‘Commercialization won out’: Will legal marijuana be the next Big Tobacco?

Chris McGreal
Candi CdeBaca voted to legalize the free sale of marijuana in Colorado four years ago because she thought it would be good for her Denver neighborhood.
The Mexican American youth worker wanted an end to the police targeting of Latino and African American working class communities over drugs. She said cannabis was a problem for her neighborhood of Swansea but illegal dealing also provided one of the few economic opportunities for many of its residents.
Candi CdeBaca voted to legalize the free sale of marijuana in Colorado four years ago because she thought it would be good for her Denver neighborhood.

So CdeBaca hoped that when Colorado became the first state in the nation to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana in 2014 it would not only keep people out of court but open up a legitimate means of earning a living. If there had to be a drug trade, at least Swansea could benefit.

Today she would vote differently.

“We have just swapped one kind of drug dealer for another,” said CdeBaca. “I believed it would positively impact communities of color by decriminalizing it. So watching it unfold has been surprising.”

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As CdeBaca sees it, all legalization has done is open the door to a takeover by corporate interests.

“It’s your typical capitalist who is in our neighborhood now and benefiting from an industry that at one time was our only option,” she said.

The only benefit she sees is a diminishing number of drug arrests, although she notes that minorities are still far more likely to be detained by the police for offenses such as smoking marijuana in public.

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America’s experiment with legalizing marijuana for pleasure is expected to take another leap forward in November when California votes on whether to follow Colorado and three other states – Washington, Oregon and Alaska – in permitting production of the drug for recreational use and its sale to anyone over the age of 21.

Opinion polls show strong support for the measure in California, which would give a hefty boost to similar campaigns in other states and to end the federal prohibition by legalizing recreational marijuana along the entire West Coast.

With 25 states and Washington, D.C., already permitting the sale of medical marijuana, supporters of reform say the momentum is with them. Activists liken the push for legalization to the campaign for same-sex marriage which saw states lay the ground for the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of equality.

Marijuana has rapidly become so normalized in some states that while cigarette and alcohol adverts are banned or restricted, in cities such as Portland, Oregon, large billboards advertising cannabis are common.

This has confounded some opponents who see Colorado’s pioneering of freely available marijuana as a warning to other states. They claim legalization of recreational cannabis is a disaster which has failed to deliver the much promised tax windfall and turned the state into a haven for smugglers. Above all, the critics say, statistics show a sharp rise in drug use by teenagers, in fatal car accidents involving drivers under the influence of cannabis and of hospitals treating overdoses.

“If this was a virus or alcohol, anybody looking at those numbers would be alarmed,” said Tom Gorman director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA), a federal anti-drug program covering four states in the region. “Why are we not alarmed by this?”

Far from being alarmed, opinion polls suggest support for legalization has held up in Colorado where combined sales of recreational and medical cannabis are up by more than 40%, to nearly $1 billion over the past two years.

That has forced opponents to focus on a different target: the corporate interests making millions from cannabis. Anti-marijuana groups are painting them as little better than cigarette companies in their pursuit of profit over health in the hope that will play better with liberal voters.

“The marijuana industry is taking pages out of the tobacco industry’s playbook because the tobacco industry was so clever and made so much money,” said Kevin Sabet, a former Obama administration drug policy adviser who now heads Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

“Joe Camel normalized cigarette smoking especially for young people. The Marlboro man normalized cigarettes for an entire generation. Marijuana wants to follow suit. Normalization is the cornerstone of that.”

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From the day recreational marijuana went on sale in Colorado on New Year’s Day 2014, both sides understood that the long-term success or failure of legalization, and its spread across the country, would in part be a battle of perceptions. Advocates for legalization did not need a dope head with a string of drug convictions as the face of the new freedom. So they chose Sean Azzariti, a Marine Corps veteran with two tours in Iraq behind him, to make history.

Azzariti was ushered to the front of the queue at the 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, past people from as far as Virginia and Ohio, to buy a bag of weed and a marijuana laced truffle.

“I felt bad because there were people who had camped out all night and I just went in,” he said. “It’s something I never thought I would do, especially being in the Marine Corps for six years and it’s very anti-marijuana and anti-drugs. My whole thing is marijuana saved my life.”

Azzariti was there to normalize marijuana. He explained to America via the nightly news that he used cannabis to help him with the post-traumatic stress of Iraq, a condition not covered by medical marijuana laws. Azzariti said legalization “would give veterans safer access to marijuana” and that they shouldn’t face criminal charges for cope with the consequences of combat.

