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Worries legal weed could jeopardize kids, road safety - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Worries legal weed could jeopardize kids, road safety

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DENVER -

Carolyn Howard and her family left Vermont for Colorado five years ago. Now, her children are teens and that means discussions about drugs: tobacco, alcohol and marijuana.

"I think knowledge is power," Howard said.

She says the family constantly discusses the ramifications of drug use, noting her kids and their friends haven't had any run-ins. But the teens report fellow students have no problems getting their hands on pot.

Howard says she can see the attraction of legalization, with its promise of jobs and attracting young residents.

"But there is a social cost," she said, "and nobody yet to date in my estimation has really done the due diligence to figure out what that is."

While recreational marijuana's age limit is 21 in Colorado, an 18-year-old can qualify for medicinal marijuana without parental permission. Medical need is not scrutinized as heavily in Colorado as it is in Vermont and there's little to stop a student from sharing with his or her peers.

Pot proponents argue legalization is cutting into the black market.

Robin Trantham/Father: It's not like how it used to be where if you go through someone like a dealer on the black market they would be like this is what I have, this is how much it is. You're like, this is what I want, this is how much I want to spend.

Corwyn Trantham/Son: Quality and selection is a major difference in going from one to the other, plus the peace of mind knowing it's not against the law.

And because drug dealers don't ID, that should cut into availability.

"And a big part of our tax framework is we don't want to tax it too high, because then it allows that black market to flourish," explained Gov. John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado. "So, we want to have the taxing sufficiently low that we just drive the black market out of the state. And at that point, we can feel a little more confident."

But opponents don't buy that argument.

"I think you just see it everywhere, you smell it everywhere, and there is a perception that it's totally normal and safe," said Dayna Scott, the executive director of Project Voice.

Scott is another former Vermonter who works with a leadership and mentoring program to teach youth how to affect positive change within their schools and society. In the Green Mountains, she worked for a Youth Drug Prevention program.

She says Colorado's legalization increased accessibility, while decreasing the perception of harm and stigma attached to use. While the long-term health effects of marijuana use are hazy at best, pointing to research that starting the habit while the brain is still developing has significant negative consequences.

"We've got Gen X, we've got Gen Y-- are we going to become Generation 'Wait, what?' That's my biggest concern," Scott said.

"We're still very concerned about our kids getting it," Hickenlooper said.

The governor says despite significant reservations about legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana, he believes Colorado can operate a workable system. He says many of his worries never came to fruition, like a related spike in crime. But he says early use leads to drops in IQ, and that's a mistake the state can't afford to let its youth make.

"We're going to spend millions of dollars to try and drive that through the teenage skull, to get them to hear it and understand it," Hickenlooper said.

While before legalizing recreational marijuana sale much of the focus surrounded middle and high school-aged children, since then, the health of the state's youngest residents has become a growing concern. That's because marijuana-laced candy, cookies and beverages are indistinguishable from the non-intoxicating confections, and that can translate into trips to the emergency room for all ages, from toddlers to adults.

"There's no other medication, drug that's in a product that's kind of inherently appealing to a child and doesn't taste any different, doesn't smell any different for the most part," said Dr. George Sam Wang, a pediatric emergency physician at the Children's Hospital in Aurora, Colorado, just outside Denver.

Wang says a fatal overdose is essentially impossible, but severe intoxication can lead to trouble breathing. The hospital treats about between one to two children a month following accidental marijuana consumption.

"We aren't following these children long-term, so we don't know if there's any long-term consequences," Wang said.

New laws took effect in February, first requiring child-resistant packaging and single-serving doses, which he hopes will help, along with re-enforcing messages to users that they need to store intoxicating goodies separately from the rest of their groceries. Treats now must be tested for strength to prevent those ingesting marijuana intentionally from consuming too much.

But tests to accurately determine if drivers are too impaired to be on the road remain elusive, despite a standard similar to the 0.08 legal limit for blood alcohol content behind the wheel. The science to determine if that's an accurate measure of impairment simply does not exist presently.

"I would hope over a period of time we'll have a test that we can use, like we do with alcohol right at the scene," said Tom Gorman, the director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

While measures of intoxication are lacking, the federal outfit released a report last year noting an increase in the number of motor vehicle fatalities where operators tested positive for marijuana. Gorman says evidence is mounting that more drivers are stoned behind the wheel. But the governor argues finding more drug DUIs and evidence of marijuana use may simply be evidence of better detection and enforcement, even if intoxication measurement is crude.

"So for the first couple of years we're going to see a big spike in the number of people arrested for driving while high, because now we're looking for it and now we have a way to measure it," Hickenlooper said.

Proponents of legalization argue the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area study fails to account for a drop in the overall number of traffic fatalities as users substitute one drug for another.

Gorman says he's convinced given more time and data his conclusion will be supported by more evidence, but says even if he's wrong, the current, mostly-rhetorical debate should have a limited shelf-life.

"The good thing may be we will end the argument on legalization once and for all, and I'll never have to debate it again," Gorman said.

New packaging rules for edibles took effect Feb. 1.

A dispensary operator we spoke with says the new packaging requirements will be helpful. But he adds that the reaction to edibles is overblown thanks to a recent column in The New York Times where a reporter described her experience with edibles after eating too much. He compared what she did to buying a bottle of vodka, drinking the whole thing, and then blaming the person who sold it to her despite warnings about dosage.

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