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Colorado officials broadcast an inconsistent message on legal marijuana measures



Suthers is among the discouragers. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Suthers is among the discouragers.

'As goes Colorado, so goes the rest of the nation," is an oft-uttered truism heard from stakeholders in the state's burgeoning marijuana industry. Indeed all eyes are on Colorado — the lab rat in this experiment that is legalization — especially as nine other states consider cannabis-related ballot measures over the coming weeks.

Policymakers, regulators and industry leaders have played gracious mentor to visiting counterparts eager to learn the ins and outs of our pioneering (and pretty darn complex) regulatory system since 2014, when the recreational side of the industry got off the ground. Now, two years in, there's more information available and lessons learned for the rest of the country to glean.

Last week, back-to-back conferences in Denver — one on sustainability and one on management — brought in hundreds of out-of-staters to learn about commercialized marijuana. The three-day agenda included facility tours, presentations by city and state officials, breakout sessions on public health and safety, compliance, education and all else related to recreational cannabis.

The Cannabist reports that since 2014, delegations from 25 states and 10 countries have visited to take stock of how legalization is going here and consider what they might try to implement themselves, but interest is especially intense now because of the policy changes other states are poised to make. Even Gov. John Hickenlooper, who once called the passage of Amendment 64 "a mistake," has changed his tune, saying, "It's beginning to look like it might work" at a public policy panel in California this summer.

But if this state is a well-studied lab rat, it seems to be one with a split personality. Because while the frenzy of self-promotion goes on in Denver, other prominent Coloradans are broadcasting a less-than-rosy image to the rest of the country. In addition to former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and former Gov. Bill Owens, our own Mayor John Suthers has made a point of speaking out against initiatives to legalize marijuana outside Colorado's borders.

Last month Suthers traveled to Arizona (on a private citizen's dime) to appear at a press conference hosted by a group opposing Proposition 205, a general election ballot question that would bring recreational marijuana to that state. With the Fallen Officers Memorial at the Arizona Department of Public Safety as backdrop, Mayor Suthers warned that Colorado is "suffering from a host of negative consequences" stemming from legalization.

He specified some of those consequences, like more teens smoking weed, more people living on the streets and more marijuana-related DUIs, that are either simply untrue, not directly caused by the legalization of recreational pot or a simplification of a more complicated reality. For example, the latest Healthy Kids Colorado survey, conducted biannually by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, released in 2015, found that 21.2 percent of high schoolers reported using marijuana in the last month, up from 19.7 in 2013. That increase, which isn't considered statistically significant, is still consistent with the national average of 21.7 percent and, crucially, is actually a dip from pre-legalization statistics showing 24.8 percent of teens reported using marijuana in 2009. So is recreational pot really luring more kids into getting high? The evidence would suggest it is not.

At that press conference, Mayor Suthers urged Arizonans to hold off on making the same move Colorado did, though he acknowledged that most Coloradans disagree with him that legalization was a big mistake. Indeed, a poll released in September found only 36 percent of respondents would vote to overturn Amendment 64 if they had the chance.

"Do I think that the citizens of Colorado would repeal [Amendment 64] tomorrow? Probably not," Suthers said, attributing that to naiveté. "People in law enforcement, people running a city, things like that, they're going to see the neighborhood problems, they're going to see the increase in DUIs, they're going to see the school problems and things like that. A lot of the average citizens are not going to see all that."

So will the "average citizens" in other states heed the warning of a mayor who runs a city where voters popularly approved recreational cannabis only to have their elected representatives decide that opting out is actually best for them? If it goes anything like it did here, the "average citizens" will see that the doomsday crowd is a small but vocal minority and vote accordingly.

And then, of course, Colorado won't be so special anymore.

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