I live in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, and I am high, but wait. I mean that my house is 8,000 feet above sea level, not that I am giddily under the influence of marijuana legally purchased as a result of a historic development that could someday cause a teenager to think his TV is sending him secret messages.
What I am talking about is Colorado becoming the first state in the country to allow the selling of recreational pot without threat of criminal proceedings or the laughable excuse that it is for medicinal purposes only.
The commercial fest got underway Jan. 1. People gathered early at 37 licensed stores, the lines were long, the waits were as much as five hours, the purchasers came from as far as Ohio, the prices were wallet-shredding, the first day’s take was $1 million and the first year’s take is expected to be $258 million.
All this was made possible by a 2012 constitutional amendment passed with 55 percent of the vote. The venture is intensely regulated and heavily taxed. Purchasers have to be 21 or older. They can buy no more than an ounce. They cannot consume in public. They cannot transport the drug across state lines. Although federal law still prohibits pot use, the Obama administration has said it will mostly look the other way.
It’s thought Colorado is a gateway state and others will follow suit. The state of Washington is set to go next year.
The justifications? There are a number. One is that this country’s war on drugs has imprisoned people for minor infractions and has helped generate and sustain drug-dealing crime of a frightening, bloody reach. Another is that we Americans should have the freedom to do what we like as long as we aren’t hurting others; after all, it is argued, alcohol is legal. Still another point is that the economy and government coffers will be pleasantly blessed.
Our incarceration rate — the highest in the world — is indeed a horror, and rehab is a better answer to drug abuse than jail. But marijuana use is no longer treated a fraction as harshly as once upon a time — sometimes all you get is the equivalent of a parking ticket — and such powerfully punishing drugs as cocaine, heroin and meth are still illegal everywhere in this land. They and some of their cousins are surely enough to keep the criminal drug biz busy.
Liberty in the pursuit of pleasure seems to appeal to a wider ideological swath than freedom from too much government generally, but that’s not the end of the world even if the comparison to alcohol is the end of careful thinking. Booze is much more embedded in our culture than pot, meaning its prohibition was a much bigger deal than marijuana’s. Booze also kills something like 75,000 Americans a year through disease, violence and accidents, meaning we do not need more of that.
But, it’s said, marijuana doesn’t hurt anyone. There are arguments all over the lot on this, but yes, it does, and yes, pot businesses are going to make a mint in Colorado even as competition drives prices down and the drug is likely used to an extent never before imagined. One of the worst possible consequences, if increasing amounts illegally get in the hands of teenagers, is that their IQ development will be thwarted and their chances of psychosis immensely aggravated. One writer says an example of the disorder is believing a TV is forwarding secret messages.
My message is that other states should watch Colorado carefully for a number of years before experimenting themselves with the lives of their children.
(Jay Ambrose is the former director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers, and was editor of The Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the El Paso-Herald Post.)