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Amendment 64 task force can't make mountains out of marijuana molehills, advocate says

In this space yesterday, marijuana advocate Christian Sederberg spoke positively about the Amendment 64 task force to which he was just named. So, too, does attorney Sean McAllister, who lobbied the governor's office about the importance of marijuana consumers being represented on the panel. But with his optimism comes caution over the membership and the task force's direction.

McAllister sat down with staffers of Governor John Hickenlooper in late November on behalf of Colorado NORML -- and Craig Small, a NORML representative, is among the 24 task force members. He was also concerned about the membership being dominated by law enforcement personnel adamantly opposed to A64, but he believes that's not the case. The main reps who fall into this category are David Blake, with the Colorado Attorney General's Office, Larry Abrahamson, from the Colorado District Attorney's Council, and former Denver Manager of Safety Charles Garcia, serving on behalf of the Colorado Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice. Yet McAllister thinks their presence could be a positive as long as they approach their mission from what he sees as the proper perspective.

"I believe this task force represents the best opportunity to try to keep the federal government at bay, essentially by telling them, 'Look, we can handle our business here -- take care of this issue, properly regulate it,'" he says. "And in order to have legitimacy, it needs to have some buy-in from the Attorney General's office and the DA's offices."

At the same time, though, "I'm concerned, because those agencies and departments have a history of opposing reform -- seeking to undermine marijuana reforms in subtle ways and not necessarily respecting the will of the voters," McAllister continues. "Now, John Suthers (Colorado's AG) says he wants to respect the will of the voters, and I want him to live up to his promise. I don't want his office's participation to undermine that -- because there has been an institutional resistance when it comes to law enforcement accepting the new world order we live in."

McAllister isn't ready to hit the panic button, however.

"I'm not overly concerned," he maintains. "But in the past, these groups have perhaps overblown fears and concerns to try to block reform. And I hope they don't continue that habit of making mountains out of molehills in order to thwart reform."

Example?

"When we got medical marijuana, everybody said, 'Oh my God, the children! All the kids will be smoking pot!'" he replies. "And we got a lot of anecdotal reports about that. But the best report I've seen" -- a June study associated with the University of Colorado Denver -- "showed that marijuana use has actually gone down among teens. They also talked about crime around dispensaries, and that hasn't happened, either.

"These people who have been crying wolf for five years, telling us the world is going to end and the sky is going to fall? At every stage, they've been wrong. They've been wrong about crime, they've been wrong about teen use, they've been wrong about DUID. So, at the end of the day, these critics need to accept the fact that their concerns haven't been borne out and they lost the election -- and elections have consequences. And one of those consequences is that the voters are on the side of the reformers."

Continue for more about the Amendment 64 task force.

Dr. Christian Thurstone, another member of the task force, definitely doesn't fall into the reformer category. He's long pointed to what he considers to be marijuana's dangers, particularly for young people. In a February 2010 Westword interview, he maintained that kids were becoming addicted to what they referred to as "their medicine." Here's an excerpt from that piece:

"In the scientific community, there's no debate about whether or not marijuana is an addictive substance," he says. "We know that marijuana triggers the same parts of the brain as all other addictive substances, like nicotine, cocaine and heroin. Probably about 2 percent of adolescents have an addiction to marijuana, and we know that dependence is not just psychological but physical -- and that it includes tolerance levels. Users have to smoke more and more to get the same effect, and there's a withdrawal syndrome that lasts one to two weeks with heavy users.

"My main concern is what this is doing to our kids, our youth," he continues. "And we know that when access to substances goes up, teenagers use them with more frequency. And we also know that when the perceived harmfulness of a substance goes down, teenagers use the substance more frequently -- which may be why we're seeing more teenagers coming in due to problems with marijuana abuse."

Adding to this problem, from Thurstone's perspective, is the increasingly popular view that marijuana is actually healthful.

"There's a medical marijuana dispensary going up in my neighborhood that's going to be called 5280 Wellness," he notes. "What does that communicate to our children? That marijuana is associated with wellness. But it's not a benign drug. It's associated with aggression as part of the withdrawal syndrome, as well as risky sexual behavior that can lead to STDs and teen pregnancies. And a study in Canada showed that 80 percent of people who reported using marijuana in the past year also reported driving within an hour after smoking -- so it's no doubt associated with impaired driving and increased accidents, too."

When asked about Thurstone, McAllister says, "The campaign and most marijuana advocates would tell you they're on the same page as Dr. Thurstone -- marijuana is not a drug for young people. And it's still illegal for anyone under 21. But the doctor has lost credibility in the past with his reiteration of things like the gateway theory.

"So the question is: Will he be part of a group that will use hypothetical and anecdotal concerns to try to stall the entire system? Because that's something we shouldn't allow. With all these issues, we should be asking ourselves, 'Will being overly protective shut the system down?' And the answer is, we should default to the will of the voters. We should go back to the fact that 55 percent of voters wanted this to be the case. So we need to adopt things that address these issues, but not use these concerns to stop us from implementing what the voters want."

Continue to see the members of the Amendment 64 task force.

Task force membership, from governor's office press release:

• Rep. Dan Pabon, appointed by the incoming Speaker of the House;

• Sen. Cheri Jahn, appointed by the incoming President of the Senate;

• Rep.-elect Dan Nordberg, appointed by the incoming House Minority Leader;

• Sen.-elect Vicki Marble, appointed by the incoming Senate Minority Leader;

• David Blake, representing the Colorado Attorney General;

• Kevin Bommer, representing the Colorado Municipal League;

• Eric Bergman, representing Colorado Counties Inc.;

• Chris Urbina, the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment;

• James Davis, the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety;

• John Salazar, the Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture;

• Ron Kammerzell, the Senior Director responsible for the Colorado Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division;

• Christian Sederberg, representing the campaign to pass Amendment 64;

• Meg Sanders, representing the medical marijuana dispensary and cultivation industry;

• Craig Small, representing marijuana consumers;

• Sam Kamin, a person with expertise in legal issues related to the legalization of marijuana;

• Dr. Christian Thurstone, a person with expertise in the treatment of marijuana addiction;

• Charles Garcia, representing the Colorado Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice;

• Larry Abrahamson, representing the Colorado District Attorney's Council;

• Brian Connors, representing the Colorado State Public Defender;

• Daniel Zook, an at-large member from outside of the Denver area;

• Tamra Ward, representing the interests of employers; and

• Mike Cerbo, representing the interests of employees.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Amendment 64: John Hickenlooper setting up broad task force regarding marijuana measure."