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The costs and benefits of marijuana legalization

The second in a series exploring local impacts of legalized recreational marijuana.

COLORADO — In 2012 Colorado voters approved Amendment 64 to the state constitution, allowing statewide recreational marijuana use, sales, and possession. One of the motivating factors for the passage was the anticipated economic boost from taxes on marijuana sales. Sales tax is 2.9% on both medical and retail marijuana sales, plus a 10% retail marijuana excise tax. Counties receive 85% of the 10% excise tax. For instance, Denver County receives over a million dollars a month in marijuana taxes. So far Huerfano County totals don’t show up on the monthly Colorado Marijuana Tax Reports. While the Huerfano County budget shows that $30,000 in income was expected in 2015, according to Huerfano County Administrator John Galusha, the county has not received any taxes yet from marijuana. The county has budgeted for $325,000 in revenue from the marijuana excise tax for 2016. Is this (as yet unrealized) economic boost for Huerfano County outweigh the effects legalized marijuana use may have had or will have on Huerfano County schools? According to an article in USA Today, Denver public schools saw a 7% increase in drug incidents in 2014, mostly accredited to pot. Conversely, US News & World Report reported that a statewide survey over a period of five years indicates an almost 5% decrease in pot usage among Colorado teens, despite legalization. There is concern in the local community that the legalization of marijuana has had an impact on our county’s

schools, where potential contact highs and increased student marijuana usage could have negative impacts on students’ ability to learn. A study funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) showed that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a component in marijuana, may impair cognitive ability, especially when introduced to a developing brain. According to ACT on Drugs, a Denver-based nonprofit, the THC content in recreational marijuana has increased from 2-7% in the 1960s to about 26% today. Bree Lessar, Superintendent of La Veta Schools, said she does not believe there is any immediate correlation between the legalization of marijuana and an increase in its usage among the student population. According to Lessar, three to five student suspensions due to marijuana have been enforced each year over the last five years. “Possession on school grounds is serious and can be charged as a federal offense,” Lessar said, and added that both the parents and student population are well aware of this. Jaye Sudar, RE-1 School Board President of Walsenburg and Gardner schools, said she believes there has probably been a slight increase in marijuana usage since its legalization, but it is natural to assume so. “Alcohol and tobacco have always had fluxes in use, and pot use is just another thing to add to a list of issues,” said Sudar, who conferred with John Mall High School Principal George Purnell on some comments. Sudar and Lessar both consider overall grades in their schools to have been higher over the past few years, and do not believe the legalization of marijuana is related. Both Lessar and Sudar believe that their school’s policy on drug usage is strict enough, as both implement no tolerance. “We treat [marijuana] much like we treat other controlled substances,” said Lessar. “We also involve law enforcement in that decision-making.” According to Sudar, if a student needed to have cannabinoid oil administered to them for health reasons, they would have to leave the school grounds and return once it had been administered. Secondhand highs, or contact highs, which have been a matter of debate, happen occasionally but are not commonplace: according to multiple articles, including those by the NIDA and livescience.com, one would have to be constantly breathing marijuana smoke for a period of hours before they felt the effects of a high in their system. The health effects of breathing marijuana smoke for any amount of time are still unknown, but the smoke does contain harmful chemicals that are found in tobacco smoke. According to ACT on Drugs, long-term health problems that may be caused by marijuana include emphysema, mental health disorders such a chronic depression and schizophrenia, memory loss, and cardiovascular complications. Eating marijuana products, as opposed to inhaling, is also an issue for students. There are new candies, teas, and baked products (collectively called ‘edibles’) that contain marijuana and in some cases are easier for underage users to obtain. According to consumeresponsibly.org, the high from edibles takes longer to kick in than a smoking high, because it has to be digested first, so inexperienced users may ingest more than they can handle in an attempt to quicken the high. Edibles are often made to look like regular candies or baked goods, which can make it easier to sneak them into schools or other off-limits areas. The FDA has not recognized marijuana as a medicine, although THC-based medicine has been approved by the FDA. THC may be of use in helping one’s appetite, decreasing pain and inflammation, and reducing nausea. According to NIDA, the human body produces its own cannabinoid-type chemicals to counteract these ailments, so any deficiency may require external aid.