CURATED BY German Lopez
2014-08-08 20:35:09 -0400
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Marijuana legalization would allow adults across the United States to legally smoke, eat, and otherwise consume marijuana for recreational and medical purposes.
Widespread marijuana legalization would be a major policy shift for the United States and most other developed countries around the world. For decades, most countries have restricted marijuana use — at most allowing it for medical purposes — as part of the ongoing war on drugs.
But with Colorado and Washington moving ahead with legalization efforts — and public opinion increasingly moving in favor of legal marijuana — some public officials are taking a new look.
Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana in 2013. Alaska might follow with its own ballot initiative this year as well.
As with alcohol, there are limits to marijuana legalization. In Colorado and Washington, for example, only adults 21 and older are allowed to possess up to one ounce of usable marijuana, and both states have strict laws against driving while intoxicated.
The specifics of legalization can also vary from state to state. Colorado, for instance, allows each household to grow up to six recreational marijuana plants, while Washington bans home-growing marijuana for recreational use.
Marijuana legalization supporters argue that legal marijuana will generate new tax revenues for the government without causing significant risks to public health. Opponents say legalization would give teenagers easier access to a drug that could prove harmful to their cognitive development. And with states just now starting to legalize, they're beginning to learn how the government can and can't regulate a legal marijuana market.
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Marijuana — also known as pot, weed, or cannabis — is the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States. Marijuana is a psychoactive drug, meaning it's a chemical substance that affects behavior and mood.
The major psychoactive ingredient in marijuana is THC (that's short for tetrahydrocannabinol). Although effects vary from person to person, marijuana consumption is typically associated with euphoria, giddiness, relaxation, heightened sensations, and increased appetite. That likely explains why marijuana users often report increased enjoyment from food and music.
Marijuana remains illegal in most of the United States. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, the strictest possible classification in the agency's system. The classification means the DEA perceives marijuana as more dangerous than schedule 2 drugs like cocaine and meth, and therefore enforces stricter regulations on marijuana than schedule 2, 3, 4, and 5 drugs.
The harsh classification has serious ramifications for marijuana even in places where state law says it's legal. Marijuana businesses, for instance, must function as cash-only businesses largely as a result of prohibition.
Congress can also pass legislation to reschedule marijuana, which is something legalization advocates have been lobbying legislators to do for a long time.
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Marijuana decriminalization eliminates criminal penalties, such as extended prison time, for possession of a limited amount of the drug.
Decriminalization laws vary from state to state, but they typically apply to anyone possessing a small amount of marijuana. Whether a small amount means 10 or 100 grams depends on the state's laws. (In comparison, a marijuana joint weighs about half a gram.)
This doesn't mean that possessing marijuana is legal in places where it's decriminalized. Those caught possessing or selling an amount within decriminalized limits are still fined, usually a few hundred dollars. States with stricter decriminalization laws also attach some jail time, particularly to trafficking.
And those caught with large amounts of marijuana, even in places where the drug is decriminalized, still face criminal penalties.
As of May 21, 19 states and the District of Columbia have moved to decriminalize marijuana. It is fully legal in Colorado and Washington.
Supporters of decriminalization often point to Portugal as evidence of the policy's success. A 2009 Cato Institute report found drug-related deaths dropped after Portugal decriminalized all drugs, and more drug addicts sought rehabilitation services because the policy removed the fear of arrest.
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Medical marijuana is just marijuana except, as the name implies, it's used for medical instead of recreational purposes.
Some studies and anecdotal evidence suggest marijuana can be used for various medical problems, including pain, nausea and loss of appetite, Parkinson's disease, inflammatory bowel disease, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis. Still, some of these findings have been disputed:
The evidence comes with a very big caveat: it's long been difficult to conduct thorough studies on the medical uses of marijuana, because of the drug's prohibition and the need for approval from a federal government that's more interested in studying marijuana's potential for abuse than its benefits.
Still, some experts now claim it's time to seriously look at marijuana's medical benefits. Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN in 2013 cited a loud chorus of legitimate patients when he announced his shift in position to support for medical marijuana. For marijuana advocates, Gupta's headline-grabbing support represented a shift in the medical world's attitude toward the drug.
