Marijuana’s march toward mainstream confounds feds

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As Colorado and Washington state press on, California’s experience with medical marijuana offers a window into potential pitfalls that can come with wider availability of pot.

Dispensaries for medical marijuana have proliferated in the state. Regulation has been lax, leading some overwhelmed communities to complain about too-easy access from illegal storefront pot shops and related problems such as loitering and unsavory characters. That prompted cities around the state to say enough already and ban dispensaries. Pot advocates sued.

In May, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that cities and counties can ban medical marijuana dispensaries. A few weeks later, Los Angeles voters approved a ballot measure that limits the number of pot shops in the city to 135, down from an estimated high of about 1,000. By contrast, whitepages.com lists 112 Starbucks in the city.

This isn’t full-scale buyer’s remorse, but more a course correction before the inevitable next push to full-on legalization in the state.

Baker Montgomery, a member of the Eagle Rock neighborhood council in Los Angeles, where pot shops were prevalent, said May’s vote to limit the number of shops was all about ridding the city of illicit dispensaries.

“They’re just not following what small amounts of rules there are on the books,” Montgomery said.

In 2010, California voters opted against legalizing marijuana for recreational use, drawing the line at medical use.

But Jeffrey Dunn, a Southern California attorney who represented cities in the Supreme Court case, says that in reality the state’s dispensaries have been operating so loosely that already “it’s really all-access.”

At the Venice Beach Care Center, one of the dispensaries that will be allowed to stay open in Los Angeles, founding director Brennan Thicke believes there still is widespread support for medical marijuana in California. But he says the state isn’t ready for more just yet.

“We have to get (medical) right first,” Thicke said.

Dunn doubts that’s possible.

“What we’ve learned is, it is very difficult if not impossible to regulate these facilities,” he said.

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Other states, Colorado among them, have had their own bumps in the road with medical marijuana.

A Denver-area hospital, for example, saw children getting sick after eating treats and other foods made with marijuana in the two years after a 2009 federal policy change led to a surge in medical marijuana use, according to a study in JAMA Pediatrics in May. In the preceding four years, the hospital had no such cases.

The Colorado Education Department reported a sharp rise in drug-related suspensions and expulsions after medical marijuana took off. An audit of the state’s medical marijuana system found the state had failed to adequately track the growth and distribution of pot or to fully check out the backgrounds of pot dealers.

“What we’re doing is not working,” says Dr. Christian Thurstone, a psychiatrist whose Denver youth substance abuse treatment center has seen referrals for marijuana double since September. In addition, he sees young people becoming increasingly reluctant to be treated, arguing that it can’t be bad for them if it’s legal.

Yet Daniel Rees, a researcher at the University of Colorado Denver, analyzed data from 16 states that have approved medical marijuana and found no evidence that legalization had increased pot use among high school students.

In looking at young people, Rees concludes: “Should we be worried that marijuana use nationally is going up? Yes. Is legalization of medical marijuana the culprit? No.”

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Growing support for legalization doesn’t mean everybody wants to light up: Barely one in 10 Americans used pot in the past year.

Those who do want to see marijuana legalized range from libertarians who oppose much government intervention to people who want to see an activist government aggressively regulate marijuana production and sales.

Safer-than-alcohol was “the message that won the day” with voters in Colorado, says Tvert.

For others, money talks: Why let drug cartels rake in untaxed profits when a cut of that money could go into government coffers?

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