Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Analysts predict Oregon would generate $38.5 million in tax revenue in first year of pot legalization

OregonAs detailed in this lengthy new report, titled simply "Oregon Cannabis Tax Revenue Estimate," a prediction of marijuana usage is at the heart of economists' prediction of significant tax revenues is the citizens of Oregon legalize recreational marijuana this fall. Here is the report's Executive summary:

Oregonians are slated to vote on the “Control, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana and Industrial Hemp Act” in November 2014. The measure would regulate, tax, and legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older with legal use beginning in July, 2015.

Economists at ECONorthwest conducted an independent study to estimate the amount of money that would be generated in the short term if the Act passes. The money generated in taxes would go to schools, state and local police, and programs for drug treatment, prevention, drug education, and mental health.

The key findings of this analysis are:

• $38.5 million in excise tax revenue would be generated during the first fiscal year of tax receipts;

• $78.7 million in excise tax revenue would be generated during the first full biennium of tax receipts.

The report does not look at the impact on courts, police, and jail operating costs due to legalization. The forecast is based on a comprehensive methodology that includes the following: the cost of production; price elasticity; the price of marijuana and its retail products; market demand; the short-term demand remaining in the gray market; accessibility of non-medical sales; new market entrants; home production; and non-resident demand.

The “Control, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana and Industrial Hemp Act” legalizes the growth, processing, wholesaling, and retailing of marijuana for adult purposes. If enacted, retail sales in Oregon could begin July 1, 2016.

Petitioners for this Act asked ECONorthwest to forecast state government tax revenues that would arise in the first fiscal year of its implementation, presumed to be July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017 (FY 2017). Similarly, they asked ECONorthwest to estimate tax revenues in the first full biennium, July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2019 (2017-19 biennium). This report summarizes ECONorthwest’s research and forecast.

July 24, 2014 in Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Taxation information and issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Could Vermont become the first state to legislatively legalize marijuana?

The question in the title in this post is prompted by news yesterday that Vermont has contracted with RAND to study the possible effects of legalizing marijuana in the state.  

A study like this could provide political momentum and support for a planned 2015 legalization bill.  Though, of course, its actual impact will depend in large part on what the study finds.  At the very least, however, it indicates that a critical mass of elected officials in Vermont have more than just a passing interest in legalization.  

Also of note, Vermont's Governor, Peter Shumlin has been praised by NORML in the past for his support of reforming marijuana laws.  Shumlin is up for reelection this year.  Assuming he retains office, his presence would go a long way toward making legalization via legislation a real possibility.  (Some may recall that New Hampshire's legislative legalization efforts hit a road block earlier this year after opposition from their Governor.)

And, whatever the political outcome, I'm sure RAND's report will be interesting reading for all who follow this issue, especially since the news story indicates Beau Kilmer--whose work in this area is consistently must-read--will be meeting with Vermont officials next week to get the study going.

Here's some highlights from the story about the upcoming study:

Rand Corp. representatives will be in Vermont next week to begin work on a study of the effects that marijuana legalization might have on the state's economy, individual health and public safety.

 

The international, nonprofit research organization was chosen to conduct the study, which was mandated in a bill passed by the Legislature last session.

 

The state will pay $20,000 toward the study, which will be augmented by as much as $100,000 in private donations, officials said Friday.

 

Rand Corp. declined to comment on the research until the organization's senior policy analyst Beau Kilmer meets with Vermont officials next week. More details on the study would be released then, Rand spokesperson Warren Robak said.

 

"We were looking for someone who wasn't going to make a case that we legalize or not legalize," Spaulding said, adding that Rand is "very well-respected."

 

The report generated by Rand should give Vermont legislators the facts they need to have a well-informed debate next winter, one lawmaker says.

 

"I think the study will help with legislators and the public who inherently think it's a good idea but want evidence they can hold up to show people," said state Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden. Zuckerman said he will propose a marijuana regulation and legalization bill in the 2015 legislative session.

 

"It can work in other states," Zuckerman said. "We just have to make some changes."

July 22, 2014 in Current Affairs, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Is anyone seriously tracking collateral industries and jobs created by marijuana reform?

Th (2)The question in the title of this post was my first reaction to this notable new article, headlined "Next Gold Rush: Legal Marijuana Feeds Entrepreneurs’ Dreams, which appears on the front page of today's New York Times.  Here are excerpts from the article: 

Like the glint of gold or rumors of oil in ages past, the advent of legal, recreational marijuana is beginning to reshape economies in Colorado and Washington State.

Marijuana is beckoning thousands of entrepreneurs and workers, investors and hucksters from across the country, each looking to cash in on a rapidly changing industry that offers hefty portions of both promise and peril.

At convention centers and in hotel meeting rooms, start-up companies are floating sales pitches for marijuana delivery services or apps to name-tagged investors who sip red wine and munch on hempseed snacks. This year, hundreds of people seeking jobs lined up for blocks in downtown Denver, résumés in hand, for an industry-sponsored marijuana job fair....

Tourists have flocked to those stores, making up 44 percent of the customers at one Denver shop during a sample week this spring, according to the state’s first study of demand for marijuana. Tour companies and marijuana-friendly bed-and-breakfasts have sprung up to serve tourists, too.

In Washington State, where recreational sales kicked off last week, the retail industry is much smaller, with as few as eight stores open so far. But the ambitions are boundless, with more than 300 licenses under state review and an outdoor growing season — perfect for apples, wheat and grapes — that could make Washington a national powerhouse of production if legalization spreads.

Hundreds of other people have found work on the edges of the industry. They sell water systems, soil nutrients, lighting and accounting services, like the 19th-century merchants who profited by selling picks and shovels to gold miners. There are now dozens of marijuana-related mobile apps, marijuana-centric law firms and real estate agents, cannabis security experts (it is a risky, virtually all-cash trade) and marijuana-themed event promoters offering everything from luxury getaways to bus tours. Washington has a rule requiring bar-code tracking of every marijuana plant to ensure that only licensed, Washington-grown marijuana is sold in its stores. It has also created a niche for tech start-ups like Viridian Sciences, a software company aiming to help retailers prove the provenance of their product should a state inspector or customer ask....