Several states have already legalized medical marijuana, although the drug remains illegal for all purposes at the federal level. New York in 2014 became the 23rd state to legalize medical marijuana.
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Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana in 2012, when voters approved legalization. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, although the Obama administration has said it will allow state-level rules to stand without much federal interference.
Outside of the United States, Uruguay became the first country in the world to fully legalize marijuana in 2013. The Netherlands allows citizens to keep and cultivate some marijuana, and police let coffee shops sell marijuana as long as they don't sell to minors or break other major rules. And according to multiple reports from experts, visitors, and defectors, North Korea either has no law restricting marijuana or the law goes effectively unenforced.
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We don't know if marijuana is totally legal in North Korea, but the Huffington Post found there's either no law against marijuana or the law is largely unenforced.
Freelance writer Darmon Richter documented his experiences with marijuana in North Korea. Richter was apparently able to buy a bag of the drug for about £0.50 (about 84 cents, which is very cheap) in an open market.
Richter claimed he was also able to smoke marijuana joints in public. No one — not even a coughing waitress — complained.
Richter's experience was backed by other reports: citing North Korean sources, Vice claimed "the drug is especially popular among the lower classes of North Korean society. After a day of hard manual labor, it is common for North Korean workers to smoke marijuana as a way to relax and soothe tight or sore muscles."
It's not just the lower classes, either. A 2010 report from Open Radio for North Korea found Kim Jong-Un's regime doesn't consider marijuana — or opium, for that matter — to be an illicit drug.
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With public support climbing for marijuana legalization, advocates are gearing up for several legalization campaigns in the next few years.
The Marijuana Policy Project, a coalition of marijuana legalization advocates, aims to pass at least 10 more state-level laws regulating marijuana like alcohol by 2017. Some campaigns will go through ballot initiatives in Alaska (2014), Arizona (2016), California (2016), Maine (2016), and Nevada (2016). Others plan to go through state legislatures, where supporters will lobby for legalization, in Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
Meanwhile, various campaigns in Oregon are preparing to get marijuana legalization on the ballot in 2014, following the failed campaign in 2012.
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Proponents argue marijuana legalization would allow governments to redirect resources from the costly war on drugs and legitimize a revenue-generating marijuana market, without causing significant risks to public health.
Advocates argue that the negative health effects of marijuana are minimal. They point out that marijuana's toxicity is much lower than already-legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco.
And although some studies and experts suggest a correlation between teenage marijuana use and lower IQs, legalization supporters claim the evidence doesn't prove the relationship is cause-and-effect. As some research shows, it's possible people with lower IQs are more likely to use marijuana.
Legalization advocates also point out that prohibition has failed to reduce marijuana use. The war on drugs originally intended to take down illegal drug supplies, increase prices as a result, and make the drug unaffordable to users. Those goals failed: the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy found marijuana prices dropped and stabilized starting after early 1990s, and several surveys show marijuana use rose and stabilized among youth in the same time period.
Meanwhile, drug prohibition has created a lucrative black market for drug cartels. Some research shows marijuana legalization would lead to significant financial losses for these groups.
Marijuana prohibition also led to millions of arrests over the last decade that disproportionally affected minorities, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. These arrests don't necessarily lead to prison time: estimates put only 40,000 people in state and federal prisons for marijuana. But marijuana advocates see even the threat of arrest as too much for what they call a relatively harmless substance.
Taking all this together, legalization supporters say it's time to turn marijuana into a legitimate market for governments and businesses. Through legalization, proponents argue, the marijuana market could fuel economic growth and increased tax revenues, instead of powerful drug cartels and more arrests.
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Opponents of legalized marijuana argue relaxed drug laws will increase marijuana use, which could be particularly damaging for children and teenagers.
Some studies and experts suggest teenage marijuana use correlates with worse brain development and lower IQs. There's also concern that marijuana could act as a gateway to other drugs, like heroin and cocaine, but the research on this point is a bit shaky.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper opposed marijuana legalization when it was on the ballot in his state, arguing that doing so would de-stigmatize drug use. "Amendment 64 has the potential to increase the number of children using drugs and would detract from efforts to make Colorado the healthiest state in the nation," he said in a 2012 statement announcing his opposition. "It sends the wrong message to kids that drugs are OK."
