Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

As Missouri implements medical marijuana laws, there should be no rush to legalize recreational use

Associated Press

Sometimes I smell it while walking along the Mississippi river. A group of kids, perched on rocks away from the trail, a skunky aroma lingering near them. It's the tell-tale smell of marijuana. In San Francisco, when I've traveled there, the odor permeates the streets, creating a strange melange of beautiful vistas and cat piss air. Indeed, a quick search online for "What does marijuana smell like," results in descriptions -- and names of various strains of pot -- that might cause a sailor to wrinkle his nose. Or blush.

Throughout Missouri, city governments have been deliberating how far medical marijuana dispensaries must be located from daycares, schools and churches. Such shops are portrayed as pristine and carefully regulated. But everyone knows, medical marijuana is intended by many as a step to legalizing recreational use. Marijuana is unlikely to stay confined.

Last week, the state of Illinois became the eleventh in the nation to do just that, expanding from medical to recreational use, with new Gov. J.B. Pritzker fulfilling a top campaign promise to legalize the drug. Under the legislation, more than 800,000 people with criminal records for purchasing or possessing marijuana previously may have their records expunged.

Signing the legislation, Pritzker announced, "The war on cannabis has destroyed families, filled prisons with nonviolent offenders, and disproportionately disrupted black and brown communities. Law enforcement across the nation has spent billions of dollars to enforce the criminalization of cannabis, yet its consumption remains widespread."

The argument is: Legalization will be a boon to all, lowering crime, helping public health, while adding to state tax coffers.

The evidence, however, is not so clear, and in a story over the weekend, "Reefer Madness or Pot Paradise? The Surprising Legacy of the Place Where Legal Weed Began," the New York Times looked at Colorado, the first state to legalize marijuana.

The article seeks to provide a balanced perspective. But most of the positives revolve around tax money -- or that surveys indicate youth smoking numbers have not climbed (while providing anecdotes suggesting otherwise). Or that no one has died in an emergency room from an overdose. Above all, the biggest "positive" is that it's just become "normal," and thousands of people are buying the drug without problem.

As for negative repercussions, the story underlined many. More about those later.

This week, we celebrate Independence Day, and one of the strengths of our nation has been for states to be "laboratories of democracy," a term popularized by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1932, who wrote about the benefits of federalism, where a "state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country."

It is a concept under challenge as national politicians regularly seek to force social change from the top down. But it is also under challenge through neglect, by people -- voters -- not paying attention to experiments in other states. In every change, someone has a vested interest. Separating fact from promotion is vital.

Medical marijuana is coming to Missouri, approved overwhelmingly by the electorate. But before the state rushes down the path of legalizing recreational use, it would be good to understand what's taking place elsewhere. The utopia is nowhere to be found, certainly not in Colorado. We'll learn -- over the next few years -- about the impact on Illinois. And I'll pray for those crossing the Cape Girardeau bridge on their way back from buying recreational packages in Illinois to realize that driving after marijuana use is dangerous -- not only to themselves.

Here are some excerpts from the story in the Times, written by Jack Healy:

DENVER -- Serenity Christensen, 14, is too young to set foot in one of Colorado's many marijuana shops, but she was able to spot a business opportunity in legal weed. She is a Girl Scout, and this year, she and her mother decided to sell their cookies outside a dispensary. "Good business," Serenity said.

But on the other side of Denver, legalization has turned another high school student, David Perez, against the warehouselike marijuana cultivations now clustered around his neighborhood. He said their skunky aroma often smacks him in the face when he walks out his front door.

These are the ripples of five years of legal marijuana. Colorado's first-in-the-nation experiment has reshaped health, politics, rural culture and criminal justice in surprising ways ... giving a glimpse of what the future may hold as more and more states adopt and debate full legalization.

Since recreational sales began in 2014, more people here are visiting emergency rooms for marijuana-related problems, and hospitals report higher rates of mental-health cases tied to marijuana. At the same time, thousands of others make uneventful stops at dispensaries every day, like the hiking guide in the college town of Boulder who now keeps a few marijuana gummies in a locked bag to help her relax before bed.