[M]any are ready to gamble on marijuana’s success. After a decade in the military and a career working in security, Sy Alli, 53, moved to Colorado to become the director of corporate security for Dixie Brands, a company that makes marijuana-infused drinks and snacks. Zach Marburger, 28, visited in January to ski and check out the early days of legal use of recreational marijuana, and decided to relocate to Denver to develop software to connect customers and retailers.

And a few months ago, a 22-year-old mobile app developer named Isaac Dietrich and a friend were smoking marijuana in a Norfolk, Va., apartment when they realized: There could be money in this. They moved to Colorado, where they are working on an app called MassRoots, which lets marijuana enthusiasts privately post photos on an online platform out of sight of their parents or co-workers. They want it to be the Instagram for marijuana users. “We thought about relocating to Silicon Valley, but they haven’t backed a single marijuana company,” Mr. Dietrich said. “This is where everything’s happening. We didn’t want to be left out.”

July 19, 2014 in Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Unsurprisingly, two very divergent views of the impact of marijuana legalization in Colorado

As everyone might have expected, proponents and opponents of marijuana reform have quite diverse perspectives on the success or failure of the legalization experiment in Colorado over the first six months of regular recreation pot sales.  Examples of the divergent views are well demonstrated by these two recent commentaries:

From Jacob Sullum, reform proponent, here in Forbes, "How Is Marijuana Legalization Going? The Price of Pot Peace Looks Like a Bargain."

From Kevin Sabet, reform opponent, here at CNN, "Colorado's troubles with pot."

The enduring problem posed by these divergent perspectives is that it become so much very harder for marijuana reform "agnostics" to know whether the sky is really falling or if in fact all is swell in the wake of recent reforms. Perhaps usefully, though, the divergent views may help ensure that we go a number of years with the on-going experiment before anyone should feel extra confident asserting great success or great failure in recent reforms.

July 11, 2014 in Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Article examines the impact of marijuana legalization on whether high school seniors plan to use marijuana

From the International Journal of Drug Policy comes this article with the catchy title "Correlates of intentions to use cannabis among US high school seniors in the case of cannabis legalization."  The article is behind a paywall and I haven't yet attempted to track it down through the library but the abstract indicates that high school seniors self-report that they would be slightly more likely to want to use marijuana if it were legal.  

Here are the basics from the abstract: 

This study examined intentions to use among US high school seniors if cannabis were to become legally available.

 

Ten percent of non-cannabis-using students reported intent to initiate use if legal and this would be consistent with a 5.6% absolute increase in lifetime prevalence of cannabis use in this age group from 45.6% (95% CI=44.6, 46.6) to 51.2% (95% CI=50.2, 52.2). Eighteen percent of lifetime users reported intent to use cannabis more often if it was legal. Odds for intention to use outcomes increased among groups already at high risk for use (e.g., males, whites, cigarette smokers) and odds were reduced when friends disapproved of use. However, large proportions of subgroups of students normally at low risk for use (e.g., non-cigarette-smokers, religious students, those with friends who disapprove of use) reported intention to use if legal. Recent use was also a risk factor for reporting intention to use as often or more often.

June 24, 2014 in Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 2, 2014

"After 5 Months of Sales, Colorado Sees the Downside of a Legal High"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy recent article appearing in the New York Times.  As the headline suggests, the article documents glass-half-empty data and perspectives on Colorado's on-going experiment with marijuana legalization.  Here are excerpts:

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 s 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. Over all, 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....

The argument is being waged with fervor because both sides say Colorado’s successes and failures with regulating marijuana will shape perceptions of legalization for voters considering similar measures in other states and for leery federal law enforcement officials.  After the 2012 legalization votes in Colorado and Washington State — where recreational sales are expected to begin this summer — Justice Department officials gave the states a cautious green light. But they warned that they might intervene if marijuana ended up fueling violence or drug trafficking, or flowing across state lines or into the hands of children.

Marijuana opponents like Thomas J. Gorman of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which helps law enforcement, say Colorado is already falling short of those standards.  “In any other state if they were making as much money and growing as much dope, they’d be taken out by the feds,” Mr. Gorman said.

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 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 inseizures 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, Kan., 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, Neb., 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.”...

Police and fire officials across the state have been contending with a sharp rise in home explosions, as people use flammable butane to make hashish oil.. And despite a galaxy of legal, regulated marijuana stores across the state, prosecutors say a dangerous illicit market persists....

Many of Colorado’s starkest problems with legal marijuana stem from pot-infused cookies, chocolates and other surprisingly potent edible treats that are especially popular with tourists and casual marijuana users. On Colorado’s northern plains, for example, a fourth grader showed up on the playground one day in April and sold some of his grandmother’s marijuana to three classmates.  The next day, one of those students returned the favor by bringing in a marijuana edible he had swiped from his own grandmother.  “This was kind of an unintended consequence of Colorado’s new law,” said John Gates, the district’s director of school safety and security. “For crying out loud, secure your weed. If you can legally possess it, that’s fine. But it has no place in an elementary school.”

So far this year, nine children have ended up at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora after consuming marijuana, six of whom got critically sick.  In all of 2013, the hospital treated only eight such cases.

June 2, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Brookings discovers "professional businesses that are innovative and scientific" in Colorado

BrookingsI am pleased to learn from this new post on the Brookings Institution's blog that folks at this prestigious think tank "will be researching the new marijuana industry, not as advocates, but as social scientists, interested in how our federal system comes to terms with statewide decisions to legalize a substance that is illegal in the rest of the country, and how states implement those policy changes." And this new post authored by John Hudak, headlined "Dispatch from Colorado: The Interesting Case of Marijuana Entrepreneurs," already provides an interesting and exciting perspective on what the folks at Brookings are discovering as their research begins. Here are snippets: 

I spent last week in the Greater Denver area researching implementation of legalized cannabis. In the process, I found a remarkable situation: a robust entrepreneurialism around an industry that elsewhere lives in the shadows of society....

Regardless of one’s personal feelings on the issue, Colorado has determined (and within bounds, the federal government has allowed) the construction of a legal, recreational, and highly regulated market by which consumers can purchase a vast array of cannabis products. And business is booming....

The legal market in Colorado, from professional grow operations to medical dispensaries to recreational dispensaries, looks nothing like street corner drug operation. These are professional businesses that are innovative and scientific. They bring black market lessons to the new, white market, while using tools of agriculture, engineering, science, manufacturing, and business to advance an industrial effort.

