Why US can’t ignore Colorado’s pot ‘experiment’

Evidence keeps rolling in that the Rocky Mountain state’s marijuana legalization, in clear violation of federal drug laws, has negative spillovers. If federal officials won’t act, other states should take heed of legal weed.

AP Photo
Employees tends to marijuana plants at a grow house in Denver. According to law enforcement officials, Colorado’s legal marijuana marketplace is in some cases serving as cover for a host of illegal drug traffickers who hide their product among the state’s many legal growing operations, then covertly ship it elsewhere and pocket millions of dollars from its sale.

Since 2014, President Obama has watched Colorado’s so-called “experiment” with legal use of marijuana by adults. His Justice Department told US prosecutors not to enforce federal laws – laws that regard pot as harmful and illegal – unless two things happen: Either individual users violate a state’s own pot laws (especially children) or a state becomes a major exporter of pot.

Now the evidence for federal action is getting hard to ignore.

An investigation by Associated Press finds criminal cartels akin to those in Mexico are growing weed among Colorado’s sanctioned pot warehouses and farms and then shipping the product wholesale to other states, “pocketing millions of dollars from the sale.” The trafficking is so easy that many exporters simply mail the stuff. In the first year of legalization, seizures of Colorado pot by the Postal Service were about 470 pounds, up from 57 pounds in 2010. Colorado’s United States Attorney John Walsh admitted to AP that “there’s a lot more of this activity than there was two years ago.”

And in December, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration revealed evidence that minors in Colorado lead the nation in monthly marijuana use. As pot use among teens nationwide has declined, it may be going up in the Rocky Mountain state.

Despite these trends, the White House announced last week that Mr. Obama would not be taking action on marijuana during his last year in office. This does not mean, however, that there will be no federal action in 2016. The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on whether Nebraska and Oklahoma can take their neighboring state to court for operating “a massive criminal enterprise” that encourages the illegal transport of pot across state lines.

Both states cite a sharp jump in felonies related to marijuana trafficking that is spilling over from Colorado. Attorney General Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma says that if Colorado’s regulatory promotion of commercial pot were located “south of the border,” the federal government would be prosecuting it as a drug cartel.

Despite such concerns by the two states, the Justice Department filed a brief with the Supreme Court arguing that it should not take the case brought by Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Fortunately, the presidential campaign debate has taken up drug use in general, mainly because voters in New Hampshire demand help against a sharp rise in the use of heroin and other opiates. The candidates are divided, however, on pot legalization. Democrat Bernie Sanders, for example, would remove federal restrictions on marijuana while Republican Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, is firm against moves by states toward legalization.

Colorado is far ahead in its pot use compared to legalization in Washington State, Alaska, and the District of Columbia. Before Colorado is allowed to further harm other states or its own teens by this “experiment,” some sort of national action is needed.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.