From Justice, a serious approach to legal pot

The News Tribune The News TribuneSeptember 1, 2013 

State voters approved recreational use of marijuana in 2012.

STAFF FILE PHOTO, 2012

After taking its own sweet time — almost 10 months — to respond to initiatives that legalized marijuana in Washington and Colorado, the Obama administration finally got it right.

The Justice Department’s memo Thursday to federal prosecutors sounds good on paper. As far as this state is concerned, the federal government doesn’t plan to challenge Initiative 502 in court and doesn’t plan to prosecute state-licensed marijuana enterprises that are operating within the law.

“Within the law” is a key phrase here. Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole spelled out in almost every way possible that the feds are demanding some quid pro quos, including aggressive state action against juvenile marijuana use, exports of pot to other states and criminal infiltration of licensed operations.

Storefront “medical” dispensaries remain in the crosshairs, as they should be. Washington’s two U.S. attorneys, Jenny Durkan and Mike Ormsby, issued identical statements: “The continued operation and proliferation of unregulated, for-profit entities outside of the state’s regulatory and licensing scheme is not tenable and violates both state and federal law.”

Gov. Jay Inslee acknowledged the problem: “We believe there are serious changes that need to be brought to bear in terms of medical marijuana.”

Those serious changes must include much tighter restrictions on who can authorize, provide and receive “medical” marijuana, as well as enforcement of existing state laws against all sales of marijuana outside channels licensed under I-502. Recreational users will soon have legal stores; they don’t need illegal ones, too.

The overriding priority should be the one at the top at Cole’s list of enforcement priorities: “preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors.”

Some kids are always going to get marijuana, but everyone – including advocates of legalization – should be working to minimize their use of it.

Marijuana is primarily a pediatric problem. Because developing brains can be permanently shaped by psychoactive drugs, teenagers get addicted to marijuana at much higher rates than those who first use the drug after age 18.

Studies have shown that teenagers who use it are far more likely – compared to non-drug users – to do poorly in school and drop out before graduation.

A broad, long-term study of roughly 1,000 marijuana users published a year ago by the National Academy of Science suggested that they lost seven to eight IQ points, on average, after starting young and using it regularly for many years.

One can argue cause and effect for a lot of this; the fact remains that for adolescents, marijuana – though less harmful than alcohol – can cause permanent damage to kids’ lives.

If the Justice Department’s response to I-502 produces tougher state enforcement and an effective campaign to keep teenagers away from the drug, voters might yet see some of what the initiative promised: legal, regulated marijuana that replaces the illegal, unregulated kind.

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