Businesses function in a market — though highly regulated — competing with each other to produce the best product in the highest demand. Surely there are members of the industry — like in any industry — who try to skirt the rules or operate outside of the regulatory structures. However, my interaction with businesses involved talking with executives, operators, and employees who embodied professionalism and care for their craft. They reminded me at every turn that they were quite aware that playing by the rules was a necessary condition to avoid the ever-possible federal intervention. At the same time, they showed pride in their efforts, just as a brewmaster would at a microbrewery or a vintner at a winery.

And the operations were just as scientific. For example, at the grow operation I toured, I was led through a series of rooms, engineered specifically for the growing of cannabis. The process involved water purification, testing pH levels, temperature, and conductivity. There was a genetics room where employees ensure a strain of marijuana is consistent in each subsequent plant of that strain. Lights (as it was an indoor grow) were metered, colored properly for the correct stages of growth, measured the proper distance from plants, and were shut off for the necessary periods of time each day. Feeding and watering were timed and measured, and every plant pinned with the state-required seed-to-sale tracking system identifier tags. While in some ways similar to a greenhouse where one would buy roses or petunias, this space looked nothing like the neighborhood florist’s supply space. It was a warehouse filled with advanced agro-science and manufacturing.

In addition, my visits to dispensaries and a grow operation offered a peek into the emerging labor market within the industry: it employs demographic groups hit hardest by the recent recession. Most employees were young (appearing 30 or under). There were numerous females and individuals of color. Though I lack systematic industry employment data and cannot make broad claims about employment trends, my conversations with those who know the industry best suggested that those observations were more than just anecdotes and reflect real trends among cannabis businesses.

Is the industry perfect? No. Does it need regulatory and legislative solutions to operate in a more effective, safe, and consistent way? Absolutely. I will address these topics in a paper to be released in the coming months.

However, a deep look into Colorado’s industry shows a professionalized marketplace that contrasts starkly with caricatures or stereotypes about marijuana growers and sellers. In Colorado, the marijuana seller may not look or dress the same as the woman selling pharmaceuticals or the man selling insurance, but they’re driven by similar entrepreneurial energy and a willingness to play by the rules in a regulated marketplace. The emergence of that marketplace, the ability of the state to respond to the unprecedented and unique challenges it will present, and its adaptation to the broader federal system will be the topics of more research.

I am especially eager to see this report focus on the "emerging labor market" within the marijuana industry. I have long suspected and have been hoping that the labor force dynamics that can surround a legalized marijuana industry, especially if it is regulated in a manner that encourages job creation, could be very beneficial for many under-employed populations. I hope the folks at Brookings give particular attention to this issue in its coming research, in part because I have not seen any significant coverage of labor issues in other work to date in this field.

May 23, 2014 in Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 16, 2014

New study on marijuana and driving in Colorado

Following up on yesterday's post about driving and marijuana legalization, the Cannabist reports that a new study has been released showing an increase in the number of Coloradans in fatal car crashes that tested positive for marijuana.  The study focused on the period from 2009-2011, when Colorado's commercial medical marijuana market came into being.  It does not include post-legalization data.  

Like other studies on marijuana and car fatalities, the study's tests cannot determine whether the drivers were actually impaired or whether they had smoked marijuana at some earlier date.  As a result, we don't know whether the positive tests are simply the result of increased use or indicative or an increase in impaired driving.  

Adding to the complexity, the story notes that traffic fatalities in Colorado decreased overall during the relevant time period.  If there had been a significant rise in marijuana-impaired drivers on the road (as opposed to a rise in people testing positive because of a general increase in use), we might imagine that it would have resulted in an overall increase in traffic fatilities.  Of course, it could be that marijuana impaired driving led to an increase in fatalities but that the increases were more than offset by other developments (e.g., innovations in car safety, effectiveness at deterring other forms of reckless driving, etc.). 

In any event, it will be interesting to see if any future studies are able to tease out whether (and to what extent) legalization is resulting in more marijuana impaired driving.  Here's the beginning of the Cannabist story:

One study shows that more drivers involved in fatal car accidents in Colorado are testing positive for marijuana — and that Colorado has a higher percentage of such drivers testing positive for marijuana than other states even when controlled for several variables. But the data the researchers use do not reveal whether those drivers were impaired at the time of the crash or whether they were at fault.

 

“[T]he primary result of this study may simply reflect a general increase in marijuana use during this … time period in Colorado,” the study’s authors write.

May 16, 2014 in Current Affairs, Medical Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

This is your brain on drugs: what a recent fMRI study can and can’t tell us about the effects of marijuana use

Two weeks ago (okay, I'm late to the party), news broke of a new study showing that the brains of casual marijuana users are different than those of non-users. The study was just published in the Journal of Neuroscience and can be found here.

The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of 40 young adults aged 18-25. 20 of those subjects were casual marijuana users and 20 were non-users. Controlling for other behaviors such as alcohol and tobacco use, the researchers found that marijuana use was correlated with changes to the shape, size, and density of particular areas of the brain. From the study:

“The results of this study indicate that in young, recreational marijuana users, structural abnormalities in gray matter density, volume, and shape of the nucleus accumbens and amygdala can be observed. Pending confirmation in other cohorts of marijuana users, the present findings suggest that further study of marijuana effects are needed to help inform discussion about the legalization of marijuana.”

The study generated a lot of media coverage, and, unfortunately, over-statements of the study’s actual implications for ongoing policy debates. For example, the Society for Neuroscience issued a press release for the study. The release, while titled with appropriate caution (“Brain Changes are Associated with Casual Marijuana Use in Young Adults”), relays unsupported claims from scientists regarding the ramifications of the study. One of the authors, Hans Breiter, is quoted as saying ““This study raises a strong challenge to the idea that casual marijuana use isn’t associated with bad consequences.” And Carl Lupica, a researcher from the National Institute on Drug Abuse who was not involved with the study, similarly suggests that “This study suggests that even light to moderate recreational marijuana use can cause changes in brain anatomy.”  

The problem is that the study doesn’t necessarily support such conclusions. The study’s findings, while intriguing and valuable, are still quite limited. For one thing, the study will need to be replicated. The subject pool of 40 is rather small. That’s not reason enough to dismiss the study -- much brain science research relies on small n studies, because MRIs are cumbersome and expensive, and one can find statistically significant results with small pools – but it is reason to be particularly cautious about the results pre-replication.

