Legal weed states have lessons to share

DENVER (AP) — Don’t worry about a federal lawsuit. But do worry about tax rates. Those are among the many lessons Colorado and Washington have to share from the front lines of America’s marijuana experiment.

LESSON ONE: DON’T BE TIMID

Public officials in the pioneering marijuana states were flat-footed when voters made pot legal.

At first waiting for a possible federal lawsuit, then trying to figure out how to monitor and tax a product that had never been fully regulated anywhere in the world, the states spent many months coming up with rules for how the drug should be grown, sold and consumed.

The delays were understandable. But they led to one of the biggest disappointments of the marijuana markets — lower-than-hoped tax collections.

LESSON TWO: DON’T GET TOO EXCITED, EITHER

Both Colorado and Washington have seen tax collections fall below some rosy projections. The effective tax rates are about 44 percent in Washington and 29 percent in Colorado, with plenty of asterisks and local variances.

The states assumed that pot users would pay a steep premium to stop using drug dealers and have clean, safe stores in which to buy their weed. But the tax rates have led to a continuing black market, undercutting the top argument for legalizing in the first place.

Months of delays for permitting and licensing meant that potential pot taxes went uncollected. And limited marijuana supply in both states has further driven up the price of legal weed.

LESSON THREE: THINK OUTSIDE THE BONG

Pot users these days aren’t using the drug the same way hippies in the 1960s did. But Colorado and Washington weren’t entirely prepared to deal with popular new forms of edible and concentrated weed.

It took more than 18 months for Washington to begin sales of edible pot.

Colorado had regulations for edible pot already in place from the medical market — but it stumbled, too, when the edibles proved a lot more popular than officials expected and many first-timers weren’t sure how much to eat.

Colorado has had to go back after the fact to tighten rules on edible pot packaging and dosing.

LESSON FOUR: THINK ABOUT THE KIDS

It’s an obvious consequence of legalization — wider availability for adults means easier access for kids.

School districts in both Colorado and Washington have reported more kids showing up at school with weed. There have been more kids treated at emergency room for marijuana ingestions, too.

Marijuana exposure isn’t fatal, but the experience so far in both states underscores the need for states to have plans for talking with minors about pot.

LESSON FIVE: THE THIN GREEN LINE

Law enforcement has a big role in reducing potential public safety effects of legalization.

States that legalize pot need a plan in place for how officers determine whether drivers are impaired by marijuana. After legalization, simply sniffing pot in a car or seeing a joint on the seat isn’t enough to haul someone to jail.

Officers also need new guidance on handling marijuana evidence, telling legal growing operations from illegal ones, and protecting new businesses may be targets for robbery because they operate with large amounts of cash (because banks are leery of assisting businesses that sell a drug that is illegal under federal law).

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