Opinion: Regulating pot: Time to put public health and safety first

By Dr. Christian Thurstone

Because Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed me to serve on a task force charged with recommending to the state legislature how to implement a constitutional amendment making recreational marijuana use legal in this state, I have become more aware of potential harms to public health and safety that Coloradans should know about.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not hidden my thoughts about marijuana legalization. It is wrong not only for the health and well-being of Colorado, but for our nation and I have every reason to believe many people will learn this the very hard way.

I am working to help other states understand the myriad mistakes Colorado has made and is on track to make through my work on the board of a new national organization, called Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). That group seeks, in part, to help Americans understand the dangers of marijuana use, and that they can reform marijuana laws sensibly without legalizing the drug, which drives more of our nations youth into addiction treatment than any other substance.

The disconnection between what science has told us about marijuana and what the burgeoning but highly funded and organized marijuana industry trumpets is painfully obvious in Colorado, where debates are far more focused on money than on matters of public health and safety. When members of the governors task force ranked eight primary principles on which our deliberations are to be focused, Be responsive to consumer needs and issues was placed second only to Developing guidance for certain relationships, such as employer/employee Last on the list? Promote the health, safety and well-being of Colorado youth. What else ranked lower on the list than consumer needs? This principle: Ensure our streets, schools and communities remain safe.

The public needs more education and information immediately. I remain unconvinced that many Coloradans who voted in favor of Amendment 64 fully understood what they were supporting. Though my evidence is anecdotal, it is significant. For example, last week, I participated in a professional meeting where a Denver city official explained that an informal poll revealed Denverites want fewer marijuana shops, not more. Residents will be very surprised by what Amendment 64 unleashes unless the Denver City Council steps in to ban retail shops and other pot-related events and entities as other Colorado cities have.

Then there are dozens, maybe even hundreds, of Coloradans who have told me they had no idea the amendment would:

  • permit the pot clubs that already are springing up.
  • usher into Colorado the pot tourism much like what the Dutch city of Amsterdam is now trying to rid itself. The marijuana industry in this state already is lobbying hard against a residency requirement that would limit the drugs sale only to Coloradans.
  • allow for marijuana concentrates which means theres really no THC limit on the potency of marijuana and marijuana-infused foods and drinks, also called edibles, that could be sold in Colorado.
  • allows for a 1 oz. marijuana-possession limit that feasibly translates into hundreds yes, hundreds of THC-infused candies, cookies and other edibles. In other words, there really is no possession limit either.

And thats just for starters. I hope scientific polling of the states residents will begin in earnest because I strongly suspect many of them will say they wanted Coloradans age 21 and over to have the right to use marijuana in small amounts, in privacy (and in strictly private environments) and without fear of prosecution.

I think many voters supporting Amendment 64 believed they were supporting far more stringent regulation that would clean up the mess they have come to know as medical marijuana. I think many voters thought the amendment would result in more rigorous analysis and inspection of the content of marijuana-infused foods and drinks.

Amendment 64 pretty much gives the state the opposite of all of those things.

As an addictions scientist and treatment provider, I am especially troubled that this cleverly worded amendment makes it very hard, if not impossible, for the public to control the THC content of marijuana and the potency of foods and drinks infused with it. Because Colorado already essentially has lost control of this aspect of marijuana legalization (the state legislature will not be able to change these allowances now carved into the Colorado constitution), it is vitally important for this state to devise a regulatory framework that protects public health and safety and puts it far ahead of financial and political interests.

It is just as important for the federal government to act in the interests of the rest of the country because responsible drug policy is national policy, not policy decided for the nation by one or two states (and certainly not policy decided in the rushed manner and timeline Colorado is forced to honor again because of Amendment 64s clever wording). I join many other organizations, including the Colorado chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, in calling on President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and other federal officials to enforce federal law, put an end to these slapdash state initiatives and engage the country in a reasonable and far more informed national discussion about marijuana use and the enforcement of marijuana-related laws.

