Mike Dunbar: A lot we can learn from Colorado’s experience

Californians have never been particularly observant of laws restricting their freedoms, especially the freedom to alter their state of mind. San Francisco was the epicenter of the drug culture in the 1960s, and several of our state’s winemakers managed to survive prohibition just fine.

So it wasn’t a stretch in 1996 when California’s Compassionate Use Act legalized medicinal use of cannabis. Many who favored it knew that cannabidiols relieved the nausea of chemotherapy, helped glaucoma patients, lessened the pain from migraine headaches, rheumatism and arthritis, and more. What evolved over the next 20 years, of course, was a mini-industry based on prescribing marijuana for every illness real or imagined.

Medical marijuana cards are sold to people whose only malady is “anxiety.” These anxious people often buy marijuana genetically bred to be higher in psychotropic than therapeutic content. In most major cities, medical marijuana dispensaries seem as common as coffee shops.

Meanwhile, a few other states have recognized the duplicity and have legalized recreational use. Colorado lived up to the connotation always evident in the term “Rocky Mountain high” and legalized it in 2012 with retail locations opening in 2014. As Californians consider similar measures this year, we have an opportunity to learn from Colorado.

The Bee contacted Vincent Carroll, editorial page editor of The Denver Post, who has had a front-row seat during the entire cannabis debate. He agreed to answer a few questions.

Q: As we consider various initiatives that make the November ballot, what should voters care about most – restrictions on age, dispensary locations, amounts you can buy, following the money?

A: Almost all of those things are important. Certainly the amount is important. Colorado limited it to 1 ounce. Restrictions on age ought to go without saying. The most important thing is that the initiative allows for responsible regulation at the state and local level. If they put all kinds of obstacles against reasonable regulations, that’s a real problem.

Q: What made Colorado’s efforts successful in 2012?

A: Difficult to answer. It just snuck up on people. Colorado historically has been a place with a strong libertarian streak, sort of a live-and-let-live personal philosophy. There had been two or three initiatives in Denver itself that required the city to put marijuana infractions way down the list in terms of police priorities; those measures passed, but Denver is a fairly liberal city. I don’t think most people expected Amendment 64 to win. Certainly, I didn’t. The political class in this state was taken by surprise.

It was a presidential year, so the turnout was big. I guess it was just time for it.

Q: Colorado reportedly had $975 million in marijuana sales in 2015. Online sites put the price range at $210 to $480 per ounce, which is taxed. Is there any fear that as supplies increase, prices will drop followed by a drop in tax revenues?

A: I haven’t heard anybody worry about a drop in price followed by a drop in tax revenues. So far, the revenues have been pretty good. In the first year or so, they have increased. The first time total sales went above $100 million in a month was last August. ... In today’s Denver Post there is a small item that pot sales were $88 million in January, and that’s up 55 percent from January 2015. Year-to-year sales are still heading upward.

Q: Two years in, how is legalization working? Any unanticipated costs or problems?

A: You would get different answers from different people to that question. My view, which we’ve expressed in editorials, is the verdict is still out on the use of marijuana in Colorado, whether or not it is a success – reduction of the black market, legalizing an activity many people are going to do anyway, bringing in revenue to state and localities, whether they offset the downsides such as increased consumption, leakage to underage users that can result in hospitalization. The verdict is still out.

There is some anecdotal evidence that use among minors may be up. But on the other hand, in more comprehensive surveys – which the state undertakes every two years, called Healthy Kids Colorado survey – (underage use) was flat in 2013 and the results for 2015 haven’t yet been released. It’s also difficult to determine because marijuana use nationally has been trending upward during this century, perhaps due to the increase in medical marijuana in so many states. There seems to be some data that there have been more emergency room incidents involving overconsumption. I don’t think it’s at a crisis level by any means. ...

You will hear reports from law enforcement about people trying to smuggle marijuana out of Colorado. No doubt that happens, but these groups tend to be vehemently opposed to legalization; they were in 2012 and remain so today.

One of the things that was most unexpected – there was no discussion before Amendment 64 passed – was the whole question of how to regulate edibles. They are a significant portion of pot sales – the drinks, the candies, the stuff you don’t smoke that is sold in all these shops. There was very little discussion about how these should be labeled, that it might be a threat to unsuspecting users.

