What Does Cannabis / Marijuana Legalization Look Like?

The very first articles on AMH was to help demystify cannabis, cannabinoids, and marijuana from a medical standpoint.  We broke it down to what are they, what does medical science have to say about them, and what’s the legal status.   Of course, with such a controversial topic, people continued to ask questions – which is good.  The problem is, there’s not as many answers as people would expect: cannabis research is still in it’s infancy, and some topics have a long ways to go before medical science has true long term answers.  To further complicate things, some of the questions aren’t strictly medical – some were economic, social, and legal.  We talked about the legal issues in our third article.  Since then, the legal landscape continues to change even here in Kansas.

I had the chance to visit Colorado, and research some of the social, economic, and legal ramifications of changes to cannabis laws, and how it’s affected some of our nearest neighbors.  There’s two sides to the legalization debate, and a good amount of the presentation of data has been fairly deeply biased towards both sides of the legalization debate.  I’ll try and keep this much more neutral – both sides of the debate are a little more intricate than we often see.  As with most everything in the real world, legalization isn’t a perfectly good or perfectly bad solution.

If you haven’t already, you might want to go read the first three articles on Cannabinoids to get some background on why the questions are so complicated, and potentially important.


Understanding The Legal Status

Changing the laws isn’t quite as simple as “legal” or “illegal”, as there’s more than one type of legalization, plus the concept of “decriminalization.”

Decriminalization:  Right now, possession of even a small amount of marijuana is illegal (both in Kansas, and at the federal level) and will result in jail time.  Decriminalization laws don’t make it legal.  Instead, it becomes more like getting a ticket – in Wichita, first time possession of less than 32 grams (about an ounce) is a $50 fine, plus court costs.  It’s not legal – similar to how speeding isn’t legal – but a first time offense isn’t going to land you in jail.  Well, as long as you don’t have more than an ounce, and as long as there’s not something else illegal happening at the same time, you’re not a previous offender, and you have previously had no other felony convictions.

Medical Marijuana Legalization:  With medical legalization, the only way to purchase or legally possess marijuana or cannabinoids such as THC based products is to recommendation from a medical professional (what the recommendation is like varies from state to state.)  Do note that it’s a recommendation:  marijuana or cannabinoid based products can’t be prescribed due to federal level laws, only recommended.

Recreational Marijuana Legalization:  Anyone of legal drinking age (21 and over) can purchase it, though there’s more regulation and restriction generally than purchasing a beer.

Federal Legalization:  One of the key points to any changes in legal status becomes how federal, state, and local laws are handled.  From the federal point of view, marijuana sale or possession is a federal offense, and carries with it stiff penalties that include jail time.  Some states have changed their laws to make it legal for either medical or recreational use, and some cities such as Wichita have made moves to decriminalize it.  At the moment the DEA (or other Federal level law enforcement) can still arrest you for possession or use – even if you’re in a state where it’s legal.

Legalization is a sticky issue, because even if your city decriminalizes it, then you could still be arrested by State level law enforcement, or Federal level enforcement.  The topic of “States Rights” when it comes to topics such as drug enforcement is well beyond the scope of this article, and is often a topic of debate even among legal scholars.

How It Works in Colorado

Currently, 8 states have legalized recreational & medical use, and 21 states have legalized medical only use.  We’ll be using Colorado, our next door neighbor, as our example of what legalization could look like, and how it might affect Kansas if we decided to legalize at the same level as Colorado.

Before legalization could be completed in Colorado, there’s a lot that had to go into it.  Sales are fairly restrictive in some respects.  Colorado determined that a single product was restricted to 10 doses of THC, and each dose is 10 milligrams.  To do that required testing facilities, licensing agencies, and more – just saying it was going to be available for sale isn’t enough.  If you’re wondering “why does it matter how big a dose is, or how many milligrams of THC is in a product?”, consider alcohol for a moment:  when you purchase a bottle of beer, it tell you somewhere on the bottle what potency it is.  If you’ve drank a few times, you’ve got an idea what 6.3% alcohol’s effect is going to be compared to 30% alcohol (60 proof).  The latter is going to put you an impaired state (as in, drunk) much more quickly than the beer is.  Knowing – and being able to verify – how much is in the product matters for recreational use, and matters even more for potential medical use.

There’s also maximums you can purchase and possess at any given time – 28 grams, though it’s a little confusing, as purchasing raw marijuana, concentrates, or edibles are a little different in each case because of the amount of THC involved in each.  You also have to be a licensed to grow or sell it.

Then, on top of that, simple things like labeling (everything with THC – the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that gets a person “high” – in it is clearly labeled), changes to law enforcement policy and training, tax enforcement, and a whole host of things have to be decided upon.  Once they’re implemented into laws and regulations, then it’s finally time for the big change.

Marijuana Everywhere?  Not really.

First, you can only get products with THC at licensed dispensaries.  There’s more than one type of dispensary – recreational, and medical.  Recreational use has different potency regulations than medical use, so there exists more than one type of dispensary.  Getting in requires ID, you have to use cash (because of the federal laws on marijuana, it’s a cash only business), expect to sign in when you enter, and sign again when you purchase a product.

And, after you have it?  You’re probably just going to have to take it home to use it.  Think about it – again – in the realm of how alcohol consumption works.  You can’t drink a beer in your car.  You can’t drink a beer when walking down the street in most towns.  You can’t be intoxicated while out and about.  The same basic rules apply.