Lets put public health and safety first this time. Lets put taxpayers interests ahead of private business owners interests. If our nation truly wants to launch another industry peddling another addictive substance for recreational use, we must not repeat the mistakes we have made with Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol whose products are responsible for our nations No. 1 and No. 3 causes of preventable death, respectively.

Unfortunately, the regulatory frameworks presented to the governors task force so far dont reflect much concern for Colorados health and safety, much less the nations. One regulatory framework loosely referred to as the open model is essentially a free-for-all that could, feasibly, allow marijuana to be sold in convenience stores and encourage tobacco behemoths champing at the bit to dive into the marijuana business to set up shop in the Rocky Mountain state.

Because the governors task force on marijuana regulation has been asked to consider one of the loosest regulatory frameworks imaginable, I decided to try to identify a far more conservative framework which has led me to question a model that is either partly or fully controlled by the State of Colorado.

Yes, state control a model that has scientific merit, at least where alcohol regulation is concerned. Marijuana-legalization advocates insist regulation works, and they say weed needs to be regulated like alcohol, right? After researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control examined 37 state-run models in the United States and other countries, they concluded in a peer-reviewed paper published in 2012 in the American Journal of Prevention Medicine that government control of off-premises sale of alcoholic beverages is one of many effective strategies to prevent or reduce excessive consumption.

In other words, as destructive as marijuana use is, directly involving the state in marijuana production and/or sale might reduce some harms to public health and safety. If people want to live with marijuana legalization, they also should consider a regulatory framework that stands to serve in the states financial interests and protect the greatest number of people. They should demand that their elected officials give it serious consideration. At this point, I am not calling for a state-run model. I only am calling for more research and thoughtful analysis of a state-controlled framework which could assume many forms.

Colorados privatized medical marijuana industry already has failed miserably. A state-run system at least stands to be a far more responsible approach. If were going to do something unwise, lets at least do it in a manner that could protect the health and safety of the most people and the financial interests of taxpayers.

Lets be honest. We need more research.

So far, some members of the governors task force have dismissed the idea of state control and before a state-run model even has been defined and studied. This is unwise especially if we care about public health and safety.

Remember: every regulatory scheme presented for consideration is outside the bounds of federal law so state control also deserves full and fair review, especially when science tells us it stands to be better for public health and safety than any of the other (also federally illegal) models Colorado legislators will be asked to debate and decide.

During its Feb. 14 meeting, the Regulatory Framework Working Group, a committee of the task force, crafted an explanation for its rejection of a state-run model which came with little to no formal study of the idea. I invite you to read the full explanation, found on page 12.

I remain unconvinced that the amendments language expressly prohibits the state from commercial activity and I know some lawyers who have examined this matter are as well.

However, below is the passage that caught my eye because it brightly underscores the degree to which people are hard at work to create an industry that not only operates outside the bounds of federal law, but also operates in a manner that encourages the federal government to continue overlooking what is happening here.

As an additional matter, we note that adopting a regulatory model which called for state-run retail stores would raise serious federalism concerns. Under such a model, the state would be actively violating federal law rather than merely licensing others to do so. Such open defiance of the Controlled Substances Act might be seen by the federal government as an intolerable obstacle to the enforcement of federal law and could lead to a suit to enjoin such conduct. A state-run distribution system is thus far more antagonistic to the federal government than one in which the state merely licenses private conduct and should be rejected for that reason as well.

Even if something is politically inexpedient and inconvenient, I support doing the right thing.

Dr. Christian Thurstone is a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Denver who specializes in addictions. He is medicaldirector of one of Colorados largest youth substance-abuse-treatment clinics and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Denver, where he conducts research on youth substance use and addiction. An extended version of this op-ed appeared on his website at www.Dr.Thurstone.com.

Opinions communicated in Solutions represent the view of individual authors, and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system.