Weed merchants in Washington state picked up on the popularity of inflatable tube men usually seen waving and flapping around outside of car dealers and mattress stores and occasionally onstage at concerts.
But complaints about the inflatables, green in color and moving erratically in front of marijuana shops, streamed into the regulatory agency set up to control the weed industry.
Last year, the Washington state Legislature let the air out of the tube men and other inflatables, deeming them too appealing to children. A host of other advertising tactics, such as people in costumes, employed by the marijuana retailers in what has become a cutthroat business have also been banned.
Now, even the image of marijuana leaves is restricted in advertising.
“Advertising was the No. 1 problem” in regulating the nascent industry, said Justin Nordhorn chief of the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board Enforcement and Education Division. But it was only one among several.
Nordhorn highlighted lessons learned since Washington voters approved a measure to allow the personal use of marijuana in November 2012. He and other experts spoke Tuesday at a symposium in Atlantic City hosted by Law Enforcement Against Drugs, a drug and violence prevention organization, that highlighted some of the missteps of states where marijuana has become legal, adjustments made along the way and some of the social costs and pitfalls.
Here are their main concerns:
Polls show that nearly two-thirds of people in the country support the legalization of marijuana. But many still express concern about kids getting their hands on it
“Diversion of legal marijuana to anyone under the age of 21 was a huge concern,” Nordhorn said.
But the retail shops turned out to have a high compliance rate when it came to not selling to underage people, Nordhorn said. Several stings a year at each of the more than 500 retail outlets in the state help keep operators towing the line.
While that’s a positive sign that the regulatory system is working as far as diversion goes, few things are clear in the world of legal marijuana. Local police in Washington say more people under 21 that they pick up are carrying weed, Nordhorn said. Colorado has seen the same.
Science supports some of the concerns about youth diversion and access.
Studies show that marijuana can have a damaging affect on developing brains, usually until a person turns 25, said Dr. William Crano, a psychologist who’s research is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“If you consistently smoke that drug for a year or two, it’s going to cost you. No question about it,” Crano said. “You’re going to lose brain power you could have had. As a nation, we should be concerned.”
Tobacco and alcohol also impair brain development, another conference speaker pointed out.
Still, contrary to the concerns of many critics of legalization, drug use among teens has dropped sharply, according to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health. And marijuana use fell even more dramatically among teens in Colorado since legalization there.
The accidental consumption of edible marijuana products by small children is already well known. But “edibles” pose problems for the general public as well. Special precautions need to be heeded before consuming edibles, said John Carnevale, a drug policy expert.
The effect of the drug takes longer, leading many to consume large doses, mistakenly thinking the drug is not working.
“Eventually halfway through [a] candy bar and all this stuff hits — the psychoactive effects,” Carnevale said.
Some high profile suicides were linked to edible overdoses following legalization, said Marco Vazquez, a retired Colorado police chief.
Education on the use of edibles and how to use them safely as well as packaging them in a way that does not appeal to children are important tools, Carnevale said.
Carnevale added that states like Colorado, once they addressed the problem, have done a good job managing it.
Pesticides and other chemicals used in the cultivation of marijuana remain the biggest public health concern, Nordhorn said.
Washington state legalized medical marijuana in 1998, 14 years before recreational marijuana.
“In that gap of time nobody said boo about pesticides, but now that it’s legal and on the recreational market, everyone wants it tested,” he said.
Testing is a challenge for his agency, he said. There’s a move afoot to shift that duty to his state’s Department of Ecology, a science-based arm of government, instead of Nordhorn’s law enforcement agency.
As with much about marijuana and public health, science is lagging policy, Carneavale and Nordhorn said.
“Our Miracle-Gro might be just fine for our tomato plants, but if they use it on a marijuana plant, we don’t know that if you take the oils from that plant and vape it at 1,000 degrees in a little pipe that it may change the chemical composition of that fertilizer,” Carnevale said. “We don’t know what the impact is in terms of legal consumption, if that product is safe.”
Consuming marijuana affects general motor function. It does things like lowers skill-based performance — think athletics and driving — by about a third for up to 72 hours, said Bill Beacham, a psychologist and the executive director of the Center for Drug-Free Communities.
But testing blood, urine and saliva for marijuana use has been notoriously unreliable. There is no consensus on how to measure impairment.
And getting convictions for a purely cannabis involved driving while intoxicated charge is “very, very difficult,” without clear evidence, said Chris Haldor, a former prosecutor who was the state’s point man for training prosecutors and officers on driving while intoxicated on marijuana.
What patrol officers determine at the scene and during field testing is key, Haldor said.
There are clear indicators of marijuana intoxication, like its affect on short-term memory.
“When you tell them to take ten steps, and they get to the ninth step, they ask, ‘What did you want me to do?’” Haldor said.
There is also something called “lack of convergence,” when the eyes become crossed while trying to focus on something moving toward the bridge of the nose.
Having difficulty touching your nose with the tip of your finger with your eyes closed is a good test, he said.
While proponents of legal recreational marijuana touted the drop in the illegal drug trade, conference speakers said that’s not the case.
“We were told we would be able to eliminate the cartel influence and the black market,” said Marco Vasquez, the former Colorado police chief. “We’re seeing just the opposite.”
Organized crime groups from in and outside the country have moved into the state to grow marijuana without a license and ship it out of state, he said.
“When you commercialize marijuana [you’re] always going to have black market,” Vasquez said.
Taxes can come into play.
“How you set taxes could determine whether the black market grows or shrinks,” Nordhorn said. “You have to be very smart about how you set taxes. If you tax your products too high, people are just going to buy it from the old source, the illegal market.”
Vazquez had one general suggestion for New Jersey if it grapples with an emerging legal marijuana market.
“Try to slow the train down,” he said. “Try to slow it down to set up enforcement efforts and your regulatory framework.”