By Laurel Dewey
On Wednesday, November 7, 2012, Coloradans woke up to a brand new reality. The night before, residents voted to legalize and regulate marijuana like alcohol and tobacco and make it available to anyone over the age of twenty-one to use and possess as well as allow every adult to grow up to six plants. For some people who have fought against marijuana prohibition for decades, this is a huge day in the history of Colorado and a step forward in removing over seventy-five years of propaganda and, hopefully, rewriting the tarnished history of a little plant called cannabis (a.k.a., "marijuana.")
What's intriguing is that this isn't the first time Colorado voters led the charge against prohibition. Eighty years ago, almost to the date, voters in the state approved a ballot measure to appeal alcohol prohibition. That landmark vote came just prior to prohibition being repealed by the federal government. Could Colorado lead the charge again and create a model for what legalized marijuana will look like for all fifty states? That's the challenge and the responsibility of a state that has already shown itself to be one of the leaders in the medical marijuana movement. Between dedicated research facilities that seek to uncover the healing potential from the marijuana plant to legions of breeders and growers who have moved to Colorado to be on the forefront of this "green sea change," there is a palpable sense right now that Colorado has a unique opportunity to lead the way and show other states that "Mary Jane" can be used both safely and effectively.
But the biggest hurdle Colorado will face is the stigma of marijuana. Stigmas are always hard to blast through. Even with Colorado's extremely successful medical marijuana program, those who are vehemently against the bud continue to believe and repeat a lot of the "Reefer Madness" hysteria. It brings to mind a quote from Mark Twain: "It's easier to fool people than to convince them they've been fooled." That statement is a perfect illustration of why education will be the determining factor in how Colorado models legal marijuana for the rest of the country.
Oddly enough, the revised education campaign will need to counter much if not all of the anti-marijuana information that has flourished in the schools and youth groups for decades. Instead of overstating the effects of marijuana on the body and mind, education should include reasonable discussions that involve accountability, much like the alcohol industry self-regulates and always includes a "Drink responsibly" message in their advertisements. People who are new to marijuana also need to understand about the many different strains and their affect on the body and mind, along with how marijuana's effects vary between smoking the herb and ingesting it.
While these are only estimates, projections suggest that there could be a five-fold increase in legal marijuana users within the state of Colorado. Conservatively, that amounts to over half a million people, many of whom have never used marijuana. That's a lot of new people willing to buy the herb, a massive flood of revenue for the state and, possibly in the short term, a shortage of product until growers can revamp their greenhouses to satisfy increased demand. And all of this will occur while marijuana is still illegal by the Federal government. Answers to how the Feds will choose to address this issue are still unknown but it's clear that with various drugs being developed that are sourced from the marijuana plant, the government may have no choice but to reschedule marijuana as a "dangerous drug with no medical value" (Schedule I) to a less constrictive status (Schedule III or IV). Once that is signed into law, the changes will be dramatic. Tax dollars will not be poured into housing thousands of people who are in prison for minor marijuana offenses. Law enforcement will be able to focus more on protecting the public from real harm and the courts will not be crowded with first time "offenders" who choose to use marijuana.
In addition, Colorado's new law will allow for Industrial hemp production beginning in 2014. This is one of the most compelling parts of the law because utilization of the non-psychoactive hemp seed, fiber, oil and biodiesel could easily create new opportunities for businesses and individuals and inject a massive amount of money into Colorado's economy.
People can joke about Colorado and their new "Rocky Mountain High" law, but once all the "doobie jokes" are exhausted, what remains is a truly groundbreaking historical moment that is really about freedom more than "getting high." If Colorado regulates marijuana responsibly and demonstrates to the rest of the country that the decades of "weed hysteria" is unsupported with evidence-based education, there's a better chance that many of the anti-marijuana protestors will wake up and realize that marijuana legalization does not mean the country will "go to pot."
Laurel is the author of the first pro-marijuana fiction novel, Betty's (Little Basement) Garden.