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Marijuana Legalization Update: The Jury's Still Out

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It has now been six months since Colorado legalized recreational use of marijuana. This week, Washington became the second state to roll out retail pot sales.

All eyes are on these two states and the grand experiment they're undertaking. But to me, it's quite telling that Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper is reluctant to call legalization a success. "It could've been a lot worse," Governor Hickenlooper recently said in an interview with Katie Couric. "But we've got to do better."

Following the euphoria when Colorado first launched its sales, the reality of legal pot is providing concern. For one thing, the state did not foresee the rise of edible marijuana. As Maureen Dowd reported in a disturbing account of her own experience with a pot candy bar, these products are particularly problematic because there's no way to know their dosage or potency. In March, a 19-year-old African exchange student fell to his death from a hotel balcony in Denver after eating a marijuana-laced cookie.

Governor Hickenlooper is wise to take this situation seriously, vowing to limit each edible to one standard dose. He has also launched a campaign aimed at educating children about marijuana's dangers. And in Washington, Governor Jay Inslee, having closely monitored Colorado's experience, pledged to ban packaging for edibles containing cartoons and other youth-targeted imagery.

These legislators should be commended for recognizing that the marijuana of today is not your grandmother's weed. Pot is now far stronger than the drug we saw in the late '60s and early '70s -- and it carries far more risks, especially for the still-developing adolescent brain.

However, the jury is still out on whether the governors' efforts will be enough to prevent a spike in teen use and addiction. Early reports from Colorado note that adult consumption has not gone up dramatically, and that the state will likely earn between $60 and $100 million this year in marijuana tax revenue. But the real question is how to protect the most vulnerable among us -- kids -- and whether tax dollars will be enough to offset the costs to Colorado's education, health care, and criminal justice systems.

We need a source of independent research to determine the facts and identify the consequences of legalization. I would love to be proven wrong, but it's hard for me to imagine that the research will reveal that the benefits outweigh the costs.

First, we at Phoenix House and other concerned parties predict that children will suffer. Adults in Colorado and Washington are sending a message to kids that it's OK to smoke weed. Unfortunately, a prevention ad at a bus stop probably won't succeed in cutting through that message. As Governor Hickenlooper pointed out, kids "have been getting a permissive vibe for years." With legalization, marijuana has been normalized to an even greater extent -- and usage will likely increase.

Second, legalization won't destroy the black market. One of the chief arguments of the pro-legalization lobby is that pot sales will be taken out of the hands of illicit dealers and related crime will go down. This is an idealistic premise, but it's not that simple. For example, in Washington, only 80 growers out of more than 2,600 applicants have been approved so far. And only about 25 retailers out of 300-plus had received licenses to open their doors this week, including just one outlet in Seattle. At this rate, the supply certainly won't be enough to meet the demand. Coupled with taxes and higher prices of legal pot, the black market won't have a tough time retaining the upper hand.

Plus, banks won't accept retailers' money because the federal government still considers marijuana illegal; the government has issued new rules to guide banks who wish to do business with licensed dealers, but has not explicitly changed the law. A surefire way to encourage corruption, Governor Hickenlooper noted, is to have an all-cash business.

These are just a few of the problems that have emerged so far, and there may be more to come. The upside, as I've said in the past, is that we can use Colorado and Washington as test cases to analyze the impact of legalization. Other states -- and the health care providers, educators and families who reside there -- can then frame their approaches accordingly. Ultimately, my hope is that there will be a federal point of view and laws will be passed to ensure consistency across state lines. Until then, the landscape of legalization will continue to be the Wild West, with each state coming up with its own rules and experiments. We can only hope that these games of Russian roulette don't come at too steep a price.