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Colorado's landmark marijuana experiment

April 10, 2014
by Marvin Ventrell, JD
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First in a series
Marvin Ventrell, JD

“No thank you,” I said to the professional assistant who asked if I needed anything as I waited for the accountant to arrive in the conference room. The office was that of a typical CPA firm of about 20 accountants and a dozen support staff. One would not have known that one-third of the lucrative firm’s client base was the marijuana business.

Nor would one know that the founding partner, who joined me for a conversation on the state of the marijuana business, was anything other than a successful business adviser. He in fact was the marijuana industry’s leading business consultant, and himself a regular marijuana user.

As we discussed the Colorado legislation that legalized marijuana growth, retail sale and use, he chuckled politely as I explained that the addiction industry for which I worked was very concerned about marijuana legalization in Colorado and the potential for legalization in other states. I explained the concern that increased availability will result in increased use, which in turn will cause increased abuse.

He asked, “Does your industry really think people who wanted to smoke before Jan. 1 chose not to because it was illegal? Do you seriously know anyone who said, ‘No, I better not, it’s illegal'? Do people understand that marijuana has been readily available, and inexpensive, to anyone who wants it, including children, for decades... that it’s easier for minors to get marijuana on the black market than for them to get alcohol on the legal market? Do you really not know that marijuana use is culturally acceptable?”

The accountant added, “We have not created a drug source by legalization; we have simply begun to remove the black market as the source of that drug for the population who chooses to use it. Any increased use will be marginal, because there was no actual lack of supply to begin with.”

He was persuasive. I certainly do not know anyone who is choosing to smoke marijuana now simply because it has become legal. That would seem odd to me. Friends and colleagues of my generation (I’m 54) have mostly given up the habit, with just a few exceptions, or smoke only a few times a year.

Nor do I know anyone who wanted to smoke and chose not to because it was illegal. That would be equally peculiar in my experience, which suggests a lot about how we have viewed marijuana policy. Illegality can certainly serve as a deterrent for other types of activities. I also know how readily available weed is, even for kids, having been a teenager once myself and having raised two of them.

Still, just as we don't know for sure that legalization will result in greater use and abuse, we don't know that it will not. I am also unconvinced that we are removing a black market source and creating a less harmful one. I hope that is true, but I cannot be sure.

Discussing the process of moving out of the shadows of a black market and into the light of retail, the accountant described the unique position of serving a newly legal industry. He explained the difficulty of doing business without the full services of the banking industry and any services of the credit card industry. He described the process of taking his team into marijuana businesses, armed with bill-counting machines, and counting tens of thousands of dollars in cash in a single visit. He explained the hardship and dangers inherent in owning a strictly cash business, and said his clients looked forward to more oversight and accountability.

“They want to fill out the forms,” he said. “They want to do this right.”

I imagined a team of accountants in suits with large briefcases going into the back entrance of a downtown Denver marijuana shop and leaving with those briefcases full of money. I realized at that moment that our society is truly engaged in a landmark social and economic experiment.

Our conversation then seemed a bit surreal as this upper middle class avid golfer, a CPA with a master's degree, married and a father of two, described his and his wife’s personal marijuana use patterns. For years, he explained, he and his wife, perhaps with friends, smoked in the evenings a few times per week, as they relaxed at the end of the day with a glass of wine. He explained that his children were forbidden to smoke (same rule as for alcohol) and that they were made aware of the particular dangers of alcohol and marijuana on the developing brain and body of a teenager. To him, the time for legalization had come, and his own use patterns were perfectly normal, no different than broadly accepted moderate alcohol use.

Searching for something to suggest that this surely was an unwise practice, I asked the accountant whether he was concerned about the carcinogenic smoke he was inhaling. Again, he chuckled politely as he explained that his use amounted to inhaling one to two drags of marijuana per use, because one or two hits were plenty given the substance’s current strength. Marijuana use and tobacco use are not comparable in terms of the amount smoked, he explained. It’s not like you smoke a pack of joints per day, he said.

“So,” he asked, “how shall we spend the $135 million or so in annual tax revenue generated by marijuana sales? I assume we should focus on youth education and prevention and substance abuse treatment generally, just as we should have been focused before legalization. Only now we have the money.” And perhaps the public’s attention, I thought.

We talked about that and agreed that education, prevention and treatment were appropriate uses for the new tax money. We ended our discussion after I asked whether there was anything he would like to tell addiction professionals.