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Governors: Legalized pot buzz just smoke

Published: Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014 10:44 p.m. CDT

WASHINGTON – All the buzz at the National Governors Association meeting over legalizing pot, some say, is just smoke.

Nearly three months after Colorado began selling recreational marijuana, the nation’s governors are taking a cautious approach to loosening their drug laws despite growing support for legalization.

Republican and Democratic state chief executives meeting in Washington this weekend expressed broad concern for children and public safety should recreational marijuana use spread. At the same time, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is warning other governors against rushing to follow his lead.

He said he’s spoken to “half a dozen” governors with questions about his state’s experience, including some who “felt this was a wave” headed to their states.

“When governors have asked me, and several have, I say that we don’t have the facts. We don’t know what the unintended consequences are going to be,” Hickenlooper said. “I urge caution.”

The Democrat continued: “I say, if it was me, I’d wait a couple of years.”

States are watching closely as Colorado and Washington establish themselves as national pioneers after becoming the first states to approve recreational marijuana use in 2012. A group is hoping to add Alaska as the third state.

Colorado became the first to allow legal retail sales of recreational marijuana on Jan. 1 and Washington is expected to launch its marketplace soon.

Hickenlooper confirmed that early tax revenue collections on Colorado pot sales have exceeded projections but cautioned that tax revenue “is absolutely the wrong reason to even think about legalizing recreational marijuana.”

Medical marijuana, meanwhile, is legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Florida voters will decide on a proposed constitutional amendment to allow medical marijuana in November.

President Barack Obama’s administration has given states the green light to experiment with marijuana regulation.

Obama recently generated headlines when he said in an interview that he didn’t think marijuana was more dangerous than alcohol “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.” He said smoking marijuana is “not something I encourage, and I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy.”

Recent polling suggests that a majority of Americans support efforts to legalize the drug. The issue cuts across party lines as liberals and libertarian-minded Republicans favor the shift.

But governors gathered in Washington this weekend had a more cautious approach.

“I just had a longstanding belief that legalizing marijuana would not be in the interest of our youth or our people,” said Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican. “And I’ll maintain my position in opposition to legalization as long as I’m governor.”

New Hampshire Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan says she’s opposed to legalization because her state already struggles with high rates of youth substance abuse. But she called for a “comprehensive look at our criminal laws and sentencing practices.”

“I don’t think we should be sending young people to jail or have a criminal record for a first offense,” she said.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, called legalization “bad public policy” with unintended consequences.

“It’s a segue drug that I think ends up creating a lot more problems than it solves,” Branstad said.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a former Baltimore mayor whose city has dealt with drug addiction, said in a few years other states would know “whether Colorado was able to reduce harm without creating other adverse impacts unforeseen.” But the Democrat noted that in Maryland, many job opportunities for young people come from federal agencies or firms with federal contracts that require employees to pass drug tests.

“I don’t believe for economic and opportunity reasons that this is an issue where Maryland should serve as that laboratory of democracy,” he said.

The Justice Department said last year that it would largely steer clear of state-legal marijuana businesses as long as they follow a series of strict guidelines. A department memo did not give carte blanche to would-be marijuana entrepreneurs, but the legal pot market viewed the department’s position as encouraging.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration provided banks with guidance on how to do business with marijuana firms, aiming to make banks feel more comfortable working with marijuana businesses that are licensed and regulated.

Meanwhile, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said implementation of his state’s decision to create a legal pot marketplace was succeeding. He also offered some advice to his fellow governors.

“I would encourage them to follow their state’s will,” he said. “Our will was to de-criminalize this product. And so far it’s working well.”

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