From April 17 – 22nd, the American Culture Program packed our bags and flew from small-city Virginia to Denver Colorado. There we talked to marijuana genome researchers, hemp seed developers, politicians and regulatory agencies, not to mention some marijuana entrepreneurs and got the scoop on the impact of legalization in Colorado.

From increased consumer safety to the blatant commercialization of marijuana, state-wide legalization has shaped industries, politics, and research opportunities.

A frequent topic when talking legalization are the benefits of regulation. In Colorado, business and regulators note the value of being able to regulate a product – people, consumers, know exactly what they are buying – the strength, variety, a (likely) impact the drug will have.

Researchers at Colorado University in Boulder are interested in studying the chemical makeup of different strains of marijuana. For as much scientific jargon that researchers can use to discuss marijuana, Dr. Nolan Kane explained that the current knowledge we have of the plant is rather basic. While the public is increasingly talking about different strains of marijuana based on the various combinations of cannabinoids (TCH and CBD to name the most well-known), research is just beginning to look into other chemicals such as turpines that are in the plant. While research has linked specific turpines to particular scents, the specific impact that turpines have on a high from using marijuana are still relatively unknown.

Although state legalization has opened some doors for researchers to better understand the effects of marijuana, both benefits and risks, there are still limitations. Because Dr. Kane and his colleagues rely on Federal funding, federal law restricts which strains they can study, limiting to a sample that is a very inaccurate representation of products on the market.

Research is showing that there is a good deal about marijuana that we do not understand, both in risks and benefits. Different strains are being developed which can help curb appetite, create feelings of hunger, have more or less psychoactive effects. More research is needed to understand these effects and how marijuana can be used as a treatment option or even replace highly addictive prescription opiates.

Yet the fear of “Reefer Madness” lingers and marijuanna users are still associated with lazy, unproductive people who do no contribute to society. Even the Colorado Government has had to fend off libelous claims from media and corporate interests that argue Colorado has been overrun by homeless drug addicts who have brought crime and disorder to the city. In actuality, crime rates and youth usage have remained the same or decreased.

While it remains illegal on a federal level, a void of knowledge persists. Researchers cannot work to disprove false assumptions from the era of Harry Anslinger so long as marijuana remains illegal on a federal level. So long as these false assumptions pervade public perception, marijuana will likely remain illegal.

That has not stopped lobbying groups from working to change the “brand” of marijuana users. Jenn Michelle Pedini, the Executive Director of Virginia NORML, appeals to the ability to protect people from risky products on the black market via “regulated adult use” as an attempt to push legalization of marijuana forward in Virginia. 

Marijuana is not the only drug that remains illegal and barely researched, classified as a Schedule 1 drug. LSD and other hallucinogenics are also substances that may have medical benefits that we have missed for years. According to Dr. Goff, LSD has very low toxicity (related deaths often involve polydrug abuse or dangerous actions such as jumping from buildings while tripping). While even less is known about LSD in comparison to marijuana, some experiments are showing that LSD could have positive benefits for people dealing with depression or suffering from a terminal illness.

If research cannot motivate a change in the legal system, what can?

Money talks. Money can make things move, and, behind closed doors, it’s motivating conversations about how marijuana policies in Colorado can work better with the Federal banking system, as told by Chris Mycklebust, a Colorado State Bank Commissioner. With booming business and fierce competition, start-ups such as Seed and Smith are bringing in valuable income that the IRS wants to claim and Federal Banks would like to access.

Profit is a powerful thing and when enough corporate interests see an investment opportunity, pressure begins to shift political views. The trend is not new to marijuana, just look back to prohibition and the radical shift to today’s burgeoning craft beer scene competing with large scale corporations.

Policing of marijuana in Colorado, and even across the country, has shifted significantly since the beginning of the War on Drugs. At the 4/20 Rally Downtown Denver, it was easy to spot police officers keeping an eye on festivities, but very few arrest attempts were made. I did not witness a single confrontation between police and rally attendees. Some of my classmates saw two people get in trouble for smoking marijuana while waiting in line to enter the rally area. While smoking in public is against the law, that did not stop a cloud from rising above the crowd when the clock struck 4:20 in the afternoon. The police were not there to bust drug users, but more as a resource to keep the festivities safe, a similar approach to the one that law enforcement seems to take with massive EDM festivals.

Even in Virginia, a state that has yet to legalize marijuana in any form, recreational or medical, police have little incentive to charge or arrest people for marijuana possession. Several officers from Lynchburg PD spoke to our class. When discussing marijuana enforcement, despite that marijuana is a Schedule I drug according to the DEA, both officers spoke from a personal stance that they believe it will soon be legalized. Because the court system generally issues softer sentencing for people using marijuana, it is a poor use of police time and resources to prioritize stopping marijuana use compared to targeting ‘hard’ drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamine.

There is a move across the country to end the ineffective “War on Drugs.” Green Point Creative recently released a video critiquing the War on Drugs, highlighting issues of mass incarceration and racial disparity. Marijuana is one of the drugs that lands many young men in prison who wait months at a time for trial, many of whom are unable to afford bail and wind up taking a plea deal and falsely admitting guilt just to get out of jail. This plea deal reduces their chances of getting a job, paying for higher education, effectively trapping them on the bottom rung of our hierarchical social structure. In some states, all it takes is three convictions for possessing one joint to wind up with life in prison.

Three strikes. Your out. Period. Locked up away from society where you become invisible to the public. Out of sight, out of mind. And we carry on our merry way assuming the legal system is doing what it is supposed to, catching the bad guys and letting the good guys go free. This myth is an illusion.

As American’s begin to accept that marijuana is a substance that we want easy access to, there is hope that some of the issues punitive legislation such as unjust arrests and convictions. But the issue runs so much deeper than overly strict and unjust marijuana laws.