On New Years’ Day in California, people were celebrating. Some people, anyway.
That’s the day recreational marijuana usage officially became legal in the state—and businesses peddling the product began cashing in.
In the Bay Park neighborhood of San Diego, The Los Angeles Times reports, hundreds of customers lined up at the pot shop Urbn Leaf—350 by noon alone.
“This is crazy,” said the store’s co-founder, Will Senn. “We hoped for big crowds, and prepared. But we didn’t expect this.”
Senn, who rented a 40-foot bus to bring in customers from Pacific Beach, also dispatched 31 drivers to make deliveries.
“We can deliver marijuana in 20 minutes,” he said. “It’s like pizza.”
Around the Bay Area, The New York Times reports, billboards from a company called Eaze pushed cannabis with slogans like “Hello Marijuana, Goodbye Insomnia” and “Hello Marijuana, Goodbye, Anxiety.”
But not everyone was joining the celebration.
Not in Compton, the crime-ridden Los Angeles neighborhood where, on Jan. 24, three-quarters of voters said a resounding “no” to measures that would have lifted the local ban on pot shops.
Not in the three Northern California counties (Calaveras, Yuba and Siskiyou—which, ironically, is home to a small town called Weed) that took drastic action in recent months against the crime and environmental damage stemming from illegal marijuana growers—including that from sizable amounts of dangerous, uncontrolled pesticides. (See “Harvest of Poison,” page 14.)
Not at law-enforcement agencies, nearly all of whose representatives fought legalization efforts and warned of consequences like those other states have already experienced.
The Golden State, however, is more than just another state. It’s the largest state, with a population nearing 40 million. And because of that vast scale, the consequences both inside its borders and nationwide will leave many Americans—including some who initially supported legalization—feeling any-thing but celebratory.
California’s path to legalizing recreational pot started in 1996, when voters made it the first state to permit “medical” marijuana. At the time, it was pitched as a careful, moderate measure intended not to indulge the wants of stoners, but to alleviate the needs of the suffering.
But things didn’t exactly work out that way.
“If you go down to, say, the Santa Monica Pier, it is exceedingly easy to get a card for ‘medical’ marijuana,” says Jonathan Keller, president of the California Family Council, Focus on the Family’s public-policy partner in the state.
Keller cites a 2012 study published in Drug and Alcohol Review showing that the demographic group most likely to have medical-marijuana cards in the state is 18- to 24-year-old males.
“It’s not cancer patients,” he says. “It’s not people with glaucoma or chronic pain. It’s young single men who are looking for a way to get high legally.”
In 2010, after a hard-fought campaign, voters narrowly rejected a proposition to approve recreational marijuana. But when the issue hit the ballot again in 2016 in the form of Proposition 64—backed by deep-pocketed donors like hedge-fund billionaire George Soros—it passed 57 to 43 percent.
“The other side was spending massive amounts because they recognized it was a cash cow,” Keller says. “Money was pouring in from sources out of state, including venture capitalists and investors looking to exploit people.”
As typically happens when such measures land on the ballot, Prop 64 came with various features meant to soothe voters’ worries—limits on age and quantities that could be possessed, restrictions on location (not too close to schools, thank you), pledges of tax revenue.
“They kept telling voters that this was only going to benefit our finances, get more tax revenue for schools, clean out the jails, etc.,” Keller says. “We couldn’t get enough people to look at what’s happened in other states.”
Case in point: Colorado.
Like California, Colorado voters first passed medical marijuana—the gateway proposition, as it were—in 2000. Like California, a few years later (2006), they weighed in on recreational marijuana but rejected it. And like California, a similar measure surfaced six years later (2012), this time passing and going into effect at the start of 2014.
Not surprisingly, harmful results followed.
The Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA), which promotes cooperation and coordination among federal, state and local drug-enforcement efforts, publishes an annual report on the impact of marijuana in Colorado. Among the data from the latest edition, released last October:
Marijuana-related traffic deaths more than doubled from 2013 (55) to 2016 (125), representing 21 percent of all traffic deaths.
Over that four-year period, the average number of pot-related traffic deaths increased 66 percent compared to the four-year average from 2009-2012.
The average yearly rate of marijuana-related hospitalizations rose 72 percent after recreational pot was legalized.
In 2014-15, Colorado youths who reported using pot in the previous month was 55 percent higher than the national average—the highest in the nation, up from fourth highest in 2011-2012 and 14th highest in 2005-2006.The same reports from college-age users in 2014-15 was the second-highest in the nation—61 percent higher than the national average. Overall adult usage in the previous month was also the highest in the nation, 124 percent above the national average.
