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After 5 months, Colorado sees downside of legal high

  • New York Times
  • Published Saturday, May 31, 2014, at 8:29 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, June 1, 2014, at 6:39 a.m.

— Five months after Colorado became the first state to allow recreational marijuana sales, the battle over legalization is still raging.

Law enforcement officers in Colorado and neighboring states, emergency room doctors and legalization opponents increasingly are highlighting a series of recent problems as cautionary lessons for other states flirting with loosening marijuana laws.

There is the Denver man who, hours after buying a package of marijuana-infused Karma Kandy from one of Colorado’s new recreational marijuana shops, began raving about the end of the world and then pulled a handgun from the family safe and killed his wife, the authorities say. Some hospital officials say they are treating growing numbers of children and adults sickened by potent doses of edible marijuana. Sheriffs in neighboring states complain about stoned drivers streaming out of Colorado and through their towns.

“I think, by any measure, the experience of Colorado has not been a good one unless you’re in the marijuana business,” said Kevin A. Sabet, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization. “We’ve seen lives damaged. We’ve seen deaths directly attributed to marijuana legalization. We’ve seen marijuana slipping through Colorado’s borders. We’ve seen marijuana getting into the hands of kids.”

Despite such anecdotes, there is scant hard data. Because of the lag in reporting many health statistics, it may take years to know legal marijuana’s effect – if any – on teenage drug use, school expulsions or the number of fatal car crashes.

It was only in January, for example, that the Colorado State Patrol began tracking the number of people pulled over for driving while stoned. Since then, marijuana-impaired drivers have made up about 1.5 percent of all citations for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Proponents of legalization argue that the critics are cherry-picking anecdotes to tarnish a young industry that has been flourishing under intense scrutiny.

The vast majority of the state’s medical and recreational marijuana stores are living up to stringent state rules, they say. The stores have sold marijuana to hundreds of thousands of customers without incident. The industry has generated $12.6 million in taxes and fees so far, though the revenues have not matched some early projections.

Marijuana supporters note that violent crimes in Denver – where the bulk of Colorado’s pot retailers are – are down so far this year. The number of robberies from January through April fell by 4.8 percent from the same time in 2013, and assaults were down by 3.7 percent. Overall, crime in Denver is down by about 10 percent, though it is impossible to say whether changes to marijuana laws played any role in that decline.

Across state lines

Few agree on how much legally purchased marijuana is being secreted out of Colorado. Michele Leonhart, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told a Senate panel in April that officials in Kansas had tallied a 61 percent increase in seizures of marijuana that could be traced to Colorado. But according to the Kansas Highway Patrol, total marijuana seizures fell to 1,090 pounds from 2,790 pounds during the first four months of the year, a 61 percent decline.

Some sheriffs and police chiefs along Colorado’s borders say they have noticed little change. But in Colby, Kansas, which sits along an interstate highway running west to Colorado, Police Chief Ron Alexander said charges for sale, distribution or possession related to marijuana were rising fast. This year, he tallied 20 such cases through May 23. Two years ago, there were six during that same time period.

Sheriff Adam Hayward of Deuel County, Nebraska, said he was locking up more people for marijuana-related offenses. “It’s kind of a free-for-all,” he said. “The state or the federal government needs to step up and do something.”

Criminal marijuana cases in Colorado plunged by 65 percent in 2013, the first full year of legalization for personal recreational use, but the police in some areas have been writing dozens of tickets to crack down on public marijuana smokers. Police and fire officials across the state have been contending with a sharp rise in home explosions, as people try to cook hashish oil over butane flames. And despite a galaxy of legal, regulated marijuana stores across the state, prosecutors say a dangerous illicit market persists.

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