Reefer madness or pot paradise? The surprising legacy of Colorado

  • A marijuana plant grows under artificial light at an indoor facility in Portland, Maine. Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill Thursday setting up a legal framework for the sale of recreational marijuana to adults as early as next year. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

DENVER — Serenity Christensen, 14, is too young to set foot in one of Colorado’s many marijuana shops, but she was able to spot a business opportunity in legal weed. She is a Girl Scout, and this year, she and her mother decided to sell their cookies outside a dispensary. “Good business,” Serenity said.

But on the other side of Denver, legalization has turned another high school student, David Perez, against the warehouselike marijuana cultivations now clustered around his neighborhood. He said their skunky aroma often smacks him in the face when he walks out his front door.

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These are the ripples of five years of legal marijuana. Colorado’s first-in-the-nation experiment has reshaped health, politics, rural culture and criminal justice in surprising ways that often defy both the worst warnings of critics and blue-sky rhetoric of the marijuana industry, giving a glimpse of what the future may hold as more and more states adopt and debate full legalization.

Since recreational sales began in 2014, more people here are visiting emergency rooms for marijuana-related problems, and hospitals report higher rates of mental-health cases tied to marijuana. At the same time, thousands of others make uneventful stops at dispensaries every day, like the hiking guide in the college town of Boulder who now keeps a few marijuana gummies in a locked bag to help her relax before bed.

Some families rattled by their children’s marijuana problems have moved, seeking refuge in less permissive states. But overall, state surveys do not show an increase in young people smoking pot.

And while low-level marijuana charges have plummeted, the racial divide in drug arrests has persisted. State numbers show that African Americans in Colorado were still being arrested on marijuana charges at nearly twice the rate of white people.

“You don’t see drug-addled people roaming the streets, but we haven’t created a utopia,” said Jonathan Singer, who was one of just two state legislators who endorsed the Colorado ballot measure that made it legal for adults 21 and over to buy, consume and grow recreational marijuana.

Singer nodded to his 3-year-old, who sat in the back seat one afternoon as they headed to a picnic. “The fact that I’m willing to have this conversation in front of my daughter,” he said, “shows how much we’ve destigmatized this.”

The ‘drug talk,’ rewritten

This is the world reconfigured by legalization — the world that 18-year-old Ethan Pierson grew up in. He was born the same year that Colorado’s first medical-marijuana law took effect. He watched dispensaries bloom along the commercial streets leading to his high school in suburban Lakewood.

“If you live in Colorado, it feels like somebody’s always smoking next to you,” said Pierson, who abstains.

Doctors, educators and state officials have been particularly worried about the effects of legalization on Colorado’s youth. Would a proliferation of recreational pot shops make marijuana seem innocuous to teenagers, despite studies showing that it is harmful to their developing minds? Would teenage pot use spike? How would it affect graduation rates and school discipline?

Five years in, surveys show that most Colorado teenagers are like Pierson: They may have tried it, but 80% are not current marijuana users. State surveys show that teenage marijuana use has fallen slightly since medical marijuana sales ramped up in 2009, and has been basically flat since full legalization.

But Pierson and other students and parents said that legalization had changed marijuana’s image and availability.

Older siblings or even parents can now buy it legally and pass it along. Classmates take Snapchat videos of one another smoking on the edges of school. Instead of dime bags, there is now a buffet of concentrates, tinctures and edibles — still illegal for young people, but easy to come by.

“It’s easy to conceal,” Pierson said. “They carry it around in their purse or pencil bag.”

Some school administrators say they are catching more students using marijuana and fewer drinking. School disciplinary numbers show that marijuana is a leading reason students are punished or handed over to the police. But the overall number of students being expelled for drug infractions has actually fallen since legalization, in part because Colorado lawmakers sought to get rid of “zero tolerance” policies at schools around the same time pot was legalized.

In a fourth-floor juvenile courtroom in Denver, where children stand in front of a magistrate on charges including curfew violations and fighting, the number of marijuana possession cases is thinning out. The share of teenagers arrested for marijuana offenses has fallen by about 20% since Colorado voted to legalize, but black youths and adults are still getting arrested at much higher rates than white or Hispanic Coloradans, according to a state report. In 2017, black people in the state were arrested on marijuana charges at double the rate of white ones, according to the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice.

Some parents said that marijuana was becoming too normal, another legally permissible health risk with slick marketing, like alcohol or cigarettes. But marijuana shops cannot advertise on billboards. They are required to check identification at the door. They are supposed to be located at least 1,000 feet from schools. Edibles can no longer look like gummy bears or fruit or be called “candies.”

