Colorado's Pot Law Fires Up This Week
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, it's the new year. And as many of us are looking ahead, we decided to pull together a global panel of analysts to tell us about the top international stories we should be thinking about in the coming year, including some sleepers you might not have heard about, like Uruguay's decision to legalize marijuana for general use. That's coming up later. And we're going to start with the marijuana issue here in the U.S. Yesterday, dispensaries in Colorado were allowed to start selling marijuana to anyone over 21 years old for any reason.
That is to say, there's no need to prove a medical need, as is the case in a number of other states. And that decision had particular history because the first person arrested and prosecuted under federal charge of selling marijuana happened in Colorado 76 years ago. So we wanted to talk about what Colorado's history-making move means for the state and what it could mean for other places. So we've called, once again, on Dana Coffield. She's the city editor at the Denver Post. She's with us from Boulder, Colorado. Dana, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us and Happy New Year to you.
DANA COFFIELD: Thanks, happy to be here.
MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we've called Peter Hecht. He's a senior writer for the Sacramento Bee. He's also author of the new book "Weed Land." That's a book that tracks the history of marijuana use and the laws around it in the U.S. And he's with us from Sacramento. Peter Hecht, welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us once again as well.
PETER HECHT: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So, Dana, let me start with you. If you could just remind us about what the law in Colorado allows. I mean, does it have restrictions on the amount that people can buy? And as we mentioned, anybody over 21 and - what was the general reaction in the state yesterday as the law went into effect?
COFFIELD: So as of January 1 last year, we're allowed to possess up to an ounce of marijuana. And this is anybody over the age of 21, you can possess and consume. What happened yesterday was the legalization of retail sales. And I was surprised. I thought everybody who was using cannabis was using it already, but people lined up at the handful of shops that were open statewide for hours. Some people were on line five, six hours - lines extending 600 people deep. So people were quite excited to be part of this end of, as they described it, prohibition.
MARTIN: Do you think that most of the people or do - I know it's hard to gauge this, but were most of the people local? Or I understand that there were people also traveling from other places to be - to participate in the event. What does your reporting tell you on that?
COFFIELD: It looks - based on - I mean, we may have intentionally done this, but it looks about 50-50. We had a fair number of people who traveled from as far away as Atlanta. We had a ton of people who were local saying that they were changing over from medical marijuana or buying stuff off the street. So I think if you were interested in consuming this product, you went out and celebrated by buying it legally for the first time.
MARTIN: And just overall, in a sense of what the - what does the general public in Colorado think about this?
COFFIELD: That's kind of a hard, broad question. But we're wrangling with a lot of different issues. There are plenty of people who are psyched to be able to not buy something from someone in the park that they don't where it came from. But we do have plenty of people who are concerned about criminal elements attached to it. Will more kids get involved in the drug too early? There is some concern about image in terms of our tourism and ability to attract top businesses to relocate to the state. So it's kind of a mixed bag.
MARTIN: So, Peter Hecht, you've been writing about this topic extensively. And you were telling us that Colorado is probably a better place to kind of just assess the general effects of decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana than California was earlier, where, you know, medical marijuana is something that people kind of understand as being kind of widely - well, pretty widely available. Tell us about why you think Colorado is kind of just a bellwether for the rest of the country as maybe a more useful example.
HECHT: Well, the number one thing about Colorado, unlike in California, which has America's largest medical marijuana economy, is Colorado put in place the most rigid state controls and regulations including licensings of all pot workers, criminal background checks, videotaping of all transactions, shipping manifest on transporting marijuana from production centers to the stores. No other place in the world put together such a meticulously tracked retail market for marijuana. And that has positioned Colorado to move fastest into the recreational market.
MARTIN: Why Colorado, do you think, Peter Hecht? Why there? Why now?
HECHT: Well, partly because of what happened and didn't happen in California. Colorado saw California booming with a massive marijuana market that a federal prosecutor would later characterize as an unregulated free-for-all. At the same time, there was both an influx and, more than an influx, rumors of an influx of so-called California ganjapreneurs pouring into Colorado. So Colorado looked to regulate a Colorado-only market. And to, A, avoid the unregulated mess of California and, B, put Colorado in charge of its own destiny. And what happened there was really remarkable. And in every state where you've had marijuana liberalization, you've had intense law enforcement opposition.
