On Jan. 1, Colorado made history as the first jurisdiction in the modern era to license the retail sales of marijuana.
To be sure, there were no bloody fistfights among people waiting in line and, as far as we know, no burglaries or robberies. Legalization advocates cheered.
While it is true that most people who use marijuana won’t become addicted to heroin or otherwise hurt society as a result, Colorado’s experiment with legal pot can be called anything but successful.
What didn’t make the news were some troubling developments.
Multimillion-dollar private investing groups have emerged and are poised to become, in their words, “Big Marijuana”; added to a list of dozens of other children, a 2-year-old girl ingested a marijuana cookie and had to receive immediate medical attention; a popular website boldly discussed safe routes for smugglers to bring marijuana into neighboring states; and a marijuana-store owner proudly proclaimed that Colorado would soon be the destination of choice for 18- to 21-year-olds, even though for them marijuana is still supposed to be illegal.
Popular columnists spanning the ideological spectrum, in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Newsweek/Daily Beast, soon expressed their disapproval of such policies as contributing to the dumbing down of America.
Colorado’s experience, ironically, might eventually teach us that legalization’s worst enemy is itself.
This raises the question: Why do we have to experience a tragedy before knowing where to go next?
Sadly, the marijuana conversation is one mired with myths. Many Americans do not think that marijuana can be addictive, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.
Many would be surprised to learn that the American Medical Association (AMA) has come out strongly against the legal sales of marijuana, citing public health concerns. In fact, the AMA’s opinion is consistent with most major medical associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Society of Addiction Medicine.
Because today’s marijuana is at least five to six times stronger than the marijuana smoked by most of today’s parents, we are often shocked to hear that, according to the National Institutes of Health, one in six 16-year-olds who try marijuana will become addicted to it; marijuana intoxication doubles the risk of a car crash; heavy marijuana use has been significantly linked to an 8-point reduction in IQ; and that marijuana use is strongly connected to mental illness.
Constantly downplaying the risks of marijuana, its advocates have promised reductions in crime, flowing tax revenue and little in the way of negative effects on youth. We shouldn’t hold our breath, though.
We can expect criminal organizations to adapt to legal prices, sell to people outside the legal market (e.g., kids) and continue to profit from other, much larger revenue sources, such as human trafficking and other drugs.
We can expect the social costs ensuing from increased marijuana use to greatly outweigh any tax revenue — witness the fact that tobacco and alcohol cost society $10 for every $1 gained in taxes.
Probably worst of all, we can expect our teens to be bombarded with promotional messages from a new marijuana industry seeking lifelong customers.
In light of the currently skewed discourse on marijuana, these are difficult facts to digest. In one fell swoop, we have been promised great things with legalization. However, we can expect to be let down.
Voters in other states should watch Colorado closely and engage in a deep conversation about where they want this country to go. Buyer, beware.
Kevin A. Sabet is a former senior White House drug-policy adviser, director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, and author of “Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana” (Beaufort Books, 2013).
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