Somebody’s Dad, Somebody’s Daughter
None of this comes as a surprise to RMHIDTA’s director, Tom Gorman. Before coming to Colorado, he was chief of operations for the California Attorney General’s Office of Narcotics. Before that—long before—he was an undercover narcotics agent for 10 years.
“Whenever you make something more available and socially acceptable and lower the perception of risk, you’re going to have more people using,” Gorman says. “When you have adverse consequences, those will increase too. That’s not rocket science: That’s just simple logic.”
Gorman knows the numbers in RMHIDTA’s report. But he stresses that behind each of them lies a human tragedy.
“We can throw around statistics a lot, but the victims are human beings—somebody’s mom, somebody’s dad, somebody’s daughter,” he says. “If Colorado has lost 125 people on the roads in marijuana-related accidents one year, how many will die in California, with six times the population? It’s just sad.”
The victims are real to Gorman. He’s met more than he can count.
“When you’re working with these people on a daily basis, you see a lot of people messed up,” he says. “You talk to parents whose kids are going downhill, lack motivation, don’t care anymore.
“Pot is anything but harmless. And if you look at the thousands of studies out there, you’d have to have your head in the sand to believe that this is a harmless drug.”
That’s truer now than ever, because levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in marijuana have skyrocketed. Ask Bob Cooke, regional director of the National Narcotics
Officers’ Associations’ Coalition and past president of the California Narcotics Officers Association.
“In the 1960s or ’70s you might see 3, 4, 5 percent THC,” he says. “Today, the potency is off the charts.”
How high can it get? Numbers vary. A 2015 report from the Denver lab Charas Scientific, paid by marijuana businesses to measure THC levels, found an average of nearly 19 percent, with many samples in the high 20s and some over 30. Cooke says some products go well into the 30s or higher.
“When people smoke a joint they get high incredibly quick,” he says. “When they take it in edibles and don’t get high as quickly, they start eating more. They don’t know how much THC is in it and they can go into a psychotic episode.”
As bad as pot is getting, is it truly a gateway drug to even worse ones? You better believe it, Cooke says—both to using them and, sometimes, selling them.
“I’ve interviewed hundreds of suspects who were involved in growing or selling drugs,” he says. “I’ve hardly known any who didn’t start by trying marijuana, then saying, ‘I need to try something else.’”
‘Sometimes It Takes a Generation’
People make bad decisions when they’re high: Pot impairs judgment, memory, learning ability and attention span, among other things. But the drug also can have a long-lasting impact—especially in teenagers, whose still-developing brains can be damaged.
One reason: THC is highly fat-soluble, each exposure lingering in the body for days or weeks—and the more often it’s used, the more it builds up.
“You smoke weed even once a week and it’s not long before you’ve got a saturated system,” says Carla Lowe, a California resident and founder of the national group Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana. “That’s what I teach kids all the time: When the high is gone, the pot is not.”
Lowe has been fighting drug abuse since the 1970s, while serving as a local PTA president. The more she learned about drugs, the more concerned she got—and the more active she became. She co-founded several anti-drug efforts, including the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth, which gained prominence in the 1980s working with Nancy Reagan.
The First Lady’s high-profile support was invaluable on the cultural front. “She legitimized the Carla Lowes of the world—those of us who were going around the country speaking on this issue,” Lowe says. “She lent us credibility. Those were the years when drug usage went down—when it was perceived that drugs were high risk.”
Now, Lowe hopes to get national help again—from seeing the federal government enforce its marijuana laws in California. And the odds of that happening just got a boost.
During the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Justice told federal prosecutors not to enforce federal marijuana laws in states that legalized the substance. But on Jan. 4, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended that policy, returning to prosecutors the ability to—simply put—do their jobs.
“In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the Department’s finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-
established principles that govern all federal prosecutions,” he wrote in a memo.
What federal prosecutors in California and elsewhere will choose to do now remains to be seen. But Gorman thinks it’s a step in the right direction.
“This is not a states-rights issue,” he says. “States do not have the right to authorize or license what are criminal enterprises under federal law. States do not have the right to authorize or license people to commit federal felonies. That’s illegal—like a state licensing business to print counterfeit money or authorizing civil-rights violations by allowing indentured servants.”
Even if federal prosecutors act on their authority, however, formidable forces are driving the push for legalized marijuana.
“What we’re seeing is industrialization,” Keller says. “It’s taking a drug that has all kinds of adverse effects on society and treating it as a revenue stream—and as the cool, hip drug.”
So Keller and others are digging in for a long-
term struggle against the wealthy and powerful—much as opponents of tobacco once did against that now-
“Sometimes it takes a generation for people to get a sense of what’s happening and change course,” he says. “But we have the truth on our side. We’ll keep trying to open eyes and ears, until society wises up.”
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Originally published in the April 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.