Andrew Freedman, the state’s first director of marijuana coordination, a position in the governor’s office, said characterizing legalization as a civil rights issue was a deciding factor in the 2012 vote in favor of legalization by a public weary of the failed “war on drugs” and prosecutions.

“Within the first year there was an 80% decrease in marijuana related prosecutions,” he said.

Arrest rates were already dropping with decriminalization and growth of the medical marijuana industry but it was still possible to fall afoul of laws on use in public and distribution which could have life-altering consequences.

The new laws in Colorado and Oregon provide relief for people with criminal convictions for what is now legal. In August, Jordan Visarraga applied to have his record expunged with the help of legal volunteers in Portland. Four years ago, Visarraga was 18 and in his last year of high school with offers of football scholarships at three universities when he was arrested for possession of marijuana. Because he was caught with the drugs within 1,000ft of a school, Visarraga was convicted of a felony. It cost him his scholarships.

“I got turned down for countless jobs because of the background check; it made me wonder what I was going to do with my life,” he said. “I’m a second-class citizen compared to other people. I can’t even sign my lease. All my roommates are lying and saying there are four of us and not five. It’s demeaning.”

Visarraga, who is black, is reluctant to say race was a factor in his arrest but said his white friends were rarely stopped and searched for drugs.

Jordan Visarraga applied to have his record expunged of a felony conviction for possession of marijuana.© Provided by Guardian News Jordan Visarraga applied to have his record expunged of a felony conviction for possession of marijuana.

Amber Rogers and her husband, Brian, who were busted for illegally growing marijuana 14 years ago, also applied to have their records expunged in Oregon.

“They put us both in jail. I was pregnant,” she said.

As a convicted felon, Rogers could not volunteer at her daughter’s school or get a mortgage. Last year she lost her job as a bar manager when the Oregon lottery demanded criminal background checks on staff because the establishment had video poker.

“It has taken away our gun rights. I would say that is probably the biggest thing. At the time of the conviction I was a rifle hunter. We try not to eat a lot of store-bought meat because of the hormones and antibiotics. My sister now owns all 14 of my guns,” she said.

Amber Rogers’ husband Brian having his fingerprints taken for his application to expunge his criminal record for growing marijuana.© Provided by Guardian News Amber Rogers’ husband Brian having his fingerprints taken for his application to expunge his criminal record for growing marijuana.

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With sympathetic stories like these, opponents of marijuana have been forced to find persuasive arguments against legalization. . Many put the risk of teenagers becoming hooked at the center of their campaign. Colorado’s health department says that use among young people has actually fallen. The RMHIDTA says otherwise and claims a sharp rise in drug-related suspensions and expulsions from Colorado schools.

But the line of attack that many have latched on to is the unregulated home growing of medical and recreational marijuana.

Freeman admits there are lessons to be learned from the Colorado experience. “People can grow up to 99 plants in their basements. Criminals are traveling to Colorado to do that and sell it for $5,000 a pound in other parts of the country,” he said.

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High-quality Colorado marijuana sells for at a premium in other parts of the country and the number of smuggling busts has risen six fold. The attorney generals of neighboring Nebraska and Oklahoma tried and failed to sue Colorado over what they describe as a flood of marijuana across over their borders. The U.S. Postal Service has seen a surge in parcels from Colorado discovered to contain cannabis. Colorado police raided a network of houses last year where they seized 45 guns, hundreds of cannabis plants and 100 pounds of harvested marijuana destined for Chicago and Florida.

Freedman also acknowledges that the much touted promise that legalization would bring in a surge in tax revenues to fund schools and roads is a “red herring.”

“There was an overestimation of what can be done with ‘sin taxes’. I think people get pretty wide eyed when they see the numbers come across the screen. We got somewhere around $130 million last year. You have to remember that in total Colorado has a $27 billion budget. A lot of people expected us to be able to pave roads and pay teachers and that is not the case,” he said.

Gorman puts it more bluntly.

“No new schools or roads have been built with marijuana tax revenues in Colorado,” he said.

To Gorman and other opponents all this amounts to a solid case for declaring cannabis legalization a failure and to warn off other states. But the criticisms appear to have made little impact on how voters feel. So opponents have reframed their case to focus on the financial interests behind legalization.