Second, correlation doesn’t equal causation. Law policymakers commonly ignore this important scientific concept, but even scientists sometimes get ahead of themselves and jump to conclusions not warranted by a study’s design. In this study, for example, it is quite possible that people who use marijuana have differently sized and shaped brains to begin with; for example, maybe their brains are simply wired to seek out more risky behaviors and that’s why they’ve decided to use an illicit substance. Since we don’t know the size and shapes of these brains before they started using marijuana, we can’t say which came first: the marijuana usage or “the structural abnormalities in gray matter density, volume, and shape of the nucleus accumbens and amygdala.”

Third, even if the study’s results could be replicated and even if they could (somehow) demonstrate a causal connection between marijuana use and brain structure, it’s not clear from this study anyway why we should care. To be sure, different areas of the brain are associated with different functions and I wouldn't want to tinker with the size, shape, or density of my brain. But the study’s author’s can’t yet say that the changes they observe in brain structure necessarily cause negative changes in behavior.  For example, some studies suggest that the nucleus accumbens might play a role in drug addiction. But it’s not clear whether that changes observed in this study are associated with (let alone cause) marijuana addiction or any other bad behavioral outcomes; indeed, the authors made a point of excluding “dependent” marijuana users from the subject pool.

Law and neuroscience is a very promising field. It is generating intriguing findings concerning important issues like culpability. But as the best in this nascent field know, there is still much to be learned about the brain. This study is an intriguing development and clearly worthy of more follow ups. I think research on the brain cold help us understand marijuana’s effects and put them in perspective with those of alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, etc. But for now, bold statements about the import of brain science for policy debates over marijuana seem premature.

April 29, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Current Affairs, Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Medical Marijuana Data and Research, Medical Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Science | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, April 28, 2014

"Legalizing marijuana has been good for Colorado, voters in the state say 52 - 38 percent"

The title of this post is the first line of this notable press release discussing the results of a notable new Colorado poll.  Here is more from the press release:

Legalizing marijuana has been good for Colorado, voters in the state say 52 - 38 percent, but 52 percent of voters are less likely to vote for a candidate for office who smokes marijuana two or three days a week, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today....

Legalized marijuana has been bad for the state, Republicans say 63 - 28 percent and voters over 65 years old say 62 - 28 percent. All other listed groups say it's good for the state....

"Colorado voters are generally good to go on grass, across the spectrum, from personal freedom to its taxpayer benefits to its positive impact on the criminal justice system," said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll. "But if you are a politician, think twice before smokin' them if you got 'em," Malloy added.

I tend not to put too much stock in a single poll, and a lot could change concerning public opinion regarding legalized marijuana in the weeks and months ahead. But the demographic breakdown of the results in this poll are quite interesting and reveal that, relatively to the general Colorado population, independents, women and persons under 50 all most strongly believe that legalizing marijuana has been good for the state. These numbers confirm my sense that supporting legalized marijuana may now help a politician attract key swing voters more than opposing it.

April 28, 2014 in Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 18, 2014

How might (rare?) tragedies linked to legal marijuana use impact reform developments?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent AP story from Colorado  headlined "2 Denver deaths tied to recreational marijuana use."  Here are excerpts:

This week, two Denver deaths were linked to marijuana use, and while some details of the deaths have yet to emerge, they are the first ones on record to be associated with a once-illegal drug that Colorado voters legalized for recreational use last year.  One man jumped to his death after consuming a large amount of marijuana contained in a cookie, and in the other case, a man allegedly shot and killed his wife after eating marijuana candy.

Wyoming college student Levy Thamba Pongi, 19, jumped to his death at a Denver hotel on March 11 after eating more of a marijuana cookie than was recommended by a seller, police records show - a finding that comes amid increased concern about the strength of popular pot edibles after Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana.  Pongi consumed more than one cookie purchased by a friend - even though a store clerk told the friend to cut each cookie into six pieces and to eat just one piece at a time, said the reports obtained Thursday.

Pongi began shaking, screaming and throwing things around a hotel room before he jumped over a fourth-floor railing into the hotel lobby March 11.  An autopsy report listed marijuana intoxication as a "significant contributing factor" in the death....

In a separate case, a Denver man, Richard Kirk, 47, is accused of killing his wife, Kristine Kirk, 44, on Monday while she was on the phone with a 911 dispatcher. Police say he ate marijuana-infused candy and possibly took prescription pain medication before the attack, according to a search warrant affidavit released Thursday. The affidavit states that Kristine Kirk told the dispatcher her husband had ingested marijuana candy and was hallucinating.

She pleaded with dispatchers to hurry and send officers because her husband had asked her to get a gun and shoot him. She said she was "scared of what he might do." Richard Kirk could be heard in the background of the 911 call talking about the candy he bought from a pot dispensary earlier that night, and surveillance footage from the shop captured the transaction, police said.

A detective who interviewed him after the killing noted that he appeared to be under the influence of controlled substances based on his speech and inability to focus, according to the warrants. Blood samples will be tested to see whether he was on any other drugs or medications....

The cannabis industry tries to educate consumers about the potency of marijuana-infused foods. But despite the warnings - including waiting for up to an hour to feel any effects - complaints by visitors and first-time users have been rampant.

Investigators believe Pongi, a native of the Republic of Congo, and three friends from Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., traveled to Colorado on spring break to try marijuana. At their hotel, the group of four friends followed the seller's instructions. But when Pongi felt nothing after about 30 minutes, he ate an entire cookie, police said. Within an hour, he began speaking erratically in French, shaking, screaming and throwing things around the hotel room. At one point he appeared to talk to a lamp....Pongi's friends tried to restrain him before he left the room and jumped to his death, police said.

One of his friends told investigators it may have been his first time using the drug - the only one toxicology tests found in his system. All three friends said they did not purchase or take any other drugs during their stay.

The marijuana concentration in Pongi's blood was 7.2 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood. Colorado law says juries can assume someone is driving while impaired if their blood contains more than 5 nanograms per milliliter.

