Where There's Smoke... Part Two
Bill Hudson | 8/30/10
Read Part One

When Archuleta County Sheriff Peter Gonzalez stood up before the Board of County Commissioners last Thursday afternoon and urged them to continue preventing people in Archuleta County from obtaining medical marijuana, he was not thinking about people suffering from cancer, Crohn’s disease or severe pain. 

He was thinking about all those 20-year-old kids who were getting their medical marijuana cards just to use the drug recreationally.

“The vast majority of the people getting these marijuana cards are young kids in their early 20s,” the Sheriff told the BoCC.  “The statistics clearly show that marijuana is a gate-way drug.  Kids start out using marijuana, and then they move on to more serious drugs."  Continued...
pete gonzalez archuleta county
Sheriff Pete Gonzalez delivers his opinions at the BoCC meeting.
“I realize you may have already decided to pass this ordinance, but I have to urge you, as your Sheriff, not to do this.”

A few minutes later, after hearing from a handful of people speaking in support of the new ordinance, the BoCC voted two-to-one to approve a new County ordinance allowing the licensing of medical marijuana dispensaries (now officially known as “medical marijuana centers”) and manufacturing facilities, allowing them to operate within the commercially zoned areas of the unincorporated county.

The Sheriff was the only person to speak out against the licensing ordinance.  And I believe he was also the only person to use misleading statistics.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, there are currently 30,919 registered medical marijuana users in Colorado. And “the average age of all patients is 40.”  Over 900 different physicians have signed recommendations for their patients to use the herbal medicine — a medicine that is still classed as a controlled substance by the federal government.

The average age in Colorado, according to the U.S. Census, is 34 years.  The average age of medical marijuana users, according to CDPHE is 40 years.

No one doubts that some 20-year-olds have obtained medical marijuana cards under false pretenses and are using the herb merely for recreational purposes.  But where, exactly, Sheriff Pete Gonzalez obtained his statistic that the overwhelming majority of the state’s 30,919 registered users are 20-year-olds is not immediately obvious.

Meanwhile, a recent report published by the Office of National Drug Control Policy dated January 2008 indicates that a higher percentage of young kids are now abusing over-the-counter pain relievers, tranquilizers and sedatives than are abusing marijuana. The most serious drug problem in Archuleta County, in other words, may not be registered medical marijuana users but a too-casual attitude toward legal pharmaceutical drugs.  By all accounts, pharmaceutical pain killers are much more dangerous than marijuana — an herb which has never produced a single documented overdose case anywhere in the world, I understand.

The Sheriff didn’t mention the problem of pharmaceutical drug abuse during his presentation on Thursday.

But he did make a claim that “marijuana is a gate-way drug.”  This misleading argument against the legalization of marijuana — medical or otherwise — has been put forth by government officials ever since the federal government first began campaigning to make the herb illegal in 1930.  (Other quaint arguments, back then, included official statements that marijuana use causes white women to have sex with black men.)

The “gate-way” drug argument has obviously been retaining some popularity among county sheriffs, however.  The argument goes like this:

Marijuana, by itself, is relatively harmless.  (According to everything I’ve read, including U.S. government studies, marijuana is much less harmful than alcohol or cigarettes.  Used properly, in fact, it is a remarkably safe pain medicine.) 

But “statistics show” that a young person who first experiments with marijuana will, statistically, then go on to experiment with more dangerous illegal drugs.  As Sheriff Gonzalez explained, the statistics don’t lie.

The main problem with the “gate-way drug” argument is that marijuana has been classified by the federal government as an illegal drug — which means that a young person wanting to experiment with this substance has always had to purchase the herb from criminals.  Unfortunately, the “statistics” are unable to clarify for us whether marijuana would still “lead to other illegal drugs” if it were available at the supermarket the same way cigarettes and beer are available.

It’s entirely possible that, by forcing marijuana users to interact with criminals in order to obtain their product, the government is actually placing young people into ongoing business relationships with criminal elements — and thus promoting the transition to “heavier drugs” simply through contact with those criminals.

Not only is this possible — it’s almost certain. According to certain statistics, making a drug illegal actually causes its use to increase.

Marijuana is sold in coffee shops in the Netherlands.  You can walk into a coffee shop and purchase a joint, and smoke it while you read the morning newspaper.  (Marijuana is not allowed to be sold in bars, however, nor near schools.)

According to a 2006 study by the Trimbos Instituut, Utrecht, Netherlands, less than 23 percent of the Dutch population have ever tried marijuana.  Less than 4 percent have ever used cocaine, and less than 1 percent have tried heroin.  And curiously, the use of all recreational drugs — legal and illegal — has been declining in the Netherlands since 1997. (One exception: the use of Ecstasy has increased slightly.)

Here in the U.S., according to the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 41 percent of Americans have tried marijuana, almost 15 percent have used cocaine and 1.5 percent have used heroin.

The statistics about current usage are even more telling.  Only 5.4 percent of Dutch citizens used marijuana last year.  Here in the U.S. more than 10 percent used it last year.  Overall, Americans use recreational drugs at twice the rate seen in the Netherlands.

I’m sure our Town Council — mayor Ross Aragon, Stan Holt, Shari Pierce, Jerry Jackson, Kathie Lattin, Don Volger and Darrel Cotton — had only the best intentions when they voted last Thursday to prohibit all medical marijuana businesses from operating within the Town limits.  Unfortunately, this decision causes not only registered medical marijuana patients but also our area’s young people to seek other avenues to obtain their medicine or recreational drugs, as the case may be.

Meanwhile, our County commissioners — Clifford Lucero and John Ranson — thanked Sheriff Gonzalez for his testimony and then proceeded to pass an ordinance allowing medical marijuana facilities, with commissioner Bob Moomaw voting against the ordinance.  That ordinance will take effect once the BoCC approves it again on the second reading at the end of September.

I wonder though.  Did the Town Council consider the closing of the downtown City Market when they were passing their moratorium last week?  You could sure grow a lot of marijuana in a building that size.

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