Here’s what to watch during the pot experiment

The New York TimesJanuary 11, 2014 

On New Year’s Day, government-licensed recreational marijuana shops opened in Colorado, the first place in the world to regulate the drug “from seed to sale.” Later in 2014, marijuana retailers will open in Washington state. As public opinion shifts away from prohibition, these two states will serve as test cases for full-on legalization. Here’s what to watch for:

The fate of the black market: One of the basic arguments in favor of legalization is that it could eliminate the black market and create new tax revenue. But it’s not clear how quickly and to what extent this will actually happen. Marijuana sold at retail shops that pay taxes may well cost more than illegal marijuana, potentially keeping off-the-books dealers in business.

Underage smoking: When the Justice Department announced in August that it would not sue to block state laws legalizing marijuana, James Cole, the deputy attorney general, emphasized that local governments must employ “strong and effective regulatory” systems. To avoid federal intervention, states will have to prove that they’re capable of enforcing bans on selling the drug to anyone under 21. Roughly 36 percent of 12th-graders reported having used marijuana in 2013. From a public-health standpoint, it will be important to monitor whether youth usage rates in Colorado and Washington diverge from those in other states.

Marketing: Washington banned marijuana ads near schools, libraries and playgrounds. In Colorado, marijuana vendors may run ads in print media only if there is “reliable evidence” that no more than 30 percent of the readership is under 21. But these policies may not be sufficient to satisfy the Justice Department, which said that it might step in if it saw marijuana “marketed in a manner to appeal to minors.”

Interstate trafficking: To stem the flow of marijuana across state lines, Colorado has imposed different rules on residents and visitors. Residents may buy up to an ounce per transaction but visitors only a quarter-ounce. Visitors are supposed to consume their purchases before returning home. But cross-border trafficking may increase, especially if the price of marijuana in Colorado drops below the price in, say, neighboring Wyoming.

Alcohol consumption: A big question is whether the widespread availability of marijuana will lead to decreased alcohol consumption, which recent research suggests might happen. That would be a boon for public health. (Heavy drinking is more harmful than heavy pot smoking, and costlier to society.) But if the use of one substance encourages use of the other, the consequences might be dire, particularly for road safety. It is more dangerous to drive after combining marijuana and alcohol than after using either alone.

The New York Times

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