In the days that followed the death of Pongi, Denver police confiscated the remaining cookies from the pot shop to test their levels of THC. The wrapper of the cookies bought by the students said each contained 65 mg of THC for 6 1/2 servings. Tests showed the cookies were within the required THC limits, police said. "The thing to realize is the THC that is present in edibles is a drug like any drug, and there's a spectrum of ways in which people respond," said Michael Kosnett, a medical toxicologist on the clinical faculty at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

April 18, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Months into state experiment, first death officially linked to marijuana legalization in Colorado

As reported in this Denver Post article, headlined "Denver coroner: Man fell to death after eating marijuana cookies," it appears that at least one fatality can now be directly linked to "legalized" marijuana use and abuse in Colorado.   Here are the basics:

A college student visiting Denver jumped to his death from a hotel balcony after eating marijuana-infused cookies, according to a coroner's report that marks the first time authorities have publicly linked a death to marijuana since legal sales of recreational cannabis began in Colorado.

Levy Thamba, a 19-year-old student at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., died last month at a Holiday Inn in northeast Denver.  On Wednesday, the Denver coroner released a report concluding that Thamba's death was caused by "multiple injuries due to a fall from height."  The coroner also listed "marijuana intoxication" from cannabis-infused cookies as a significant condition contributing to the death. The report classifies the death as an accident.

A brief summary of the investigation that was included in the autopsy report says Thamba, also known as Levi Thamba Pongi, traveled to Denver with three friends on spring break. On March 11, the report says, Thamba consumed "marijuana cookies" and "soon thereafter exhibited hostile behavior (pulling items off the walls) and spoke erratically."

"The decedent's friends attempted to calm him down and were temporarily successful," the report states. "However, the decedent eventually reportedly jumped out of bed, went outside the hotel room, and jumped over the balcony railing." Thamba and his friends were staying on the hotel's fourth floor, according to the report.

Michelle Weiss-Samaras, a spokeswoman for the coroner's office, said the office often lists alcohol intoxication as a significant contributing factor in a death — for instance, in an alcohol-related car accident. She said the office also has seen cases involving apparent marijuana-impaired driving, but she said she believes this is the first time it has listed marijuana intoxication from an edible product in such a way.

Weiss-Samaras said Thamba had no known physical or mental-health issues, and toxicology tests for other drugs or alcohol came back negative. "We have no history of any other issues until he eats a marijuana cookie and becomes erratic and this happens," she said. "It's the one thing we have that's significant."

According to the autopsy report, Thamba's marijuana concentration in his blood was 7.2 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood. In impaired driving cases, state law sets a standard of 5 nanograms per milliliter at which juries can presume impairment.

In January, Colorado became the first state in the country to allow people 21 and over to legally buy marijuana for any purpose from regulated stores.  Weiss-Samaras said investigators believe a friend of Thamba's purchased the cookies in a recreational marijuana store. "We were told they came here to try it," she said....  It remains unclear how much of the marijuana-infused product Thamba consumed or how long after consuming it that he died.  

Marijuana edibles — which account for 20 to 40 percent of overall sales, industry experts estimate — have been controversial in Colorado, and the legislature will likely take up the issue again this session.  Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said he and Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, plan to introduce a bill as early as this week that would further cap the potency of edibles and prohibit them from being made in forms that might appeal to children.

This story is already getting coverage in national newspapers, and it will now be interesting to see whether and how opponents of marijuana reform might actively use this sad development in support of their arguments against reform efforts.   Notably, at age 19, Levy Thamba was technically underage and thus his recreation marijuana use was not legal.  But that fact itself reinforces the arguments of opponents of marijuana reform that legalization makes it easier and more likely that underage persons will have access and be eager to try marijuana products.

April 3, 2014 in Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 7, 2014

The New York Times on medical and recreational marijuana in Washington

A few weeks back, I asked whether medical and recreational marijuana can co-exist in Washington.  It looks like the tensions are only growing.  The New York Times has this interesting piece on the concerns of some medical marijuana advocates about the implementation of Washington's marijuana legalization law.  The whole piece is worth a read, here is how it starts:

There should be, one might think, a note of triumph or at least quiet satisfaction in Muraco Kyashna-tocha’s voice. Her patient-based cooperative in north Seattle dispenses medical marijuana to treat seizures, sleeplessness and other maladies. And with the state gearing up to open its first stores selling legal marijuana for recreational use, the drug she has cultivated, provided to patients and used herself for years seems to be barreling toward the mainstream.

 

But her one-word summary of the outlook for medical marijuana is anything but sunny: “Disastrous,” she said, standing in her shop, Green Buddha, which she fears she will soon have to close.

 

The legalization of recreational marijuana for adults in Washington, approved by voters in 2012 and now being phased in, is proving an unexpectedly anxious time for the users, growers and dispensers of medical marijuana, who came before and in many ways paved the way for marijuana’s broader acceptance.

March 7, 2014 in Medical Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Director of NIH notes that state marijuana legalization will facilitate needed health research

This recent article in USA Today reporting on some recent comments by a notable government scientist confirms yet again that the marijuana reform movement is going to help facilitate research on the drug.  Here are excerpts from this article to that end:

One of the nation's top scientists raised concerns about the nationwide move to legalize marijuana, saying regular use of the drug by adolescents had been tied to a drop in IQ and that a possible link to lung cancer hasn't been seriously studied.

"I'm afraid I'm sounding like this is an evil drug that's going to ruin our civilization and I don't really think that," Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said Thursday. "But there are aspects of this that probably should be looked at more closely than some of the legalization experts are willing to admit."

He said the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which he oversees, was interested in pursuing such studies now that legalization has made them more feasible to do. But the process will take time, he cautioned. "We don't know a lot about the things we wish we did," he said at a small dinner with journalists hosted by USA TODAY and National Geographic. "I've been asked repeatedly, does regular marijuana smoking, because you inhale deeply, increase your risk of lung cancer? We don't know. Nobody's done that study."

Collins, 63, is a geneticist who led the project to map the human genome. Since 2009, he has headed the NIH, the nation's leading agency for biomedical research....

"There's a lot we don't know because it's been an illegal drug ...," he said. "I think one of the things we'll need to do is take advantage of legalization now to try to mount studies that were impossible before, if people are willing to participate."