Some families rattled by their children's marijuana problems have moved, seeking refuge in less permissive states. ...

"You don't see drug-addled people roaming the streets, but we haven't created a utopia," said Jonathan Singer, who was one of just two state legislators who endorsed the Colorado ballot measure... .

This is the world reconfigured by legalization -- the world that 18-year-old Ethan Pierson grew up in. ...

"If you live in Colorado, it feels like somebody's always smoking next to you," said Mr. Pierson, who abstains. ...

Five years in, surveys show that most Colorado teenagers are like Mr. Pierson: They may have tried it, but 80 percent are not current marijuana users. ...

But Mr. Pierson and other students and parents said legalization had changed marijuana's image and availability.

Older siblings or even parents can now buy it legally and pass it along. Classmates take Snapchat videos of one another smoking on the edges of school. Instead of dime bags, there is now a buffet of concentrates, tinctures and edibles -- still illegal for young people, but easy to come by.

"It's easy to conceal," Mr. Pierson said. "They carry it around in their purse or pencil bag."

Some school administrators say they are catching more students using marijuana and fewer drinking. School disciplinary numbers show that marijuana is a leading reason students are punished or handed over to the police. ...

'Nothing is Completely Safe'

The numbers seem clear: Nearly twice as many Coloradans smoke pot as the rest of America. The number of adults who use has edged up since legalization. ...

Hospital data analyzed by Dr. [Andrew] Monte and others indicate that more people are arriving at emergency rooms for marijuana-related reasons. He has treated many of them. Some are heavy marijuana users with severe vomiting. Others are children who have eaten edibles, accidentally or not. They come to the E.R. disoriented, dehydrated or hallucinating after consuming too much marijuana.

"There's a disconnect between what was proposed as a completely safe drug," Dr. Monte said. "Nothing is completely safe." ...

Stephanie Angell, 63, used to think she was one of [the people who could responsibly use marijuana]. Then she began smoking heavily every day. ..."I began to smoke morning, noon and night," she said. ... Ms. Angell said her habit had left her life dull, like a worn pencil. She lost interest in cross-stitching and other hobbies and felt like she had to smoke before going to the movies or to dinner.

Ms. Angell still supports legalization. But she and other heavy users say the risks of marijuana dependence are real, and are being overlooked as medical and recreational marijuana spread to 34 states. ...

"There's a real denial," Ms. Angell said. "It's a very subtle, subtle addiction."

Planting and Busts

... Law-enforcement officials say that legalization has also created fertile soil for black-market cultivations that pop up in basements. Legalization advocates said that regulating marijuana would starve cartels and illegal marijuana trafficking. But some officials say it has made the problem worse.

Last month, police and federal drug-enforcement agents raided 240 homes around Denver and Northern Colorado that were illegally growing marijuana, the largest sweep since legalization. Jason Dunn, the United States attorney in Denver, said it was a sign Colorado had become "the epicenter of black-market marijuana in the United States."

Legalization coincided with a 20 percent rise in violent crime rates in Colorado from 2012 to 2017, according to a state report, giving ammunition to critics. But it is almost impossible to attribute broad changes in crime rates to just one cause. ...

Retail Marijuana Businesses

In 2014, marijuana businesses were concentrated in Colorado's big cities and around major roadways. Since then, they have proliferated in border towns and rural areas as well. ... [With a pro-cannabis governor, laws regulating marijuana use have been relaxed,] just one sign of the growing political clout of an industry that does $1.5 billion in yearly sales here. ...

David Perez, 17, said he had gotten used to the smell that leaks out of marijuana businesses in his neighborhood. It was in the air one afternoon as he walked to a friend's graduation party.

"Every time I go for a walk or go to the rec, I smell it. It's everywhere," he said. He didn't like it, but he was used to it. "It just feels normal."

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian.