuana plants. There is an abundance of green in this room.
Whatever the merits of the medical marijuana argument may be, and they are reportedly considerable for some patients, it was rapidly evident that its introduction was the proverbial camel’s nose beneath the wall of our legal tent. Who knew there was an epidemic of chronic pain among single men under the age of 35 in Colorado? Yet, there has been little public complaint regarding their backdoor access to quality reefer. The marijuana offered today is a long way from the ditch weed of the ’70s. Monsanto may not have been on the job, but there is no suppressing human ingenuity. Individuals who would have a stroke if they ate a genetically modified organism (think corn, wheat and soybean products) don’t seem to have any problem smoking GMO-engineered ganja. The potency of the cloned marijuana buds on sale today is a good 10 or 15 times that of their recent ancestors. A couple of hits will take you places that would have required a couple of joints 30 years ago.
A public health emergency?
Not everyone is enthused about the experiment voters have launched in Colorado. Opponents abound, but our shared American respect for democratic choices has restricted them to grumbling about implementation; challenging the scope, reach and effectiveness of the state’s proposed rules and regulations governing public sale. Two separate and distinct groups have emerged to register their concerns and objections. (1) Educators and parents who are deeply worried about the diversion of marijuana to children, particularly teenagers. They buttress their argument with studies that indicate regular marijuana usage prior to the age of 19 can adversely affect brain development. (2) Medical and addiction treatment professionals who fear that legalization will unleash an avalanche of health care costs as marijuana becomes a gateway drug for more serious and damaging consequences including psychosis, amotivational syndrome and depression. At a recent Denver Post marijuana forum, Dr. Paula Rigg with the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry cited the fact that taxes on nicotine and alcohol historically covered just 10 percent of their public health impacts. She sees no reason to believe marijuana will prove any different.
Proponents like to point to our President as a heavy teen-toker whose career appears to have turned out well. Whatever should be expected, Colorado has scrimped on mental health and addiction services for decades. Dr. Libby Stuyt, the addiction psychiatrist who runs the Circle Program at the state hospital in Pueblo, points out that she already has a six-month waiting list for the scant 20 beds funded by our state budget. She expresses particular concern about adolescent susceptibility to brain insult from marijuana and expects to see an influx of applicants next year.
The Legislature expanded its funding of mental health services during the 2013 session, largely as a response to the Aurora theater massacre, in hopes of better identifying the most profoundly disturbed among us. Critics claim this isn’t likely to work, so perhaps these monies can help provide treatment for any sudden spike in addiction disorders. Unfortunately, much of the scientific research that both sides point to was conducted more than a decade ago, long before the high potency marijuana strains available today even existed. Very little new marijuana research is being funded. Proponents point out that local mental health programs receive nearly 60 percent of their revenues from court ordered marijuana referrals, which will presumably dry up in the new legal environment. Questioning motivations has become a cottage industry.
The truth is that no one probably knows how this will turn out, although passions are running high. Also at the Denver Post marijuana forum last week, a member of the audience arose at the close of the session and loudly challenged anyone who claimed that marijuana did not serve as a gateway drug. He grew sufficiently belligerent that he had to be escorted from the room. Undoubtedly, there are individuals with a predilection for addictive behavior. I have a friend who went on a health kick several years ago and began consuming vitamins and additives in industrial quantities (if two pills were good for you then ten should be better) — transforming herself into a supplement-gobbling dervish. I suspect she probably shouldn’t start smoking anything.
A kick-start for the economy?
On this question, proponents have substantial evidence in their corner. The medical marijuana industry has grown almost exponentially in Colorado, sopping up vacant warehouse space along the Front Range for its grow operations while employing hundreds of semi-skilled workers — those who have had the hardest time finding jobs in our post-2008 economy. It’s fast becoming big business, perhaps approaching $200 million in sales during 2012. I had an opportunity to visit Medicine Man’s operations in Montbello. The medical marijuana growth operation has 33 employees, a $3.5 million dollar grow operation, a pharmacy and more than a thousand regular customers. The owners are preparing to double the size of their current grow operation as they ramp up for the anticipated recreational market. Theirs is a sophisticated, closely monitored and highly technical business. Female seed clones must be fooled into budding under artificial light, the grow rooms need to be kept virtually sterile as any pollination would produce unwanted seeds. “The girls” must remain virgins. Each of their last two grow room supervisors has departed to consult for brand new facilities. Surprisingly, they love state regulation, even if they haven’t seen much of it.
Just a few minutes on the Internet will lead you to seed banks, wholesalers, product exchanges and equipment suppliers. Anyone who followed the development of Colorado’s legislative recommendations witnessed the growing clout of this industry. Medical marijuana licensees hired experienced Statehouse lobbyists. They in turn successfully won exclusive rights to launch the adult use marketplace for their existing medical marijuana clients. More than a thousand medical marijuana shops have been approved in Colorado and another 300 remain in the pipeline. In Denver there will soon be more marijuana shops than liquor stores. The city council took a straw poll this week that found only one member openly opposed to commercial expansion, 10 in favor, and one on the fence. Albeit, even the supporters cushioned their yes votes with caveats about protecting children, neighborhoods and minority communities. But don’t kid yourself; this horse is out of the barn, over the hill and on its way to grandmother’s house. And once weed tourists begin filling hotel rooms, crowding restaurants and throwing their money around, we will witness the chamber of commerce begin to circle the establishment’s wagons around this honey pot.