March 1, 2014 in Medical Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Notable coverage of notable concerns surrounding marijuana edibles

A few months ago, I wondered aloud in this post whether debates over marijuana reform would be a lot different if eating pot was far more common than smoking it. Today I see that the New York Times has this front-page story concerning marijuana edibles under the headline "Snacks Laced With Marijuana Raise Concerns." Here are excerpts:

As marijuana tiptoes further toward the legal mainstream, marijuana-infused snacks have become a booming business, with varieties ranging from chocolate-peppermint Mile High Bars to peanut butter candies infused with hash oil. Retail shops see them as a nonthreatening way into the shallow end of the marijuana pool, ideal for older customers, tourists staying in smoke-free hotels or anyone who wants the effect without the smoke and coughing.

But the popularity of edible marijuana has alarmed parents’ groups, schools and some doctors, who say the highly concentrated snacks are increasingly landing in the hands of teenagers looking for a sweet, discreet high, or of children too young to know the difference between pot brownies and regular ones....

One survey has found a small but growing number of children seeking treatment after accidentally consuming marijuana. Fourteen such children visited the emergency department of Children’s Hospital Colorado in the Denver area from October 2009 through December 2011, researchers reported last year in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. Before 2009, researchers reported no marijuana exposures.

The research took place after an explosion of medical-marijuana shops in Colorado, but before voters passed measures to legalize the sales and use of recreational marijuana to adults 21 and older. Dr. George Sam Wang, an author of the study and a clinical instructor in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital, said he had not seen any additional increases in children’s marijuana exposure since recreational sales began the first of this year.

Marijuana, even if consumed by children in high doses, poses few of the grave dangers of overdosing on alcohol or drinking household chemicals. But doctors said young children who consume marijuana are at risk of falling and hurting themselves or falling asleep in a position where they could not breathe. For the most part, doctors who treated children in the study advised that the children be watched closely as their bodies digested the drug. “There’s no antidote, no medicine that reverses this,” Dr. Wang said.

Compared with the 14 children who were treated after consuming marijuana, the hospital treated 48 children who had swallowed acetaminophen — the active ingredient in Tylenol — and 32 who had accidentally taken antihistamines during the same time period.

Regulators, manufacturers and retailers say they are working intensely to keep marijuana — edible or not — safe and tightly regulated. If they fail, federal authorities have warned they could step in and take action.

February 1, 2014 in Food and Drink, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Notable new data showing pot arrests way down in Colorado after reforms

This new Denver Post article, headlined "Marijuana case filings plummet in Colorado following legalization," spotlights one notable criminal justice metric that has been dramatically impacted by legal developments in the Centennial State. Here are some details:

Charges for all manner of marijuana crimes plummeted in the months after Colorado voters legalized limited possession of cannabis for people over 21.

According to a Denver Post analysis of data provided by the Colorado Judicial Branch, the number of cases filed in state court alleging at least one marijuana offense plunged 77 percent between 2012 and 2013.  The decline is most notable for charges of petty marijuana possession, which dropped from an average of 714 per month during the first nine months of 2012 to 133 per month during the same period in 2013 — a decline of 81 percent.

That may have been expected — after all, people over 21 can now legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana. But The Post's analysis shows state prosecutors also pursued far fewer cases for marijuana crimes that remain illegal in Colorado. For instance, charges for possessing more than 12 ounces of marijuana dropped by 73 percent, and cases alleging possession with intent to distribute fewer than 5 pounds of marijuana dipped by 70 percent. Even charges for public consumption of marijuana fell statewide, by 17 percent, although Denver police have increased their number of citations issued for public consumption.

While marijuana prosecutions against people over 21 declined, so did prosecutions against people under 21, for whom all marijuana possession remains illegal except for medical marijuana patients.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said he thinks the drop in cases may be due to police not wanting to parse the complexities of the state's marijuana law. "I think they've kind of thrown their arms up in the air," he said.

Marijuana advocates, meanwhile, praised the drop in prosecutions — even for things that remain illegal under state law — because it lessens what they say is the racially biased impact of marijuana enforcement. A report last year from the American Civil Liberties Union found that blacks in Colorado were arrested for marijuana crimes at a rate nearly double that of whites. Overall, the report found arrests for marijuana possession in 2010 made up more than 60 percent of all drug-offense arrests.

"We're talking about not only saving the state time and money," said Art Way, a policy manager in Colorado for the Drug Policy Alliance, a supporter of legalization, "but we're no longer criminalizing primarily young adults, black and brown males primarily, with the collateral consequences of a drug charge."

The Post's analysis is not a comprehensive look at marijuana prosecutions in Colorado because prosecutors can also file cases in municipal courts, which aren't tracked by the data provided. Even though Colorado voters partially legalized marijuana for adults in 2012, there are still numerous marijuana crimes on the books. Possession of more than an ounce, cultivation of more than six plants and sales without a special state license all remain illegal and can be punished.

But Tom Raynes, the executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys Council, said the state's new marijuana laws are likely making it tougher for police to crack down on the remaining marijuana crimes. Because some marijuana possession and use is now legal, Raynes said that means police are no longer allowed to investigate in depth purely because they smell pot. "Just because your car smells like marijuana doesn't give an officer enough probable cause to initiate an arrest or a search," Raynes said....

[T]here is no evidence so far that Colorado's new laws on marijuana have resulted in a dramatic reduction in caseloads for prosecutors or police. Denver police, for instance, recorded only 3 percent fewer arrests for any crime in the first 11 months of 2013 when compared with the first 11 months of 2012.

What also appears relatively unchanged is the treatment of petty marijuana-possession charges: It is far more likely that those charges will be dismissed by either a judge or a prosecutor than it is the charges will result in a finding of guilty for the defendant, according to the data. For the charges filed in September 2012, 79 percent were ultimately dismissed. In September 2013, it was 84 percent.

But Raynes said those similarities belie the uncertainty police and prosecutors now feel when approaching marijuana cases. "With small quantities especially," he said, "I think law enforcement feels like they don't know which way to turn."

Though I obviously cannot speak for the blue line on the ground in Colorado, it seems to me that these data show law enforcement in the state knows exactly which way to turn: away from wasting time and energy and other scarce law enforcement resources on low-level marijuana matters and instead focusing more time and energy and other scarce law enforcement resources on more serious and harmful matters.

January 12, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Any short- or long-term Colorado predictions as recreational marijuana sales begin?

