5 Years Later
Jan 09, 2019 07:43PM
● By Leland Rucker
It’s kind of hard to believe, but January 1 marks five years since recreational sales of cannabis began in Colorado. For so many of us who still remember buying dime bags of brown sticks and stems and taking whatever you were given from your dealer no questions asked it’s definitely been a godsend.
Colorado, where polls closed an hour before Washington, became the first state to legalize cannabis for adult use in the 2012 election, and Amendment 64 the ballot measure that created the framework for the commercial sale of the federally illegal plant for the most part, has stood the test of half a decade. Our legislators, regulators, and operators are often sought after by people around the world when they have questions about how legalization is working.
I remember giddily standing in line on that first day at a Denver dispensary January 1, 2014 to purchase an eighth of an ounce of legal marijuana and wondering what was going to happen. The television stations and newspapers were filled with stories about the long waiting lines and disruptions in the supply chain, the same stories that dominate the coverage of every state that changes its laws. Ho, hum.
Have we learned anything? You bet. I was reminded of the state’s earliest missteps recently when Rocky Mountain PBS interviewed Richard Kirk. You might remember him. He is serving a life sentence for shooting his wife in the head while their children were home on April 14, 2014. At the time of his crime, Kirk blamed his actions on the marijuana edible he had ingested, and apparently he still blames the THC.
Though he has a documented history of violent behavior, road rage, and outbursts of anger, Kirk claims that the marijuana caused him to open a password-protected lock-box, take a loaded gun from it, and kill his wife while she was on the phone begging a 911 operator for help.
A partially eaten edible was discovered in the home, and a toxicology report found that Kirk had 2.3 nanograms of THC per milliliter of his blood, below the five nanogram limit for stoned driving. Still, he claims the pot made him do it. “I know with certainty if I did not ingest that marijuana edible, Kris would still be here today,” he says.
Right about the same time, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd came here to report on legalization. She ignored the advice she was given about edibles at the dispensary where she shopped and wound up curled in a ball in her hotel room thinking she had died. Her column became a kind of wake-up call on edibles, especially after another report claimed that a young man apparently ate an edible and jumped out of a motel window to his death.
The state was unprepared for the fallout. The law had been built around the one created for medical patients, most of whom were used to higher dosages. Under the original rules, for instance, consumers were told that a candy bar contained 100 milligrams of THC and to slice or bite off what you wanted, which wasn’t adequate for novices and newbies. And as Dowd found out, sometimes it takes a couple of hours for edibles to kick in.
Not everybody was happy with the result, but the state spent a couple of years refining rules and regulations around edibles that better reflect the majority experience. Changes were made in packaging, and servings are now limited to 10 milligrams a dose. Edibles can’t come in animal shapes (an effort to reduce children’s interest in trying the “candy”), and each serving contains a THC stamp. The stories about dangerous edibles have dried up. No one else, at least so far, has claimed cannabis caused them to commit a horrendous crime.
And who could forget the state’s first cannabis “education” effort? Soon after legalization, in 2014, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office unveiled a high-profile marketing campaign intended to deter teens that included the installation of a number of super-sized lab-rat cages in locations around the state. It was immediately assailed and correctly so for its resemblance to failed scare campaigns that date back to the 1930s film, Reefer Madness. It was so badly thought out and in such poor taste that the Boulder County School District, certainly no fan of cannabis use among children, came out publicly against it, and the campaign folded as quickly as it arrived.
The state learned its lesson here, too. Today’s education programs are more lighthearted and informative the latest includes video tips from “Meg the Budtender,” pertinent information on health effects, and tips for those tourists who visit the state because they’re curious about legal cannabis. And the section for parents emphasizes actually talking with your children what a concept over trying to frighten them.
Denver media coverage reached fever pitch in the days leading up to Halloween, with television announcers suggesting to gullible parents that evil pot smokers would not hesitate to dose innocent children.
And the great Halloween “cannabis candy” alarms promoted by the Denver Police Department and anti-cannabis groups have finally stopped here. The first couple of years, Denver media coverage reached fever pitch in the days leading up to Halloween, with television announcers suggesting to gullible parents that evil pot smokers would not hesitate to dose innocent children. This despite the fact that there had never been a credible report of candy-lacing in the state and that the idea that pot smokers would put marijuana gummies in kids’ Halloween tote bags to make them sick is abhorrent and stupid.
There are still no documented cases of kids being poisoned by marijuana-laced Halloween candy anywhere at any time. Zero. Yet October headlines in other states this year included, “Authorities Concerned About Candy That Could Get Kids High” and “Those Gummy Bears in Your Child’s Halloween Bag Could be Edible Marijuana.” Some people never seem to learn.
All these areas are signs of an emerging industry, and we still have things to get right. Most importantly, the state needs to match the way it treats alcohol when it comes to social consumption. Adults and tourists need places to consume. Since testing for driving under the influence of cannabis is still based around roadside exams designed for alcohol, the state needs to come up with a better way to distinguish cannabis-altered driving than just a blood-content level.
The state hasn’t yet dealt with what to do about felons and inmates with cannabis-related offenses. Having a legislature dominated by Democrats and a new governor who might already have his own ideas about cannabis laws here is a positive.
And things could be a lot worse. The state of Maine, which approved a ballot measure legalizing cannabis for adults more than two years ago, still hasn’t opened stores, and Congress has held up funding for retail outlets in the District of Columbia, where most members live, despite the fact that a vast majority of DC citizens voted to legalize in 2014. Think about that the next time you visit your favorite dispensary.