With Whistler resident and Olympic medal winner Ross Rebagliati's plan in the news to open a number of medical marijuana dispensaries across the country, and news, broken last year by the Pique that a medical marijuana grower plans to set up a large operation in the Sea to Sky corridor, questions around the use of marijuana are staying in the headlines. While many organizations in B.C., including the Union of B.C. Municipalities, have come out in favour of decriminalization, our neighbours to the south have taken it one step further. In this Dispatches reporter Allen Best looks at the debate in Colorado, where last November voters approved an amendment to the state's constitution that allows possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by people aged 21 and older.
Unlike some, Jim Schmidt admits that he has inhaled. "It makes me cough," he says frankly of smoking marijuana.
That hacking is well in the past. Schmidt, 65, a former mayor and current council member in Crested Butte, Colo., drives a bus for a living and is barred from ingestion of marijuana by any method. But he believes that legalization of marijuana for medical purposes in Colorado has been a step in the right direction. The suffering of several cancer-ridden friends has been lessened because of their use of marijuana. "It definitely helped them," he says.
The Crested Butte Town Council and other local jurisdictions in Colorado will soon have to decide to accommodate, if at all, the further legalization of marijuana for recreational use.
In November, 54.8 per cent of Colorado voters approved an amendment to the state's constitution that allows possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by people aged 21 and older. The margin in ski towns and resort valleys was higher yet. At 79 per cent in favor, San Miguel (Telluride) lead the state, followed by 75 per cent in Pitkin County (Aspen), 69 per cent in Summit County (Breckenridge), and 65 per cent in Eagle County (Vail).
In most cases, marijuana was a bigger hit than Barack Obama, the first president to openly admit having smoked it.
Now, the federal government must decide how to respond to the legalization of marijuana by states. Washington state voters also legalized marijuana for recreational use, and 17 states and Washington, D.C., allow use of the plant for medicinal purposes. Activists reportedly plan to push for legalization initiatives in California, Oregon and other states in 2016, the next presidential campaign, when young voters are most likely to vote.
But possession and use of marijuana remains against federal law, a fact noted by federally chartered banks. They have been leery of granting loans to marijuana businesses for fear their assets will be seized. Observers say the federal government can't ignore states thumbing their nose at federal laws. But with immigration, financial debt and climate change already on the agenda, will Congress have time to wrangle through this issue?
"Personally, I have always felt that the (federal) government has wasted a lot of time prosecuting marijuana sales," says Schmidt. "If we legalize it and tax it, hopefully we will take it out of control of the drug cartels (in Mexico). I think that's an important thing. It might put it into control of corporations. They might be just as evil, but they tend not to kill as many people."
Ski towns, like other jurisdictions, are mostly biding their time until Colorado's legislature creates laws implementing the legalization mandated by voters. The first stores selling recreational marijuana can't open until next January. However, towns and counties must decide by Oct. 1, when the state's medical registry opens for business, whether to allow or ban new stores. If allowed, existing medical dispensaries will get the first shot.
State legislators and regulators must still hash out scores of sticky issues, including licensing and security requirements for stores, advertising restrictions, and labelling and health standards.
Big questions include: How sales be taxed and where the revenue will be allocated? Should non-residents be allowed to buy marijuana? Restricting sales to just Coloradans would be very challenging to do, says Kevin Bommer, deputy director of the Colorado Municipal League.
Also a hot-button item, especially among opponents, is whether easier availability of marijuana will lead to increased use among children and adolescents. Some evidence suggests greater harm to still-developing bodies and minds from use of marijuana.
Colorado's legalization began in 2000, when nearly 54 per cent of voters approved a constitutional amendment that authorized use by patients diagnosed with glaucoma, cancer, and other illnesses, but also severe pain, persistent muscle spasms, and other ailments.
The law gave permission to caregivers and patients to legally possess marijuana, but only two ounces.
That put Colorado into direct conflict with the federal laws, but there were few clashes.
A state court ruling in 2007 cleared the way for street front dispensaries, and in 2009 state officials eliminated the five-patient limit for caregivers.