To some parents, this is not enough. They say their children smell marijuana on hikes, and count dispensaries on their rides home from school. Before play dates, Ben Cort now asks other parents whether they keep marijuana in the house before his daughter visits a new friend’s home. Sujata Fretz, a physician in Denver, said she found herself having a conversation with her 13-year-old son about marijuana that was shaped by the proliferation of the industry.

“I’m forced to have a conversation with my kids because it’s more public and out there,” Fretz said. “I can’t just say, ‘Hey drugs are bad’ when it’s legal and there are stores that sell it. My goal is to get them to not use marijuana.”

‘Nothing is completely safe’

The numbers seem clear: Nearly twice as many Coloradans smoke pot as the rest of America. The number of adults who use has edged up since legalization.

Now, the battle between legalization’s supporters and foes is focused on whether heavier pot use is hurting people’s health. It is a high-stakes question, and Andrew Monte, an emergency and medical toxicology physician and researcher at the University of Colorado Hospital, is on the front lines, trying to decipher what the numbers are saying.

Hospital data analyzed by Monte and others indicate that more people are arriving at emergency rooms for marijuana-related reasons. He has treated many of them. Some are heavy marijuana users with severe vomiting. Others are children who have eaten edibles, accidentally or not. They come to the ER disoriented, dehydrated or hallucinating after consuming too much marijuana.

“There’s a disconnect between what was proposed as a completely safe drug,” Monte said. “Nothing is completely safe.”

But none of the emergency-room visits tracked by researchers in recent studies ended with a patient’s death. And Monte, who has treated and studied so many cannabis cases, said that thousands of Coloradans every day safely use marijuana.

A retired farmer in Southern Colorado takes it as a balm for his aching feet. It was how a woman in Denver surmounted the nausea and pain after a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. Veterans fought to use it for post-traumatic stress. Children use it for severe seizure disorders. It is how Alli Fronzaglia, who runs a women’s hiking group, relaxes before bed.

“It’s not wreaking havoc,” she said. “There are people using responsibly in Colorado.”

Stephanie Angell, 63, used to think she was one of them. Then she began smoking heavily every day, after she learned she had multiple sclerosis in 2014. She started smoking after waking up, and then gravitated to the thick, amberlike extractions that offer higher concentrations of psychoactive THC. Dispensaries offered specials, she said, like Edible Wednesdays.

“I began to smoke morning, noon and night,” she said.

Compared with the 72,000 drug overdose deaths in America in 2017, with the crimes and loss spawned by the opioid crisis, marijuana addiction, users say, can seem too innocuous to even merit attention. State health data have not shown a surge of patients seeking addiction treatment.

But Angell said her habit had left her life dull, like a worn pencil. She lost interest in cross-stitching and other hobbies and felt like she had to smoke before going to the movies or to dinner.

Planting and busts

There’s a new kind of planting season in Pueblo County, home to wide acres of pastureland and green chile fields that elected officials want to remake as the Napa Valley of legal weed.

Law enforcement officials say that legalization has also created fertile soil for black-market cultivations that pop up in basements. Legalization advocates said that regulating marijuana would starve cartels and illegal marijuana trafficking. But some officials say it has made the problem worse.

As licensed growers in Pueblo legally harvested 113,000 marijuana plants from fields and greenhouses, police and sheriff’s officers here have been raiding houses converted to illegal cultivations that they say export marijuana to other states. People cover the windows to hide the glowing grow lights. They rewire the electric and water lines to avoid the meters.

In May, police and federal drug-enforcement agents raided 240 homes around Denver and Northern Colorado that were illegally growing marijuana, the largest sweep since legalization. Jason Dunn, the U.S. attorney in Denver, said it was a sign Colorado had become “the epicenter of black-market marijuana in the United States.”

Legalization coincided with a 20% rise in violent crime rates in Colorado from 2012 to 2017, according to a state report, giving ammunition to critics. But it is almost impossible to attribute broad changes in crime rates to just one cause. Over the same period, the number of marijuana-related arrests fell by half. Denver Police say that marijuana offenses — which make up less than 1% of overall crimes — fell by about 25% since recreational sales began in 2014.

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Still, tiny rural places and struggling cities that were left out of Colorado’s booming economy have decided it is worth the gamble. So marijuana shops are crowding into tiny towns near the Utah, Nebraska or New Mexico borders — a concern for officials worried about out-of-state trafficking. Farmland and open space are becoming huge cultivations and processing centers.

“We were pretty broke,” said Patricia Reigel, the mayor of Moffat, a town of 119 people in the sagebrush of the San Luis Valley. It now has two dispensaries and recently approved plans for a cannabis campus that could eventually hold 43 cultivations and processing businesses.

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