That was the same in Colorado, but you had the state's medical marijuana enforcement division that was birthed out of this, headed by a former cop. And they put in place, with both Republican and Democratic Representatives, very rigid representatives. And California has not been able to do that and has not been able to keep up.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the new law legalizing marijuana in Colorado for general use. My guests are Peter Hecht of the Sacramento Bee. He's author of the book "Weed Land." And also Dana Coffield of the Denver Post. Now are there any conflicts between the states and the federal government when it comes to these kinds of issues? Peter, maybe you start. And then Dana, I also wanted to ask if there's any local concern about the federal government - I don't know if the right word is interfering - with this new era? So, Peter, start with that. Is there a conflict between federal law and federal practice on this matter, and how is that to be resolved?
HECHT: Well, this is the great experiment in Colorado. And the feds have offered unique and potentially landmark terms of concession in the infamous war on drugs. And what they said to Colorado in Washington was that if you enact robust regulations on this industry to prevent diversion to other states where marijuana's illegal, to keep pot out of the hand of children and to prevent criminal networks from infiltrating marijuana businesses, we may well leave you alone.
Now the Denver Post - and she can tell you much more about that - recently reported on a series of raids in marijuana businesses that the feds asserted were, in fact, tied to criminal operations. So the feds aren't entirely surrendering. But what they are saying is if the states step in and kind of control this, that they may step back. So we'll see.
MARTIN: Dana, what can you tell us about that?
COFFIELD: Yes, we - the state of Colorado did receive that eight-point memo from the Department of Justice. And apparently, there were - we were out of compliance, and there was a swoop down, a raid, on a major medical marijuana grow operation and a bunch of dispensaries that, as Peter said, were linked in some way to South American drug cartels. And to our thinking, as we observe this, it was - we have this very rigid system for regulating medical marijuana. But was it being regulated in the way that the Department of Justice could tolerate? And clearly, in this one particular case, it was not.
MARTIN: Do you see this, though, as an area of future conflict between, you know - the federal governments and states have conflicts over lots of things all the time for different reasons - I mean, you know, education policy and things of that sort. Does this seem like an area of ongoing conflict with the federal government?
COFFIELD: I don't think it's conflict. I think they laid out their demands, which were don't let kids have it, don't let the marijuana get into general circulation or leave the state. They - I mean, they were very clear about it. And you could go back and look at each of those eight points and see cases that we had reported on that were - that violated them. So until the state really cracks down on or powerfully enforces the rules that it has in place, we are open to scrutiny from the Department of Justice.
MARTIN: Peter, let me ask about a different issue, taking the conversation a different direction now. One of the things that has had a lot of scrutiny from activists over the years and drug policy involving this country, generally, is the racial implications of this. I mean, the ACLU put out a report in 2013, just last year in June, saying that black people are almost four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though black and white people are believed to use marijuana at a similar rate.
In Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, black people are eight times more likely to be arrested than white people, even though the population in the city is about 50-50 now. And I'd like to ask you, Peter, why you think that is? And if you feel these - is the racial aspect of this kind of part of the dialogue about this nationally as this issue moves forward?
HECHT: It absolutely is. And you have - you also didn't mention New York where the stop-and-frisk policy was brought to light and often targeting young African-American men for small amounts of marijuana. Interesting, it was the NAACP in California, initially, that embraced marijuana legalization during the Proposition 19 campaign, which was nearly successful and then improved upon as a ballot measure in Washington and Colorado. My understanding is local NAACPs there also get behind the initiative, less for the pure aspects of legalization, but because of the inequities in racial targeting on marijuana arrests and prosecutions.
MARTIN: So, Dana, I noted that you've hired a marijuana editor at the Denver Post, and you've launched a marijuana news website called The Cannabist, which suggests to me that you think this is a continuing and important story, you know, for you and for the state. Just, we only have about 30 seconds left, can I just ask you, what is the next kind of wave of coverage here? What's the next thing you think you'll be looking at when it comes to this issue?
COFFIELD: We'll obviously be - continue to look at the law enforcement issues. But the point of The Cannabist is that it is a lifestyle change. So we're providing information about how to cook, how to grow, sort of think about it like home brewing in a way. And, yeah, we don't think it's over. We do think it's going to be a major lifestyle element for us for a while.
MARTIN: May I ask, will you be asking reporters about their own lifestyle choices in this area? I mean, is that one of those things that people will be expected to disclose or not disclose as a question of their objectivity in this matter?
COFFIELD: We have an outside reviewer, so that's a different matter entirely.
COFFIELD: We do drug tests upon employment, and if anybody shows up stoned, you could be subject to a test.
MARTIN: Interesting. Dana Coffield is city editor at the Denver Post. Peter Hecht is a senior writer for the Sacramento Bee. He's author of the new book "Weed Land," which looks at the marijuana phenomenon in the United States. Thank you both so much speaking with us, once again. Happy New Year, once again, to you both.
HECHT: Thank you.
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