Pot Legalization’s Eternal, Unsolvable Conundrum

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Let’s say you’re marijuana-friendly. (Let’s just say.) And let’s say you live in an area that’s not quite yet so enlightened on the subject, but you want to experiment with exercising some freedom.

So you jet to Colorado, the international model for marijuana legalization, for a cannabis-friendly weekend. Before you can savor a legal smoke, you’ll have to get around a wall of prohibited behavior.

In fact, unless you go to great lengths, you won’t be able to legally smoke at all.

You’ll land at Denver International Airport, where cannabis possession is banned. When you check into your downtown hotel, you’ll be greeted by signage in the lobby and in your room reminding you that smoking marijuana is not allowed. And, if you celebrate your visit to a legal dispensary by lighting up a pre-roll on the street and a cop sees you, you’ll be rewarded with a citation and fine of about $200.

The situation is similar in the seven other states in the U.S. where voters have legalized marijuana. Cannabis is legal, yes, but there’s a shortage of places to legally consume the drug.

As the Canadian Press recently observed, “using marijuana is illegal practically everywhere other than a private residence.” Users are ergo forced to skulk furtively in the shadows just like before (though with admittedly much lower stakes), stage events of mass resistance like the demonstrations we saw on 4/20 or pay for the privilege via marijuana-friendly accommodations or bus tours.

This leads us to legalization’s central, thus-far unsolvable conundrum: If cannabis is legal, but there’s nowhere to legally use it, is it really legal? It’s like a lame Zen koan.

“Personally, I think it’s embarrassing,” said Denver-based journalist Ricardo Baca, the founding editor of the Denver Post‘s marijuana vertical, The Cannabist, in an interview with the newspaper. According to Baca, there are no more than 10 places in all of Colorado that permit cannabis users to congregate and then consume marijuana without fear of penalty.

“Here we are, more than four years after legalization was signed into the state constitution,” he added, “and very few people in this state have figured this out.”

Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is following through on a promise to legalize cannabis. To figure out how exactly to do it, the Canadian government is currently taking a long and close look at Colorado’s heretofore-successful experiment. There’s a lot to like—tax money! No rise in youth use! The sky hasn’t fallen!—but there is absolutely room for improvement. And pitfalls for Canada to avoid.

Other states in America have the same issue.

Public consumption is also banned in California—where, as lawmakers have clarified, landlords have the ability to ban cannabis use in their properties and evict tenants who violate the rule.

But since this is marijuana we’re talking about, Canada appears poised to commit some of the same blunders as Colorado.

According to the Ottawa Public Citizen, the public health authority in the nation’s capital does not want Amsterdam-style “coffee shops,” but is going a step further by recommending a total ban on “creating public places, either indoors or outdoors,” where cannabis can be legally consumed.

One reason why is fear among public-health experts that permitting cannabis use will somehow lead people to start smoking cigarettes again—in the same way that eating food has also encouraged people to eat rotting garbage. (Note: this has not actually happened. Nor has cigarette use increased in U.S. states where cannabis is available; in fact, quite the opposite.)

Not that Colorado is doing a great job with this, either. Only last fall did Denver officially legalize consumption at certain businesses, which will have to convince local merchants’ associations to allow them to do it before a single ashtray can be laid out. If they say no, forget it.

“Finding a responsible way to consume somewhere is still kind of an open policy debate in Colorado,” said Andrew Freedman, Colorado’s former “marijuana czar,” who has since opened up a consulting business in which he gives advice to other states.

On both sides of the border, there’s a fear that kids will see adults smoking reefer—and then, as kids do, ape the older folks’ behavior.

“We do not want to create an environment that normalizes it,” said Gillian Connelly, manager of health promotion and disease prevention at Ottawa Public Health, in an interview with the newspaper.

But that’s the thing—“normalizing” is removing prohibitions and stigma. That’s what legalization is supposed to be. It’s, “Hi, here is this thing you can do!”

Attaching rules and conditions is normal and to be expected, but if the rules all but slap an outright ban on the “legal” conduct—well, that’s “marijuana legalization” as practiced thus far.

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