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Sensi Magazine

Fear and Loathing at a Cannabis Symposium

Dec 04, 2017 06:17PM ● By Leland Rucker

Supporters of Amendment 64—the ballot measure that legalized cannabis for adult use in Colorado—have proudly proclaimed that it was approved in 2012 by 1,291,771 citizens, or 54.8 percent of all Colorado voters—myself included. Recent surveys suggest that at least some who voted against the measure have softened their opposition after seeing almost four years of legalization in action, but there are still many people who voted against it in 2012 who adamantly oppose our law.

I found some of those people at a day-long symposium titled “Marijuana’s True Impact on Colorado” held in early October at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood. The lineup featured various speakers, including a keynote from vocal crusader Dr. Kevin Sabet, head of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), the best-known anti-legalization lobbying organization in the country. Panels were convened all day discussing the amendment’s impacts on education, children, minorities, public-health, medical marijuana efficacy, and homelessness.

All that was missing were any kind words about cannabis legalization or any real balance in opinions given in the speeches and panels. Beyond a spirited debate at the end of the day between pro-cannabis attorney Robert Corry and Jeff Hunt, vice president of public policy at the university, and a panel chaired by Dr. Ken Finn on medical marijuana and pain, there was nothing positive said during more than seven hours of speeches and discussions. If you knew nothing about cannabis before attending, you could come away from the event with the idea that legal marijuana, as Hunt lamented in a recent editorial published by USA Today, has “devastated” the state and its citizenry.

Sabet’s talk echoed SAM’s current bullet points: The cannabis industry is today’s Big Tobacco, a business behemoth out to “hook” minorities and children to its addictive products. Cannabis is a gateway to opioid addiction, he said, and the industry “lies, lies, lies about everything.” I could almost see Joe Camel looming in the background as he spoke.

Dr. David Murray followed with a PowerPoint presentation, “Marijuana Nation: The Mounting Damage,” which lived up to its title. Murray, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute & Center for Substance Abuse Policy Research, clearly feels that all marijuana use is abuse, users should be in drug programs, and the state is heading toward a public-health catastrophe within the next decade.

There was more. Those “15,000 jobs” the newly legal industry has created (the actual estimate of new jobs reported in 2016 is higher than that) are “mostly minimum wage,” Hunt pooh poohed during the debate. The $200-plus million dollars in taxes per year? Pot proponents promised it would solve the state’s budgetary problems, he claimed (falsely), and the $200 million-plus in tax revenue is about one percent of the state’s budget, so it’s no real help in undoing the havoc legal cannabis is wreaking upon us. The $40 million dollars each year to help rebuild rural schools? Repair numbers are in the billions now, Hunt sniffed, so $40 million hardly makes a dent.

Hunt was pretty relentless, blasting the state and industry for dragging their feet on edibles safety. “It took three years for the industry to stop making gummies that look like candy,” he complained. Many times it was repeated that kids who use cannabis can squander their future intelligence in the process. During one panel, somebody claimed that even casual use for a short time as a teen can lower IQ by 13 percentage points later in life. Though legalization proponents had “promised” an end to the black market once a legal marketplace was established, I heard several times that the black market still exists, which in their minds somehow proves that legalization is a failure.

 Four law enforcement officials reinforced this “black market” point. They talked about the “overwhelming problems” with marijuana diversion to other states, where criminal growers can get higher prices. We weren’t allowed questions at the end of the talks, but I wanted to ask whether they would prefer that cannabis be criminalized again.

A lot of the information promoted by Hunt and the law enforcement folks comes from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Report. I urge you to search for the most recent edition on its website. Like the symposium, it says nothing nice about cannabis legalization on any of its 180 pages, and to its credit, makes no bones about the fact that the authors are biased against legalization and dependent on federal Drug War money. At least to me, that makes the RMHIDTAR a pretty unreliable source.

One exception to the day’s narrative was Dr. Finn’s panel presentation on medical marijuana. Finn recommends medical marijuana to his patients in some cases, and his report seemed to be balanced and fair, whether in dealing with cannabis proponents’ sometimes exaggerated claims and the science involved as well as fears that medical marijuana is just hocus pocus to make it legal.

Thankfully, nobody seemed to be interested in arresting marijuana users, but never was it once mentioned that many of the problems outlined here have to do with the illegality of cannabis on a federal level, which hasn’t and isn’t stopping anybody in any state, legal or not, from getting cannabis. If it were legal in other states, nobody would be smuggling marijuana to New Jersey, or even back to Mexico, from Colorado, which one law officer admitted was happening today. Would they rather be arresting people who smuggle it in over those who smuggle it out?

At one point, Hunt asked why we would make marijuana legal, with all the problems that accompany liquor and tobacco. Again, there wasn’t time for questions, but nobody mentioned that we’re not “adding” anything, we’re just taxing and regulating it. Cannabis is already here, in every state, and that isn’t going to change, even if Jeff Sessions decides to blow some more federal money to crack down on pot.

Though the criticism was harsh and the warnings dire, I heard little about how ending legalization would be better for the state. Amendment 64 is part of the law now, and it’s not likely to be overturned anytime soon.

The pro-cannabis lawyer Corry said afterward that he appreciated be- ing given the opportunity to debate Hunt, with whom he has clashed publicly, most recently over the Denver 420 Rally, and that he discovered some points of agreement. I found some common ground with Diane Carlson of the organization Smart Colorado, when we agreed during a panel that we didn’t want children to use marijuana and that education was the most important element in making that happen. It’s a conversation I hope we can continue.

All in all, the symposium was a fascinating and sobering reminder that not everybody in Colorado is enthusiastic about legalization.