As the issue of legalizing marijuana in Colorado is stoked by arguments for and against Amendment 64, one thing is irrefutable.
“This is not your Woodstock weed, folks,” said John Redman, executive director of Californians for Drug-Free Youth. “It's not the same.”
Today's marijuana is four to nine times stronger in concentrates of the psychoactive substance, THC, than the stuff sold on the street in the 1960s and `70s, Redman added.
Speaking at the Marijuana Prevention Summit in Colorado Springs last month, Redman was passionate in his opposition to the legalization of marijuana, particularly as it relates to today's youth.
According to statistics from the Colorado Department of Education, one in six children who try marijuana before the age of 18 become addicted. “It is absolutely physically addictive,” Redman said.
Redman scorned the argument that legalizing marijuana would cut down on its use by adolescents. “Tobacco, alcohol, whoa, whoa, wait a minute - they're legal but not for kids,” he said. “Tobacco and alcohol are legal, taxed, regulated and controlled yet more kids use tobacco and alcohol than ever before.”
As one side argues the efficacy of regulation, Redman isn't buying it. “As soon as you legalize it, you open up that Pandora's Box and spend the majority of your money trying to control the regulation and all the problems that come with it,” he said.
To the argument that medical marijuana is a good thing as a pain reliever for some chronic conditions, Redman blames the new laws for changing the way kids view a potentially-harmful substance. “How can kids say no to drugs when you walk down the street and see pot shops?” he said. “I don't call them dispensaries I call them as I see them.”
Youth are disproportionately affected by marijuana use, said Dr. Christian Thurstone, speaking at the summit. “Of the 2.4 million marijuana users in the United States, 60 percent are under the age of 18, he added.
Seventeen percent of children who use marijuana for the first time before the age of 18 abuse or become dependent while only 4 percent develop that dependency after 18, said Thurstone who runs a youth rehabilitation clinic in Denver.
“There's something about the teen brain that is especially vulnerable to becoming addicted to substances,” Thurstone said. “Marijuana is the number one reason why youth come for substance-abuse treatment. In my clinic in Denver, it's 95 percent.”
In Woodland Park, Debbie Upton, coordinator of North Teller Build a Generation, who was at the summit, stated BAG's position of Amendment 64. “Legalizing marijuana would harm our children and that's the only thing that really counts. Thousands of studies document the harmful impact of marijuana on our teenagers. Smoking marijuana permanently impairs brain development, leads to negative behavioral changes, impairs learning ability and contributes to depression and suicidal thoughts.”
The PRO side:
If Colorado voters approve Amendment 64 next month, marijuana would be legal, which is the goal for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “If marijuana were legal, we'd quit putting relatively inoffensive people in jail and give them the opportunity to use a substance that is far less harmful than legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco,” said Tony Ryan, who retired after 36 years with the Denver Police Department.
Under the amendment to the Colorado constitution, only people over 21 would be allowed to buy marijuana; as well, they could not smoke it in public. “And we could tax marijuana; now all we can do is arrest people,” Ryan said.
Ryan is firm in his conviction that legalizing marijuana would free police officers to do other things. “When people call they expect you to show up right away. It's all a matter of better use of your law-enforcement resources,” he said. “And we wouldn't need to be involved in this activity any longer.”
As a retired Denver cop, Ryan recalls the paperwork involved in booking a minor for a marijuana violation. “It takes the officer off the street for an hour and a half when we could just issue a citation,” he said.
As well, marijuana does not elicit strange behavior in its users. “Marijuana doesn't cause people to commit really weird or dangerous behavior that's going to cause somebody else a problem.”
Ryan refutes the claim that marijuana use has increased among teenagers now that medical marijuana is legal in Colorado. “That's been the case with almost all the marijuana states, starting with California,” he said. “When the state passed the medical-marijuana legislation in 996, marijuana use went down among teenagers.”
Instead of using marijuana, some teens are using prescription drugs from their parents' medicine cabinet, he added.
Both sides of the issue emphasize the role of the Mexican cartels in the War on Drugs in America. Both agree that if marijuana were legal the cartels would fund their operations with something else.
“Mexican cartels are showing up now in more than 1,200 cities in the United Sates. They want the territory,” Ryan said. “You might break up a half-way decent drug ring just to have a replacement before you can get the paperwork done.”
The War on Drugs is a waste of taxpayer money and law-enforcement time, Ryan said. “It's a fruitless effort and we need a different approach for all of this stuff, but particularly marijuana, which is the least harmful of an substance people tend to abuse,” he said.
Ryan urges opponents of legalizing marijuana to look back at Prohibition in the 1920 and'30s. “We tried to make those other things illegal and it didn't work,” he said. “We're just repeating the same experiment looking for a different result.”