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In Colo., a look at life after marijuana legalization

Sally Vander Veer, president of Medicine Man marijuana dispensary, paused inside a growing room at their facility in Denver last month.

Bob Pearson for The Boston Globe

Sally Vander Veer, president of Medicine Man marijuana dispensary, paused inside a growing room at their facility in Denver last month.

DENVER — Nestled between a 7-Eleven and a store selling Broncos jerseys, the door to the generic-looking retail establishment is easy to miss. But once inside, the smell is unmistakable.

At Euflora, tables are filled with glass containers of marijuana next to interactive tablets describing each strain (“sweet floral aroma,” “intoxicatingly potent”). An array of marijuana-infused products beckon behind locked cases: from energy shots to sour gummies, brownies to bacon brittle. And if you’re 21 or older, it’s all legal to buy.

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This is Colorado, where a billion-dollar-a-year legal marijuana industry has emerged since January 2014. It offers an early look at what Massachusetts could face should voters greenlight an expected ballot question and legalize the drug this fall.

So has legalization been a plus or a minus?

“Yes,” Colorado Senate President Bill Cadman replied with a laugh.

The consensus among several top state officials — who emphasize that their job is to carry out the will of the voters rather than mull whether their constituents made the right choice — is that there have been no widely felt negative effects on the state since marijuana became legal, and a crop of retail stores, cultivation facilities, and manufacturers sprung up from Aurora to Telluride.

Legalization has ushered in thousands of new jobs in the burgeoning industry, brought $135 million into state coffers last year, and ended the prohibition of a widely used substance.

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But police say they struggle to enforce a patchwork of laws covering marijuana, including drugged driving. Officials fret about the industry becoming like big tobacco, dodging regulation and luring users with slick advertising. And this state, long a leader in cannabis use, has the highest youth rate of marijuana use in the nation, according to the most recent data available from a federal drug-use survey.

Colorado voters approved a constitutional amendment in November 2012 legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana, which began in 2014.

The drug is heavily regulated. Each plant for sale must be tagged with a radio frequency identification chip, from an early stage of its life to sale, to help the state track it. Marijuana, both in plant form and infused in products, is required to be tested for potency and contaminants, and sold in child-resistant containers.

Matthew Benton weighs and packages marijuana buds for sale at their retail counters at the Medicine Man marijuana dispensary in Denver.

Bob Pearson for The Boston Globe

Matthew Benton weighs and packages marijuana buds for sale at their retail counters at the Medicine Man marijuana dispensary in Denver.

Tourists and locals alike can buy recreational marijuana as long as they are at least 21 and can possess up to 1 ounce. Only those with a medical marijuana “red card,” issued by the state on the recommendation of a physician, can possess more at one time.

While the popular image of marijuana use remains joints and vaporizers, a significant percentage of marijuana sales in Colorado — nearly half according to some estimates — take the form of infused products, such as edible treats, pills, drops, bath soak, and even “sensual enhancement oil.”

More than two years into the still-rapidly growing industry, how do top officials and their constituents see legalization?

“There are a certain number of folks, like myself, who were pretty reticent about it to begin with,” said House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, a Democrat. But “the sky didn’t fall. Everything seems to be working pretty well.”

‘Everything seems to be working pretty well.’

Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, Colorado’s speaker of the House, on the legalization of marijuana in her state 
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That’s in line with the view of Colorado voters, according to a November 2015 survey. The poll found 53 percent believe legalizing marijuana has been good for the state, while 39 percent believe it has been bad.

And Dr. Larry Wolk, the top medical official in Colorado’s public health department, said that since legalization no large troubling public health trends have cropped up yet. But he noted sporadic reports of impaired driving and people getting violently ill from ingesting too much marijuana in edibles, such as candy bars.

He said this month new data indicate that the biggest increases in marijuana hospitalizations have been seen among out-of-staters, who might be naive about the drug’s effects.

All marijuana, including medical, is subject to standard state and local sales tax in Colorado. But recreational marijuana is also subject to an additional 10 percent special state tax, along with additional local marijuana taxes. And there’s also a 15 percent excise tax on wholesale transfers of recreational marijuana, that ends up raising retail prices.

For producers, the tax picture is among the many complexities of running a marijuana business.

Sally Vander Veer, president of one of the state’s largest dispensaries and cultivation operations, which has 70 employees and a payroll of about $3.8 million a year, is bullish on her rapidly expanding business. Medicine Man has a 40 percent profit margin, she said. But her company struggles with what she estimates to be an effective tax rate of nearly 50 percent, as well as having to deal almost exclusively in cash. Because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, access to banking services is severely restricted.

The state saw $135 million in tax and fee revenue last year from the recreational and medical marijuana industry, money that has gone to, among other efforts, education for youth and law enforcement on the drug.