Lots of mainstream (as well as not-so-mainstream) media outlets are now talking a lot about what may or may not happen in Colorado a few days from now when state-legalized and regulated sales of recreational marijuana is to begin with the start of 2014.  This Reuters article is just one of many covering the buzz surrounding the opportunity for folks in Colorado to have a new legal way to get buzzed.   Here how it starts:

The world's first state-licensed marijuana retailers, catering to Colorado's newly legal recreational market for pot, are stocking their shelves ahead of a New Year's grand opening that supporters and detractors alike see as a turning point in America's drug culture....

[S]tarting January 1, cannabis will be legally sold and taxed at specially regulated retailers in a system modeled after a regime many states have in place for alcohol sales - but which exists for marijuana nowhere outside of Colorado.

For the novelty factor alone, operators of the first eight marijuana retailers slated to open on Wednesday morning in Denver and a handful of establishments in other locations are anticipating a surge in demand for store-bought weed.  "It will be like people waiting in line for tickets to a Pink Floyd concert," said Justin Jones, 39, owner of Dank Colorado in Denver who has run a medical marijuana shop for four years and now has a recreational pot license.

Jones said he is confident he has enough marijuana on hand for Day One but less sure of inventory levels needed after that.   About 90 percent of his merchandise is in smokable form, packaged in small child-proof containers.  The rest is a mixture of cannabis-infused edibles, such as cookies, candy and carbonated drinks.  "People seem to prefer smoking," he said.

In addition to the "Black Friday"-type atmosphere sure to part of the New Year's Day experiences in Denver, this AFP article highlights that some folks are planning a road-trip in order to get to Colorado for another kind of trip:

Enterprising companies are even offering marijuana tours to cash in on tourists expected to be attracted to a Netherlands-style pot culture -- including in Colorado's famous ski resorts.  "Just the novelty alone is bringing people from everywhere," said Adam Raleigh of cannabis supplier Telluride Bud Co.

"I have people driving in from Texas, Arizona, Utah... to be a part of history.  Over the last month I have received somewhere between four to six emails a day and five to 10 phone calls a day asking all about the law and when should people plan their ski trip to go along with cannabis," he added.

But as highlighted in this lengthy AP article, headlined "Legal pot sales begin amid uncertainty in Colorado," perhaps the only real certainty come 2014 in Colorado is uncertainty:

Will it be a showcase for a safe, regulated pot industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year and saves money on locking up drug criminals, or one that will prove, once and for all, that the federal government has been right to ban pot since 1937?

Legal pot's potential has spawned businesses beyond retail shops. Marijuana-testing companies have popped up, checking regulated weed for potency and screening for harmful molds. Gardening courses charge hundreds to show people how to grow weed at home....

Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, maker of pot-infused foods and drinks, is making new labels for the recreational market and expanding production on everything from crispy rice treats to fruit lozenges. "The genie is out of the bottle," says company president Tripp Keber. "I think it's going to be an exciting time over the next 24 to 48 months."...

The challenges, activists and regulators say, are daunting in Colorado and Washington. One of the biggest questions is whether they have built an industry that will not only draw in tens of millions of dollars in revenue but also make a significant dent in the illegal market. Another is whether the regulatory system is up to the task of controlling a drug that's never been regulated.

There are public health and law enforcement concerns, including whether wide availability of a drug with a generations-old stigma of ruining lives will lead to more underage drug use, more cases of driving while high and more crime....

To prevent the criminal element from getting a foothold, regulators have enacted residency requirements for business owners, banned out-of-state investment and run background checks on every applicant for a license to sell or grow the plant. Whether the systems are enough is anyone's guess.

I like the descriptive phrase that the "genie is out of the bottle," and think the green marijuana genie could grant many wishes and also create many nightmares. And I am eager to hear reader thoughts and predictions about what might happen in this arena in 2014 before the official start of this unofficial "turning point in America's drug culture."

Cross-posted at Sentencing Law & Policy

December 29, 2013 in Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What are the best and worst drugs for daily use by teens?

The title of this post is the (perhaps silly) question that came to my mind upon reading this new report on some new research headlined "Heavy Pot Use Linked To Memory Loss, Schizophrenia Link."  Here are the basics:

Heavy pot users — smoking marijuana daily for three years — had abnormal changes in their brain structures related to working memory, U.S. researchers say. Lead study author Matthew Smith, an assistant research professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, said poor working memory predicts poor academic performance and everyday functioning.

The groups in the study started using marijuana daily at ages 16 to 17 for about three years.  At the time of the study, they had been marijuana free for about two years. Almost 100 subjects participated, including matched groups of healthy controls, subjects with a marijuana use disorder, schizophrenia subjects with no history of substance use disorders and schizophrenia subjects with a marijuana use disorder. The subjects who used marijuana did not abuse any other drugs, the researchers said.

Of the 15 marijuana smokers who had schizophrenia in the study, 90 percent started heavily using marijuana before they developed the mental disorder. Marijuana abuse has been linked to developing schizophrenia in prior research, Smith said.

“The abuse of popular street drugs, such as marijuana, might have dangerous implications for young people who are developing or have developed mental disorders,” said co-senior study author Dr. John Csernansky of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

“This paper is among the first to reveal that the use of marijuana may contribute to the changes in brain structure that have been associated with having schizophrenia.”... The paper was published in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin.

Modern brain science research has long had me convinced that it would be wise for everyone under the age of 25 to avoid all dangerous substances while their brains are still developing.  Consequently, I am not at all surprised by a finding that daily use of marijuana could hurts developing brains.  I wonder, though, whether it is likely to hurt developing brains more than daily use of alcohol or even some prescription drugs.

That said, I hope the relaxation of modern marijuana laws in many jurisdictions will facilitate a lot more serious scientific research on the various potential harms and benefits of the use and abuse of this widely-used and seemingly widely under-researched drug.

December 17, 2013 in Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Might public health be significantly improved by marijuana legalization?

