The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

January 5, 2014

One toke over the line

The Register-Herald

— Colorado last week embarked on its widely publicized experiment to allow the legal sale of marijuana.

Early Wednesday, pot smokers began to buy the first legally purchased marijuana without a prescription in the nation’s history.

A lot of smokers were buying.

Which is when one of the laws of economics began to emerge from the smoky haze, and the price of marijuana skyrocketed.

Retailers started the day selling weed at prices near $400 an ounce. Before the legalization of marijuana to anybody over 18, medicinal users in Colorado were paying around $250 an ounce.

As the day progressed, prices at some outlets went to as much as $560 an ounce.

“We are concerned about that,” mused Rachel Gillette, executive director of the state chapter of NORML, to NBC News. NORML seeks to make marijuana legal across the nation.

Colorado, surprisingly, lets the market decide the price of pot, and thus the law of supply and demand left a mark on buyers.

Then you add Colorado’s 10 percent special sales tax, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

Gillette told NBC News without any apparent irony that she’d like to see the “high” taxes on Colorado pot reduced by state lawmakers.

In fact, Colorado expects to take in $578 million a year by taxing buyers at 10 percent and wholesalers at 15 percent.

While that may be the silver lining to the cloud of smoke, we predict it isn’t going to come without some unseen complications.

Take the Netherlands, for example. While drugs are technically illegal there, for years the laws have not been enforced for using marijuana and small amounts of psychedelic mushrooms at drug cafes.

Predictably, the Dutch found that creating a drug oasis was not a paradise for local residents or businesses. In fact, they began to institute some tough rules when they found themselves being overrun by “drug tourists” in border areas near Belgium and Germany.

Some people were buying the drugs in the Netherlands and taking them back to their home country to sell. Now the Dutch limit the purchase of such drugs to its residents who are issued a “membership card.”

Colorado, for its part, is trying something similar. Out-of-staters can only buy a quarter-ounce of marijuana at a time, with possession of up to an ounce being legal. State residents can buy an ounce at a time.

Of course, it wouldn’t really stop any out-of-stater from going from dispensary to dispensary, if he or she were determined. And then take the risk of running back across state lines with their purchases, to use or sell.

By that time, it wouldn’t be Colorado’s problem.

Not everybody in Colorado approves of legalized pot. Spokesmen for the state’s ski industry, a major money-maker in its own right, note that it is illegal to hit the slopes while high.

And the Colorado Tourism Office issued a statement that it has no plans to use legalized pot in any marketing campaign.

Some West Virginia lawmakers are eager to follow Colorado’s lead. Taylor County Democrat Mike Manypenny is prepared to, for a fourth time, sponsor a bill to legalize medical marijuana.

It’s the same path Colorado took to get where it is today.

And that’s the problem. Whatever the debatable benefits of medical marijuana, or recreational marijuana, West Virginia is a state deeply mired in a life-and-death war against prescription narcotics abuse.

Marijuana may or may not be a gateway drug to harder drugs.

But legalizing marijuana, even if it means revenue to the state, tells people some illegal drugs are OK.

That’s not the message to send, no matter how much you tax it.