Soon after, officials in the new Obama administration announced they would not prosecute patients and caregivers who were in "clear and unambiguous compliance" with state law.
Within just a few years, the number of people with medical marijuana cards in Colorado, population 5.3 million, ballooned from 1,000 to 145,000. About 70 per cent of patients were males, with an average age of 40, according to the Washington Park Profile.
Only one per cent of patients have glaucoma, and two per cent cancer, while 94 per cent of patients cited "severe pain" as the basis of need. About 85 per cent of referrals were made by a handful of doctors.
Regulations adopted by the Colorado Legislature gave ski towns and other jurisdictions latitude of restricting dispensaries by location and number, or even banning them altogether. Some towns and counties did exactly that.
Vail's town council concluded that marijuana distribution would tarnish the town's image. This was despite the vote of citizens in 2000 in favour of medicinal marijuana. Among ski towns, Breckenridge has been ground zero. There, voters in 2010 legalized possession under the local ordinance, the first in Colorado. Adverse consequences were expected. But the effect was little, reports Rick Holman, then the town police chief and now the assistant town manager.
"I think a lot of people thought the floodgate would open, but we didn't see a huge increase (in obvious use)," says Holman. "Really, we didn't see much of any change." But worrisome is the increased use in marijuana among high-school students since legalization efforts have begun, he says. That concern also resonates with Schmidt, who worries that THC will be added to candy. "If a youngster is smoking something, you can pick up on that," he says. "But if a kid has a lollipop in his mouth, how do you know?"
Judge Buck Allen, the municipal judge in Breckenridge, Vail, Avon and Eagle, says three or four cases of marijuana possession or use he saw per month were mostly incidental to traffic stops or other routine police work. Possession is no longer illegal, however.
But public use remains illegal, even in national forests. "About the only place it is 100 per cent clear you can smoke marijuana is a free-standing home that you own," advised The Denver Post.
Yet to be seen are the revenue gains for local jurisdictions. The 26 medical marijuana dispensaries in Boulder, the college town at the centre of a metropolitan population of nearly 300,000, have produced a stable $314,000 or so a year, reports the Boulder Daily Camera. But in ski towns, the revenue has been just a dribble. "It's less than we thought," says Schmidt of Crested Butte.
Some city officials suspect that transactions have slipped under table. "If you look at the sales tax from any of these, you have to wonder how they keep their doors open," says David Smith, city attorney in Durango, a college and ski town. It has eight or nine local dispensaries. He suspects under-the-table dealings. "When you have an ATM machine just inside the door, it's not hard to figure out it's mostly a cash deal."
Others say that Colorado's slow process has culled the shady operators and those left standing are almost certainly reputable.
One key issue before Colorado regulators is how to define impairment by drivers. Should presence of THC, the principal psychoactive constituent in cannabis, in a person's bloodstream make a person under the influence?
"I personally know a lot of patients who can handle a huge amount of THC in their systems and don't show any impairments," says Chris Olson, spokesperson for the County Sheriffs of Colorado. And if mere presence of THC is considered impairment, then what about caffeine? "There's a point at which you can have too much in your system and you can't do anything. You can't even sit still," he says.
Olson, who has had two transplants and has had his colon removed, opened a medical dispensary in Frisco, just off Interstate 70, in August 2009. He argues that Colorado, despite the legalization, has mishandled the permitting requirements, making it difficult for people with legitimate needs for marijuana to gain access.
While the local sheriff joked about the epidemic of 21-year-olds with neck pain, Olson argues that marijuana is safer for human consumption than Tylenol.
Regulators, he says, have been ignorant and had to be trained. However, he admits that "a lot of business owners who weren't of high integrity" had become dispensers of medical marijuana.
With the complete legalization of possession, but still not public use, many feel a certain relief. Smith tells the story of a student at the local Fort Lewis College, who was arrested for smoking pot in a parking lot. In her defense, she produced evidence of a medical need: irritable bowel syndrome.
"The story became that, one bad morning in the bathroom and you too can qualify for a medical marijuana card," says Smith. "To me, the hypocrisy has been lifted by Amendment 64 (approved in November), but it will be a very, very hard thing to monitor and control."
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