On top of that, there are places in Colorado where alcohol is legal, but THC based products aren’t.  National parks, for instance, apply the federal laws for taking these products: it’s illegal on federal property, and is sometimes enforced by park rangers.  You can drink in a bar or restaurant, but you can’t smoke marijuana.  In Denver, however, you can use THC based products that aren’t smoked in a bar or restaurant (if the bar or restaurant allows) as of the beginning of 2017.  There’s a very limited number of places where you can use these products legally, and it is enforced.

You’ll also need to know local ordinances.  Not all cities allow for the sale of THC based products, and there are some variations – like Denver – on where you can imbibe.

Increase in Crime?  Decrease In Crime?

The year after legalization, Denver, Colorado saw a 2.2% reduction in violent crime, and a 8.9% decrease in property crimes.  Yes, there’s a decrease in these types of crime, though it’s not a huge decrease.  Any decrease is a good thing.

Arrests for possession, distribution, and growing marijuana dropped by 90%.  Remember, there’s a maximum amount you can possess, and you have to be licensed to sell or grow it, so arrests do still happen.  A black market for THC containing products still exists, partially because it’s a bit cheaper when you don’t apply the tax to it.  Legalization has severely dampened sales along those sort of channels, but it’s not completely gone.

Also when talking about crime, you have to talk about things like driving under the influence.  It’s illegal to drink and drive – everyone know this.  It’s also illegal to use a product with THC in it and drive.  Colorado saw an increase in the number of traffic accidents involving participants who were found to be driving under the influence of products containing THC.  That increase also included an increase in fatal accidents.  There’s some serious debate on that, though:  with alcohol, a simple breath test is enough to tell the level of alcohol someone has ingested recently.  THC, on the other hand, is a fat soluble item, so it works very, very differently.  Even days after a user has stopped using any, they may find themselves over the legal limit of THC in their system, despite the fact that the effect has long since worn off.  This has left part of the statistics skewed, and has left law enforcement scrambling to find a better set of tests.

Raking in the Cash?

No doubt about it:  for Colorado, it was a big money maker.  It generated $2.1 billion dollars in revenue in 2015, with $151 million of that going directly to the state in the form of taxes on marijuana sales.  Then there’s employment: in 2015, 18,000 new jobs were created.  Not bad.  But, that’s not the full picture.  Each one of those dispensaries represents another retail location being rented, farm land for growing it, transportation, and more.  There’s an overall chain of income and expenses that is represented by the industry.

There’s also a secondary set of reductions in expenses:  with legalization, it reduces the number of people in jails.   In some states, it costs as much as $75,000 per year for each person currently in jail.  That adds up quickly.

On the flip side, there are also new expenses for the state.  $8 million went into youth prevention, as an example, though the expenses overall aren’t particularly high.


How Does it Affect Medicine & Healthcare?

One of the most important questions, from the perspective of a health care provider, is how does this affect medicine and the healing arts process?  Right now, there’s no prescriptions for marijuana.  All that can happen is the medical provider gives a recommendation, and the patient can go through the process of getting access to it (which isn’t horribly difficult, but there’s a few hoops in some states that provide for medical only legalization.)

But, the biggest problem is this: there’s still not enough information on the long term benefit of utilizing marijuana or it’s various cannabinoids.  One that applies directly to myself, for instance, is some statements that CBD – a cannabinoid that’s non-psychoactive – may have a positive therapeutic effect on ADHD.  However, the paper(s) written on it aren’t large scale research, and often don’t come from credible sources.  The articles being written are often flawed, too:  one discussed how CBD increases the Dopamine in ADHD sufferers, potentially improving concentration.  Problem with that statement is that ADHD sufferers don’t lack Dopamine, they lack Dopamine receptors, a very different problem.

Simply put, almost all claims for medical purposes of marijuana aren’t vetted out completely yet.  There’s still a lot of research to be done.  Which is one of the big reasons some medical providers are large proponents of legalization at the Federal level, or at least “rescheduling”.  Right now marijuana is a Schedule I drug:  it’s not even legal to use it for research purposes in all but a very few, select cases.  While there has been pressure over the years for the DEA to move to a different stance, so more research can be done.

With legalization, it gives medical providers a new tool in their pallet, particularly in cases such as cancer patients currently on chemotherapy drugs or PTSD patients, but it’s by no means a sure thing every time.  For those patients it works for, though, it could be a serious boon.

To Be Continued…

We’ve looked at Colorado, and got a feel for how it worked there.  While this is extremely fact based, there’s one thing to know:  interpretation of those facts is a really, really big deal to both sides of the legalization argument.  In some ways, folks arguing both sides of the discussion often fall to emotional backing of their beliefs.  As such, you’ll see articles that take the same information presented here put in completely different contexts.  You might also see some statistics that present things as even more pro or con legalization.  There’s an old saying:  there’s lies, damned lies, and statistics.  On top of that there’s also the fact it’s not a black and white issue.  With what we presented here, it’s impossible to say legalization is all good, or all bad.  While a lot of effort was put forth to vet the information and make it as unbiased as possible, if you’re curious keep looking:  there’s a lot of research on the subject.

In two weeks, we’ll be back with a second article that looks at how it might look in Kansas.  Meanwhile, there’s a second article about my personal observations of the process of buying in Colorado over at my blog – we focus on facts on the AMH site, but there you can pick up a bit more about the opinion and observations.

Header image by Davis Ray Sickmon, Jr and contains (from left to right) Starbuds in Pueblo, Co, the interior of Starbuds, High Valley Retail Cannabis (along with the author), and the interior of High Valley Retail Cannabis