The provocative question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable op-ed by Jacob Sullum at Forbes headlined "Economists Predict Marijuana Legalization Will Produce 'Public-Health Benefits'."  Here are excerpts:

In their 2012 book Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, Jonathan Caulkins and three other drug policy scholars identify the impact of repealing pot prohibition on alcohol consumption as the most important thing no one knows.  Are cannabis and alcohol complements, so that drinking can be expected to increase along with pot smoking?  Or are they substitutes, implying that more pot smoking will mean less drinking?  For analysts attempting to calculate the costs and benefits of legalizing marijuana, the question matters a lot, because alcohol is considerably more dangerous than marijuana by most measures.  If the two products are complements, states that legalize marijuana can expect to see more consumption of both, exacerbating existing health and safety problems.  But if the two products are substitutes, legalizing marijuana can alleviate those problems by reducing alcohol consumption.

Reviewing the evidence in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Montana State University economist D. Mark Anderson and University of Colorado economist Daniel Rees find that “studies based on clearly defined natural experiments generally support the hypothesis that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes.” [Study Here] Increasing the drinking age seems to result in more marijuana consumption, for instance, and pot smoking drops off sharply at age 21, “suggesting that young adults treat alcohol and marijuana as substitutes.”  Another study found that legalizing marijuana for medical use is associated with a drop in beer sales and a decrease in heavy drinking.   These results, Anderson and Rees say, “suggest that, as marijuana becomes more available, young adults in Colorado and Washington will respond by drinking less, not more.”

That conclusion is consistent with earlier research in which Anderson and Rees found that enacting medical marijuana laws is associated with a 13 percent drop in traffic fatalities. [Study Here]  That effect could be due to the fact that marijuana impairs driving ability much less dramatically than alcohol does, although the fact that alcohol is more likely to be consumed outside the home (resulting in more driving under its influence) may play a role as well....

Anderson and Rees note that UCLA drug policy expert Mark Kleiman, who co-wrote Marijuana Legalization and has been advising Washington’s cannabis regulators, recently described a worst-case scenario for legalization featuring an increase in heavy drinking, “carnage on our highways,” and a “massive” increase in marijuana consumption among teenagers.  “Kleiman’s worst-case scenario is possible, but not likely,” they conclude.  “Based on existing empirical evidence, we expect that the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington will lead to increased marijuana consumption coupled with decreased alcohol consumption.  As a consequence, these states will experience a reduction in the social harms resulting from alcohol use.  While it is more than likely that marijuana produced by state-sanctioned growers will end up in the hands of minors, we predict that overall youth consumption will remain stable.  On net, we predict the public-health benefits of legalization to be positive.”

Notably, this commentary and the research it emphasizes appears only to consider the public health benefits that could result from folks substituting marijuana use for alcohol use.  I have long thought that another possible public health benefit could flow from marijuana legalization if some heavy cigarette smokers end up smoking less in total because they sometimes substitute a few joints for a few packs of cigs.  Similarly, one might further speculate that there might be a positive "reverse gateway" effect from marijuana legalization with respect to other dangerous drug use and abuse: perhaps fewer folks will try using, or end up harmfully abusing, harder drugs like ecstasy and heroin and meth and oxycodone if they can get always get a cheap and legal buzz from marijuana.

Of course, a lot of research about the use and abuse of various drugs will be needed in order to come to dependable conclusions about the full public health impact of modern marijuana reform developments.  Still, especially when everyone is understandably all worked up about the Obamacare roll-out and broader health care reform realities, it is fun to speculate that modern marijuana reforms could end up being the most consequential and positive public health development of the Obama era.

I have long been drawn to the marijuana legal reform movement due to my general affinity for expanding personal freedom and my generally disaffinity for big-government programs like the war on drugs that seem very costly and mostly ineffective.  But I have always respected the concerns expressed by serious people that pot prohibition is a public health necessity and that even modest moves toward marijuana legalization could prove costly and harmful in various ways.   Without getting too much into the weeds of an empirical debate, I wonder if those who are vigorously opposed to (or even just generally resistant to) marijuana reform movements would still oppose reform if (and when?) empirical evidence starts to show that (some? many? all?) US public health measures and metrics are improved in the wake of marijuana legalization reforms.

November 2, 2013 in Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

"More than 100 recreational-marijuana shops in line to open in Colorado"

The title of this post is the headline of this report from  The Denver Post concerning regulatory developments as Colorado gears up for recreational marijuana sales starting in January 2014.  Here are the fascinating details:

Colorado could have more than 100 recreational-marijuana stores open Jan. 1, according to newly released numbers from the state's Marijuana Enforcement Division.  The division, which oversees Colorado's regulation of marijuana businesses, accepted 136 applications in October from people seeking to open recreational pot shops.  The division also accepted 28 applications for recreational marijuana-infused-products businesses and 174 applications for recreational cultivation facilities.

The businesses that applied in October will have a decision made on their applications by the end of the year, said Julie Postlethwait, a spokeswoman for the Marijuana Enforcement Division.  That means they are in line to open Jan. 1, the earliest date for recreational-marijuana sales in Colorado.

By law, all of the applications came from people currently operating medical-marijuana businesses in Colorado.  But the tallies represent just a fraction of the state's medical-marijuana industry.  Colorado has 517 medical-marijuana dispensaries, 138 medical-marijuana-infused products businesses and 736 medical-marijuana-cultivation facilities, according to the Marijuana Enforcement Division.

"It's expensive," Meg Collins, the executive director of the Cannabis Business Alliance, said in explaining why so few medical-marijuana businesses are seeking to add a recreational component.  "In the discussions I've had with folks, I think that one of the things that possibly forestalled people from immediately jumping in is the financial consideration."

Application fees for new recreational-marijuana businesses start at $500 and licensing fees range from $2,750 to $14,000, depending on the type of business and other factors.  Postlethwait said the division has not finished its accounting on how much money it collected in October, but estimated that application fees alone brought in around $179,000.

Only two of the businesses that have applied indicated they would make a full conversion to recreational sales, Postlethwait said.  The rest intend to operate jointly as medical- and recreational-marijuana stores.  In some cases, those businesses will have to divide the shops with a wall and give each shop a separate entrance.

Local bans and moratoriums on recreational pot sales — including in places such as Colorado Springs and Boulder, each of which has dozens of medical-marijuana dispensaries — have also kept recreational applications down, said Mike Elliott, the executive director of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group.  Still, Elliott said more businesses are applying for recreational licenses this month and they, too, could receive permission to open shortly into the new year.

November 2, 2013 in Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Taxation information and issues | Permalink | Comments (0)