Our local entrepreneurs like to brag about Colorado’s opportunity to lead the nation in developing a spanking new industry — envisioning themselves as the eventual kingpins of a continent-wide marijuana empire. Truth be told, we will only know we’ve hit the jackpot when hedge funds and Philip Morris start sniffing around town, and that won’t happen until they’re sure the federal government won’t attempt to strangle this baby in the cradle. Bankers and venture capitalists are beginning to shed their caution, and business managers are muscling up as well. A surprising percentage of operators, however, go out of their way to assure you they aren’t users themselves and that they are only involved because of the marvelous business opportunity. You should accept that claim with a grain of salt.
Yet to be determined
Ninety years have elapsed since prohibition was repealed, and residual legal squabbles remain in Colorado’s liquor industry. While I was running Denver’s Office of Excise and Licenses, mom-and-pop liquor stores complained incessantly that Walmart could retail Budweiser, and earn a profit, for less than they could purchase the same suds from a Colorado wholesaler. The fact that Walmart purchased their beer by the trainload at the brewery in St. Louis and then distributed it nationally to their stores with their own trucks can be viewed as either a good or a bad thing depending on both your point of view and your sense of economic fairness. Grocery stores and other chains regularly chafe at the fact they can only hold a single Colorado liquor license. Similar tensions will develop in the regulatory framework for adult use marijuana, which was miraculously cobbled together in less than six months. Just wait a few years until Walmart decides to open its own smoking counters.
It seems likely that huge grow-only operations will eventually emerge simply as a matter of efficiency, and there will be increasing pressure to license co-ops where individuals can aggregate their home-grow allotments in shared, secure facilities. A more immediate conflict will arise over the legitimacy of smoke clubs where individuals can share a puff with friends and strangers. Since public consumption is outlawed, and most tourists won’t have a private property to visit and hotels and restaurants must keep their current smoking bans in place, there will have to an alternative provided. Attorney Rob Corry has already filed a challenge on behalf of a club he hopes to open. Will a toke on a private balcony constitute public consumption? What is the appropriate definition of marijuana intoxication? Although the Legislature established a threshold for driving under the influence, it doesn’t match up with the federal standards for commercial driver licensing. There are a lot of loose ends. The Colorado Supreme Court recently ruled that an employer may establish a prohibition against marijuana use even though private consumption is legal. No set of rules can anticipate every eventuality.
A few years ago I received a call from an employee at one of the state’s regional centers for the profoundly disabled. She had been driving a state van while chaperoning nine residents on a field trip when a drunk driver struck her vehicle. The other driver had been ticketed and arrested. Fortunately no one in the van had been seriously injured other than the driver, who had struck her head on the doorpost. She was taken to the hospital for observation. During routine blood tests marijuana was detected in her system. She was suspended without pay until she could clear a urine screening. Needless to say, she found this bizarre turn of events unfair, as she had not, in her opinion, been at fault nor evidenced any reduced capacity.
She told me, “I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back to work. I’m a chubby girl and I understand this stuff can sit in my fatty tissues for months.” We were on good terms at this point in our conversation and I half-jokingly suggested, “This might be a good time to take up jogging.” She replied by explaining that if she wanted to jog, she probably wouldn’t be so chubby in the first place. Then she added, “Look, after a day at my job, I need to come home and let go of my stress. So I smoke half a joint before I start cooking dinner. It helps me treat my kids right and get a good night’s sleep later on. If you had my job, you’d probably want to smoke too.”
I laughed and told her that if I had her job I probably wouldn’t last a month without getting fired. She returned to work after three weeks of abstinence (with an assist from workouts at the gym) and hasn’t had a problem since. I don’t know whether she still takes a hit or two in the evening, but feel it’s probably a good place for an application of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” principles.
Marijuana usage in the Netherlands is significantly lower than it is in the United States, and teen usage in Colorado has declined slightly since medical marijuana was regulated. It may be true that tight regulation will make it tougher for teens to get their hands on pot than it is today when the cartels will sell pretty much anything to anyone. An unexpected criticism comes from the political left, where several opponents object that marijuana legalization protects middle class families for using their drug of choice while poor kids will still get busted for crack offenses. Of course, there may still be substantial costs to our public health care systems. It would be nice if we had set aside some money to track all the parameters at dispute: crime rates, addiction incidence, diversion, health costs, usage, public safety, toxicity and potency. The federal government has remained silent throughout Colorado’s election, our subsequent implementation and now the risking of tens of millions of dollars in private investment. The Feds waste plenty of money on silly things, so perhaps they could help monitor these outcomes for us. It’s not exactly leadership, but it would certainly help.
At Medicine Man I was encouraged to touch the buds on a Purple Haze to see just how sticky they were, oozing viscous THC. I licked the resulting goo off my thumb and forefinger only to have my tongue go numb for an hour or two. God only knows what smoking it would do.