Other people oppose legalization and instead argue for smaller actions. For these incrementalists, marijuana decriminalization would keep a legal stigma against marijuana and remove harsh criminal penalties. Portugal, for instance, decriminalized all drugs, including marijuana, instead of pursuing all-out legalization. A 2009 Cato Institute report found drug-related deaths dropped as a result, and more drug addicts sought rehabilitation services because the policy removed the fear of arrest.
Others also support medical marijuana but not full marijuana legalization. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee took this stance as a gubernatorial candidate, when his state was debating marijuana legalization. "I'm in favor of making sure people have access to medical marijuana.… I'm not comfortable with voting for [the legalization] initiative," Inslee told a Seattle radio station in 2012.
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Marijuana legalization has quickly become more popular in the United States.
Support for legalization rose from 12 percent in 1970 to 31 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in 2013, according to Gallup.
The Pew Research Center found support varies among generations. More than two-thirds of millennials back legalizing marijuana, but support is lower among older generations.
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There were about 784,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2010, the latest year of data analyzed by a report from the American Civil Liberties Union. Not all of those arrests led to prison time. Estimates put only 40,000 people in state and federal prisons for marijuana.
The ACLU also found the share of marijuana arrests rose compared to all drug arrests between 1995 and 2010. In 2010, about 784,000 out of 1.7 million drug arrests were for marijuana possession.
Among those arrested, the ACLU found giant racial disparities. Blacks were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested than whites for marijuana possession, with the black arrest rate at 716 per 100,000 and the white arrest rate at 192 per 100,000 in 2010. That's despite the report's findings that whites and blacks use marijuana at similar rates.
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Marijuana is safe relative to other already legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco. But research shows marijuana could carry some health risks, particularly for teenagers and children.
Tens and even hundreds of thousands of deaths are pinned to alcohol, cigarettes, and prescription drugs each year. Marijuana, on the other hand, made headlines when doctors found a potential link between marijuana and three deaths.
An American Scientist analysis measured the toxicity of several drugs, comparing a drug's effective dose, the threshold for a drug's desired effect, to a drug's fatal dose. Heroin's fatal dose was five times its effective dose, alcohol's was 10, and cocaine's was 15. Marijuana's was more than 1,000 (when ingested). So it takes a lot more to die from marijuana than it does to die from heroin, alcohol, or cocaine.
The American Scientist analysis also classified heroin and meth as the two most addictive drugs, followed by cocaine, nicotine, and alcohol. Marijuana ranked toward the bottom with possibly caffeine, only above hallucinogens like LSD that do not cause much, if any, dependence.
Some people also worry that smoking marijuana, like tobacco, could cause lung cancer. The National Cancer Institute's review of the research, however, concluded the evidence is conflicting and mixed. So it remains unclear if smoking marijuana causes lung cancer.
For teenagers, though, marijuana-associated health concerns are more serious. Some studies and experts suggest teenage marijuana use correlates with worse brain development and lower IQs. These findings indicate that early use of marijuana could create permanent cognitive deficits that last even after one stops taking the drug.
Some researchers attribute marijuana's potential harms to increased levels of brain development during a person's teenage years, which makes the brain particularly vulnerable to toxic effects.
But other researchers found the correlation could show that people with lower IQs are more likely to consume marijuana. In other words, it's not marijuana use that lowers IQs; it's lower IQs, or some other attribute linked to lower IQs, that lead to marijuana use.
There have also been concerns that marijuana use can lead to psychosis and schizophrenia, but recent studies suggest marijuana isn't a cause of the disorders. A Harvard study, for one, concluded the primary cause of schizophrenia is a family history of the disorder, not marijuana use. A King's College London study similarly found that some genes might predispose people to both schizophrenia and marijuana use.
The research and anecdotal evidence suggest marijuana might be able to treat several medical problems, such as pain, nausea and loss of appetite, Parkinson's disease, inflammatory bowel disease, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and epilepsy.
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The federal government does not interfere with state laws that legalize marijuana as long as states enforce certain standards, like a ban on sales to minors.
