Watching the legal pot experiment

Changes in public policy toward the use of marijuana are taking place with amazing speed, too fast, perhaps, to appreciate the full implications of these changes. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of medical marijuana, 16 states have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of the plant material, making it akin to a traffic ticket. Nine states have done both, including Connecticut.

Then yesterday Colorado became the first state to make the sale and purchase of marijuana for recreational use fully legal, regulated and taxed. Colorado adults, 21 and older, are able to purchase up to an ounce, visitors from out of state one-quarter of an ounce. While Colorado residents can legally grow a few pot plants, most are expected to purchase their grass from liquor-store like outlets offering various strains of marijuana with differing potency and purported effects.

Voters in Colorado and Washington state approved ballot initiatives in November 2012 calling for marijuana legalization, but it has taken time for these states to create the regulatory and taxing policies to implement it. Expect legal sales of marijuana to begin in Washington this coming summer.

This newspaper editorially supported making marijuana available for medicinal use and decriminalizing possession of small amounts. We saw no justification for denying pain relief and improved quality of life for people who were not benefitting from the use of available pharmaceuticals. And it was poor public policy to tie up the justice system - and damage reputations (and career options) of otherwise law-abiding citizens - by criminally prosecuting recreational use.

Legalization, however, takes things to an entirely different level and this newspaper, as we suspect much of the nation, will be closely watching the experiments with legalization in Colorado and Washington.

The advantages of bringing the widely used natural drug into the legal light of day are many. It undermines criminal elements that benefit from illegal, tax-free sales. Legal sales generate tax revenues and create jobs. Regulation of legal marijuana reduces the chances of the product being tainted with other substances or contaminated by herbicides and pesticides.

Then there is the issue of free choice and fairness. Alcohol, a more dangerous intoxicant when abused, is legal - so why should those who choose marijuana to get high be labeled criminals?

However, it is na´ve to suggest pot is benign and legalization without potential problems. Legalization removes a stigma associated with marijuana use, likely encouraging more use and abuse. The Colorado law is written to allow use of the drug on private property, with the owner's permission, and includes penalties for use in public places. Given human nature, expect many to ignore this provision. Whether that becomes a problem is difficult to say at this point.

Surveys already suggest that the easing of restrictions on marijuana is sending the signal to teens that the drug is OK. Pot use by teens can lead to a lack of motivation, poor grades and bad choices. One question is whether more pot will trickle down to teen users in a state with legalization.

Then there is this; the sale and possession of marijuana remains a serious federal crime. The Obama administration has said it will not interfere in states that legalize marijuana. That could change. For example, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, considered a likely Republican candidate for president, has criticized the administration's non-enforcement stance.

At this point there is little support in Congress for changing federal law to allow states to decide marijuana policy. That could also change if legalization proves a largely positive experience. In the meantime, expect more ballot initiatives for legalization to follow, possibly in California, Massachusetts, Oregon, Alaska and Arizona.

The Connecticut General Assembly - the state has no direct ballot initiative - will not be acting anytime soon. That's just fine. Let us see how this grand experiment plays out.

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