We had some well-publicized cases of people overconsuming candy or edibles – way more than the recommended amount. In one case, a young fellow jumped off a hotel balcony to his death. So the state struggled for some period after (passage) in terms of coming up with regulations to minimize the likelihood of unsuspecting adults taking way more than they should.

I went into a retail marijuana shop and bought a cookie in a package, fully labeled, everything was correct – a ginger snap cookie. But if you took it out of the package and laid it on your counter, it looked just like a normal cookie. Yet it had 10 of the recommended doses in it. If you were a novice, and were to eat that cookie, you’d have a very bad experience. ... After everyone was kind of alerted to the possible perils of the edible industry, the state did lay down rules that products must be easily identifiable even outside their packaging.

I never ate the cookie. Maybe it tastes different; I don’t know.

Q: We’ve read of children who have ingested cannabis packaged to look like treats ending up in the ER. How is the state dealing with such issues; has there been a backlash?

A: There are many people who would not want to see Amendment 64 repealed, but who are still very concerned about issues like that. It is a drug, and some minors will get their hands on it. Backlash? I don’t know if that’s the right word, but there is clearly concern in schools and among some parent groups. … It’s more visible and available than it was several years ago. Teenagers are not fools; they recognize this.

There is a group here in Colorado, founded by concerned parents, that lobbies for stricter controls. They would like to see Amendment 64 repealed, frankly. The opposition has not gone away. ...

And I raise this almost hesitantly, but you also hear that Colorado, and Denver in particular, have seen more transients because of the availability of marijuana. I’ve spoken to homeless shelter providers, including some of the largest, and they say it is a factor. Not a huge factor – almost every major city in America is grappling with the homeless population whether they have legal marijuana or not.

Q: How does the typical Coloradan cannabis user enjoy the product? At home on Saturday night in front of the TV? In a bar, eating brownies? Are there concerns over the effort to create cannabis bars?

A: It’s a continuing issue. If you live here, you can buy it and go to your home. If you don’t live here, you can buy it but where do you go to consume it? And even if you live here you may want to use it in other places. … For marijuana activists, that is their big goal, their coveted target – allowing use in public or clublike venues. They were about to put something on the ballot in Denver last year ... (but) it was pulled because the mayor and other officials made it clear they were going to campaign vigorously against it.

One of the obstacles to public consumption is Amendment 64 itself. To make it more palatable to the voting public, the authors wrote in a provision that specifically bars consumption that is “conducted openly and publicly.” So voters did not expect to see people smoking or eating marijuana products in a public place. I think that absolutely rules out bars or their equivalent; they’re public, anybody can walk into a bar.

Q: How does the issue of medical marijuana play out? If there is no sales tax on medicinal cannabis, wouldn’t everyone be inclined to get a medical card and get a 10 percent instant discount on purchases?

A: There’s a special 10 percent special sales tax and a 15 percent (state) excise tax on retail marijuana. So it’s a huge price differential, and that is a problem. Obviously, if you can get a medical marijuana card – a red card, they’re called here – you can buy marijuana at a much reduced price. ...

One of the surprises after passage of Amendment 64 was that the medical marijuana industry did not whither away to the extent most of us thought it would – policymakers, opinion leaders and marijuana activists all were surprised. There was a suspicion, which still lingers, that many folks who qualified for medical marijuana over the years have done so under the very loose criteria we have in Colorado – which allows them to qualify with a claim of chronic pain. Many people have gamed the system. The supposition was that these people would find it more convenient to segue into the retail market. But medical marijuana sales are still very robust.

Of that $88 million sold in January, $56 million was in recreational and $32 million was sold through medical marijuana dispensaries. The fact is, the issue remains a concern of policymakers to somehow ensure that most people with medical marijuana cards are actually patients who need to use it as medicine. But it’s been very difficult to tighten that market because of the specific provisions in the (medical marijuana) amendment that passed in 2000, which include obstacles to cracking down on medical marijuana fraud.

That might be something that California needs to look at … if you put a high tax on retail pot, you’ll drive people into the (untaxed) medical market.