Legalizing pot doesn’t come without societal costs. Just look at Colorado, anti-marijuana advocate says

Legalizing pot doesn’t come without societal costs. Just look at Colorado, anti-marijuana advocate says

By Jan Murphy |

Wondering what Pennsylvania would look like if recreational marijuana was legalized here may only require looking at Colorado’s experience to see how it has worked out there.

Let’s just say it was described as less than desirable at a session Friday at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, an annual gathering of conservatives.

Five years into his state’s legalized pot experiment, Luke Niforatos, a senior policy advisor for the Denver-based Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told the audience in a room at the Radisson Hotel Harrisburg in East Pennsboro Township the data suggested the societal costs far surpass the tax revenue marijuana generates. He identified his organization as the nation’s leading organization opposing commercialization and legalization of marijuana.

After spending most of his life living in Colorado, he said he has seen his state go from being a place known for its outdoorsy activities to one that has “great weed.”

“When you hear your lieutenant governor going around saying we want to go full Colorado, well I got news for him. Our former Gov. John Hickenlooper whose now running for president, even he – and he’s pro legalization – even he would say you don’t want to go full Colorado,” said Niforatos.

Pennsylvania has engaged in a pot legalization discussion in Pennsylvania when Gov. Tom Wolf directed Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in January to go on a statewide tour to take the pulse of citizens on the issue. Polls have shown a majority of voters support legalization of pot for recreational purposes.

Niforatos discredited polls that limit the responses to yes or no on legalization, saying the issue is more complex and support for decriminalization and legalization can become conflated.

Policy alternatives to marijuana legalization that his organization advocates include looking at drug treatment, removing criminal penalties for low-level use, discouraging pot use and raising awareness of science-based research as to its effects.

But instead of going that route, his state chose to legalize and now is a place he said where you can find pot shops galore.

It’s become so normalized there that Girl Scouts set up tables lined with their boxes of cookies right outside of pot shops. Kids gather outside pot shops during their lunch break. There’s 1,014 pot shops in Colorado, compared to 600 McDonald’s and Starbucks combined.

“It’s getting to the point now where it’s just reality. There’s pot shops are everywhere and our kids are seeing that and they see them as kind of just normal part of everyday life and that is probably one of the things I am most saddened by as a dad and as somebody from Colorado,” he said.

States that have legalized it looked at it as a new revenue source. Pennsylvania’s Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has estimated legalizing cannabis here could generate as much as $500 million – or 1.5% of the current year’s state budget.

But he said in states that have legalized, marijuana tax revenue has been even more negligible. Colorado generates about three-quarters of 1% of its revenue from marijuana taxes. In Washington and Oregon, the percentage is even less.

“The money is not even close to what is promised and the question becomes is the money worth all the problems if it’s so little,” Niforatos said.

About those problems

Supporters say legalizing marijuana will help with the opioid problem and reduce the number of opioid deaths. But initial research suggests people who smoke marijuana are 2.7 times more likely to use prescription opioids while continuing their cannabis use, Niforatos said.

What’s more, Niforatos said the number of opioid and heroin-related deaths in Colorado have risen from 377 in 2012, the year before legalization took effect, to 560 in 2017.

“As the science continues to develop, the answer seems to be that this is really not going to be the solution for the opioid crisis,” he said.

How it impacts young people is another of the many issues Niforatos addressed during his presentation.

Since his state has legalized it, studies and surveys show there has been “massive increases among our youth in terms of using marijuana.” Marijuana offenses are by far the number one offense happening in Colorado schools.

The higher use among youth is not just a phenomenon observed in his own state either, he said. Statistics from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health that he shared indicate one in five youth and one in 10 young adults in states that have legalized marijuana have been diagnosed with cannabis use disorder in the past 12 months.

“It’s very, very concerning what we’re seeing in legalized states,” Niforatos said.

A recently released report by the Colorado Health Department indicated 400 percent increase in children zero to nine exposed to high potency pot products, meaning poisoned by them, ingesting them, going to the hospital. Hospitalizations have risen 200 percent since legalization happened there. The report also found children ages 1 to 13 in 32,800 homes were exposed to second-hand marijuana smoke.

Part of the youth attraction to marijuana is the form it takes. Despite those states’ claims of not allowing child-friendly pot products, pot shops sell products like “Pot Tarts,” “Kush Pop,” and pot-laced gummy bears and candy bars, along with vaping devices.

Edible and drinkable marijuana products are becoming the direction the marijuana industry is going, which is disturbing given their appeal to children, said Luke Niforatos of Smart Approaches of Marijuana, an anti-marijuana legalization group.
Edible and drinkable marijuana products are becoming the direction the marijuana industry is going, which is disturbing given their appeal to children, said Luke Niforatos of Smart Approaches of Marijuana, an anti-marijuana legalization group.

“How many people think this is for 21 and up?” he said, pointing to a picture featuring pot-laced candy and soda. “This is where the industry is going.”

Pennsylvania Family Institute President Michael Geer, who led the discussion, said his group typically doesn’t delve into this issue but it doesn’t intend to stay quiet as the support for legalizing pot in Pennsylvania is no longer a sleeper issue.

“This was not something we thought, ‘oh good another fight’ but just hearing these stats and seeing the impact on families and children and parents and society, we don’t think we can sit on the sidelines with this,” Geer told the audience. “We’re building a coalition. We want to work with any of you and all of you.”

There’s money to be made

The industry has attracted the attention of tobacco, beer, and pharmaceutical companies looking to cash in on the lucrative marijuana market.

“The industry is making billions of dollars. What do you do if you are a billion-dollar industry? You hire the best lobbyists and you go to the Hill and get self-serving regulations. That’s exactly what’s going on in Colorado and elsewhere,” Niforatos said.

He noted the state of Washington last year tried to curb the sale of pot-laced gummy bears but legislation ran into opposition in the eleventh-hour from the marijuana lobby, stopping that bill in its tracks. Attempts to cap THC levels in pot products failed in Colorado as did efforts to limit the location and number of stores.

Joe Peters, a former state and federal drug prosecutor, who also was a presenter at the session, said seeing the results of Colorado’s experience should serve as enough of a deterrent to Pennsylvania.

He said, “With this opioid and fentanyl crisis killing 70,000 people a year, 13 people a day in this state, why in the world would we want to layer on another drug problem.”

He said he has evolved to accept legalization of medical marijuana but that’s where it stops with him.

Despite the libertarian in him and not liking to have the government tell him what to do, Peters said sometimes sacrificing that libertarianism is necessary.

“There is a line,” he said. “If there is a line where we know way more harm than good is going to come of something, then even with that little libertarianism in all of us we have to do something good as a community and as a society.”

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