State Representative Jonathan Singer, a leader on marijuana issues in the House, said what legalization has done is “allowed marijuana to pay its own way,” with the cost of regulation paid for by dispensaries and consumers.

Yet law enforcement officials offer a more negative, chaotic view. They paint a picture of a quickly evolving array of laws, regulations, and ordinances that outpace their enforcement tools for related issues, such as drugged driving.

For one, they say, there’s no quick, reliable check to see whether drivers are too high to operate a vehicle safely, as there is for blood-alcohol level. And there’s no easy way to determine whether food products in a vehicle are infused with pot.

Young marijuana plants were tagged with the genetic history of each plant at the Medicine Man marijuana dispensary in Denver.

Bob Pearson for The Boston Globe

Young marijuana plants were tagged with the genetic history of each plant at the Medicine Man marijuana dispensary in Denver.

“You have no ability to test the gummy bear laying there on the dashboard,” said Chief John Jackson of the Greenwood Village, Colo., Police Department said.

“Edibles pose a problem because there is no way to tell the potency of it, there is no way to test it in the field. And no law enforcement officer is going to lick it and say, ‘Well, there’s marijuana, THC in that.’ ” (THC is the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana.)

Jackson, former president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, and other police officials said legalization simply moved much faster than law enforcement officers’ ability to keep up with it.

Jackson, who sounded beleaguered in an interview, said a fallacy of legalization is that it would give law enforcement time back to focus on more serious, complicated criminal issues and bigger drug problems.

Two years and two months into full legalization, he said, “we’re not seeing that.”

Another problem with edible marijuana products, said Dr. Michael DiStefano, who directs emergency medicine clinical operations at Colorado’s only top-level pediatric trauma center: the inability of kids to distinguish between normal products and those infused with THC.

When marijuana is “handled responsibly, it’s not an issue for children’s health. The problem is a lot of these edibles,” he said. “They look like regular candy. . . . There’s no way to discern what is an edible gummy bear that has THC in it, versus a regular gummy bear. In fact, you cannot distinguish them unless they’re in the package.”

He said he’s seen an uptick in kids admitted to the ER at Children’s Hospital Colorado — to about 15 last year — ill from accidentally ingesting edible marijuana-infused foods since the drug became legal for recreational use in January 2014.

Indeed, the most grinding concerns and the biggest question marks focus on kids and young adults. But the effects of legalization on children remain effectively unknown with about two years of experience and lagging statistics.

Opponents of legalization point to a federal drug survey that estimates Colorado had the highest level of any state of 12- to 17-year-olds reporting marijuana use in the last 30 days for 2013-2014. But the change in Colorado’s youth use rate from 2012-2013 — before full legalization— to 2013-2014 — partly after — was not statistically significant. And federal statisticians say the findings are not sufficient to draw conclusions about changes in youth marijuana use patterns as a result of legalization.

Wolk, the top doctor at the state’s public health department, said Colorado marijuana use has always been high compared with the rest of the country.

“No pun intended,” he said, “we started high and stayed high — use hasn’t increased in a statistically significant way since legalization. Those that were using before are still using now, among youths and adults.”

For some opponents, a big concern isn’t just what has happened so far, but what’s yet to come. They worry that the burgeoning marijuana industry, like alcohol and tobacco before it, could eventually use its profits to gain clout and subvert attempts at regulation.

Lara Herzog trimmed marijuana plants to separate the buds from leaves and stems iat the Medicine Man facility in Denver.

Bob Pearson The Boston Globe

Lara Herzog trimmed marijuana plants to separate the buds from leaves and stems iat the Medicine Man facility in Denver.

Jeffrey Zinsmeister, executive vice president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national nonprofit group cofounded by former US representative Patrick Kennedy that opposes legalization and commercialization of marijuana, said there have been several red flags.

“You’re seeing this headlong rush into another addictive industry without knowing what widespread marijuana use is going to do to society,” he warned. “And the signs from Colorado are not good.”

Officials say their primary concerns include: adults being able to legally consume the drug normalizes it for kids; Joe Camel-like ads that make pot smoking seem appealing to kids; and legalization increasing availability, thus making the barrier to getting marijuana lower.

“I worry about normalization, I worry about commercialization, and I worry about availability,” said Andrew Freedman, who directs Governor John Hickenlooper’s Office of Marijuana Coordination.

“What happens to people over the long term, especially kids over the long term, as they see marijuana normalized, as they see people advertising for marijuana, and as accessibility becomes greater and greater?” he asked. “Kids who are, right now, saying, ‘No thanks,’ will that change over time?”

Freedman and other people deeply involved in the day-to-day oversight of the new market say it functions pretty smoothly. But they emphasize the broader question of whether or not legalization ends up a success will probably take five or 10 years to answer fully.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos. Click here to subscribe to his weekday e-mail update on politics.
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