Sabet describes the industry as dominated by a corporate “marijuana lobby” little better than Big Tobacco in its drive to spread use of the drug.

“Commercialization has won out and any notion of responsible regulation has been substituted for private profit,” he said. “The ‘Big Marijuana’ issue is something that’s come into vogue recently but I don’t think the emphasis on kids has gone away. We’re concerned about a big industry because they target children in Colorado and Washington very successfully with their candies and other products that they advertise. It’s all really connected.”

Opponents of legalized marijuana said the hand of commercial interests was revealed in Ohio last year when voters rejected a legalization measure that required marijuana be grown at only 10 sites, all of which were controlled by the same people who bankrolled the campaign with $20 million.

Sabet admits opponents face an uphill struggle.

“I’m not a Pollyanna. We are up against a massive industry with seemingly endless amounts of money. Silicon Valley and Wall Street,” he said. “We are the underdog. I’ll wear that badge proudly. But this is a long game even if in the short term we are seduced by the promise of tax revenue and social justice.”

Sabet is pinning his hopes on what he calls the “counterrevolution” being led by a county 100 miles south of Denver. Some residents of Pueblo County are so disturbed by the impact of legalization on their community they have put a measure on November’s ballot to impose a local ban on sales, although not use.

“In Pueblo County we have 20 licensed retail marijuana stores. That’s more than all the McDonald’s, Starbucks and Walmart stores in our entire county,” said Paula McPheeters, one of the organizers of the initiative and a community college budget manager. “I’ve begun to see homeless people showing up that I’ve never seen before. And when I say homeless I don’t mean like a down and out typical guy in his 60s type of homeless person. I mean young people in their 20s. And I don’t mean one or two, I mean groups of them. I see them hitchhiking on Highway 50. They’re panhandling at our stores. It’s really sad because I’ve seen families, I’ve seen couples with babies. This cannot be a good sign of what’s to come.”

A medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles. California will vote to legalize recreational marijuana use in November.© Provided by Guardian News A medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles. California will vote to legalize recreational marijuana use in November.

Charities report a surge in demand from homeless people, many from other states who tell volunteers they came to Colorado to use marijuana or find jobs in the industry. A local shelter, Posada, said demand is up nearly 50% with “many families and individuals relocating to Pueblo for legal marijuana” as well as social benefits. Pueblo police report have arrested people from as far away as Russia and Argentina, and a large group from Florida, for growing cannabis to ship it out of state.

Three Pueblo hospitals are backing the vote against cannabis. One is concerned at a rise in newborns testing positive for the drug. Another said it has seen a 50% increase in teenagers at the emergency room because of marijuana-related conditions.

“31% of our high school students in Pueblo County using is not good,” said McPheeters.

Like many parents, she cautions her two sons, aged seven and 14, to be careful what they eat at school out of fear of cookies and sweets laced with cannabis.

“I’m not going to raise my kids to be afraid. I’m going to raise them to be aware. But the reality is they’re going to face this in every school they’re in. It’s everywhere,” she said.

The marijuana industry is pushing back. It tried and failed in court to block the Pueblo ballot measure and it is unclear how the vote will go in November. A Pueblo County commissioner, Sal Pace, is an outspoken supporter of an industry he said has created more than 1,300 jobs in the county, brought in $4 million in tax revenues to help fund college scholarships and is financing the nation’s first cannabis research center in Pueblo.

“Pueblo’s been in a sustained recession for about 30 years,” said Pace. “We’re an old steel town and the steel industry crashed. Closing those cultivations down will have zero impact on personal use in Pueblo which the prohibitionists say is the problem. All they’re doing is taking the regulated industry, which bring jobs and taxes, and sending those jobs and taxes to neighboring communities or more likely to the black market.

“Folks are going to use cannabis whether it’s legal and regulated, licensed, or not. We’re seeing a huge impact in our economy, in construction, in investment, in research. I think for the large part the impact has been 100% positive.”

That is not how CdeBaca sees it.

When recreational cannabis was legalized, Denver law required commercial growers to move into areas zoned for industry. Those happened to be in some of the poorest parts of town dotted with empty warehouses, relics of lost manufacturing.

“I don’t think anywhere in the world, not even in Amsterdam, do they do concentration of grow facilities in this way,” she said. “I know they’re trying to make the marijuana industry normal but what we have to live with, what’s happening to us, that’s not normal.”

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