Is legalization of pot in liberal Oregon inevitable?

There's a great political/social experiment going on in Colorado, and the rest of the country is watching, and taking notes.

The private purchase and consumption of marijuana became legal in the state this month. People stood in long lines in Denver and other locations to buy pot — their purchase being taxed by local and state governments.

Experts project there would be $208 million in recreational marijuana sales in Colorado this year. But on the first day, over $1 million worth was sold. Officials expect $67 million in annual state and local taxes on those sales. If day one is any judge, those totals might also prove to be low estimates.

In a real sense, the drug has become incrementally legal across the U.S. for years via medical marijuana. Over a third of the states have approved medical pot use, including Oregon. In comparison to the $208 million expected in recreational sales this year, Colorado had $250 million in medial marijuana sales in 2013. Nationwide, there was over $1 billion in medical marijuana sales and it’s expected to more than double to $2.3 billion this year. (Statistics taken from CNN reports).

The widespread medical marijuana legalization doesn’t seem to have shaken our societal foundations. Sure, there’s misrepresentation and corruption with medical marijuana, with yahoos gaining faux medical cards like college freshman seeking fake IDs. But, the widespread use of medical marijuana hasn’t seemed to rip the fabric of our society. If it has, I haven’t noticed.

At this point, no one should dispute that marijuana does have positive medicinal effects for many people. To argue it is ignorant. But conversely, to argue that marijuana is essentially harmless is equally off base. Studies vary on the long-term impacts of smoking pot, but they’re in general agreement that pot’s effects are much more stringent in adolescents than in adults. We’ve all known people and families whose lives were, if not destroyed, at least gutted by marijuana.

It isn’t the intention of this column to debate the effects and physical impacts of marijuana. Personally, I think they can be, and often are, very serious. But, unless something unexpected occurs in Colorado or Washington, it seems the legalization of recreational marijuana use for adults is inevitable in Oregon.

The key to this evolution of viewpoint on pot, it seems, is simple: an aging population. People in their 60s grew up in the 1960s, when marijuana first became widespread; and people in their 50s grew up in the ‘70s, when marijuana use became commonplace. While the large majority of those people don’t have anything to do with pot at this stage in their lives, nearly all have came across it in their past. Essentially, the masses are more aware of what marijuana is and isn’t than 20 and 40 years ago — when legalization efforts were ballot folly — and more and more have determined that the economic positives of legalizing it for adults outweighs the negatives.

At least that was the case in Colorado and Washington. Can equally liberal, if not more liberal, Oregon be far from the same conclusion?

I don’t know if legalizing marijuana is a good thing. There are certainly negative elements to it. But, unless social problems caused by legalization are unique, or outpace those that illegal consumption cause, it seems incremental legalization is inevitable, certainly in liberal states like Oregon.

But, maybe this “experiment” will show that social ills do outweigh the economic positives, or the arguments for private liberty that proponents throw out.

If, after some time, adolescent marijuana smoking has doubled or tripled in Colorado because it's legal for adults to smoke it;if we see a wave of marijuana-impaired drivers causing wrecks; if consumption becomes a public nuisance to the point that the masses of nonsmokers rebel against the new, then legalization elsewhere might not be so inevitable. Opponents will have some strong talking points, and the 10-percent in the middle on this issue, that inevitably holds its fate, might be convinced to keep it illegal.

If marijuana use stays relatively steady, post legalization; if there are no substantial, widespread social issues created by the legalization of pot; if in Colorado, upwards of $100 million in new tax revenue can be established and law enforcement is redirected to fight more dangerous drugs like meth and more dangerous crimes in general, then more and more fence-sitters will think legalization is the smart thing to do.

Again, lawmakers and interest groups on both sides of the issues will study this “great experiment” in Colorado, and soon Washington. I think the study will be simple: will social ills caused by legalization be larger than those illegal consumption render, and will they outweigh the expected economic benefits of legalization. If so, legalization efforts can be fought and defeated. If not, then those hoping to keep current marijuana laws in Oregon will have an uphill battle on their hands.

So, Colorado, we’re watching.

Tony Ahern is the publisher of the Central Oregonian. He can be reached at 541-447-6205.

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