The Obama administration in 2013 filed a guidance asking prosecutors and regulators to avoid coming down on individual marijuana users and businesses in states where marijuana is legal. The guidance, however, maintained exceptions that allow prosecutors to crack down on instances in which legal marijuana is sold to minors, is grown on public land, falls into the hands of drug cartels, or spreads to states where the drug remains illegal. The guidance does not grant legal immunity, but it tells prosecutors and regulators to prioritize other issues.
The Obama administration also showed its tolerance for marijuana legalization by trying to assure banks that they will not be punished if they hold cash from legal marijuana businesses. But the guidance also required banks to heavily scrutinize pot shops and producers — to the point that banks in general deemed the guidance unrealistic and, as a result, still do not loan to or open accounts for pot shops and producers.
The banking problems have led to concerns about the safety of legal marijuana businesses. The big issue: federal prohibition forces shops and cultivators to act as cash-only businesses, which could make them vulnerable to robbery, burglary, and other crimes.
President Barack Obama, for his part, recently stated that it's important to allow legalization experiments to continue.
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President Barack Obama opposes marijuana legalization, but he told The New Yorker that states' marijuana legalization plans must be allowed to continue. The president explained that he views marijuana as no more dangerous than alcohol.
The federal government's relaxed enforcement of marijuana laws reflects the president's cautious take on marijuana legalization. The administration in multiple guidances told prosecutors and regulators to prioritize other issues, as long as states enforce certain standards, such as a ban on marijuana sales to children.
At the same time, Vice President Joe Biden cautioned that the Obama administration will not pursue marijuana legalization at the federal level. "I think the idea of focusing significant resources on interdicting or convicting people for smoking marijuana is a waste of our resources," Biden told Time. "That’s different than [legalization]. Our policy for our administration is still not legalization."
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States where marijuana is legal tax and regulate the drug much like alcohol, but specific rules vary from state to state.
Both Colorado and Washington, for instance, tax marijuana, allow only adults 21 and older to possess the drug, and prohibit driving while intoxicated, just like alcohol. But Colorado allows each household to grow up to six recreational marijuana plants, while Washington bans home-growing marijuana for recreational use.
Rules on medical marijuana also differ from state to state. Colorado, for example, doesn't allow medical marijuana for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) patients; New Mexico and Michigan do. Similar differences play out on a state-by-state basis depending on the medical problem and the ease of access to medical marijuana cards.
For more information, advocacy group NORML maintains a comprehensive database of state-by-state laws.
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The gateway drug theory claims that the relationship between marijuana and harder drugs is cause-and-effect: marijuana use leads to harder drug use. Marijuana legalization opponents sometimes cite this theory as one reason marijuana should remain illegal.
While there is some evidence that marijuana users are more likely to use harder drugs, most research suggests it's not a causal relationship.
An analysis from RAND's Drug Policy Research Center argues the gateway drug theory could represent a misreading of the data. Habitual drug users, for example, could be more likely to use a variety of drugs, which could explain the correlation between marijuana and other drug use. Furthermore, drug users only try marijuana first because it is more accessible than harder drugs; if cocaine and heroin were equally accessible, drug users could be just as likely to try the harder drugs first.
Another study indicated RAND's alternative explanation is more plausible than the gateway drug theory. Researchers found no conclusive evidence that marijuana use leads to harder drug use, and they concluded that the gateway drug theory wrongly treats a correlation as causation.
Meanwhile, a 2014 study found an uptick in marijuana use did not lead to more harder drug use. The findings, along with other research into the subject, suggest marijuana is not a gateway drug.
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Since only two states (Colorado and Washington) and a few countries allow recreational marijuana, there's not a lot of research on whether full legalization leads to more marijuana use.
Most of the research instead focuses on what happens after marijuana decriminalization and medical marijuana legalization, largely because way more states and nations have passed such laws. The results of those studies are a bit mixed.
A 2014 study looked at marijuana use data among teenagers between 1993 and 2011; it concluded medical marijuana legalization did not lead to more marijuana use among high school students. Similarly, another study found medical marijuana legalization led to more marijuana use among adults 21 and older but no discernible effect among teenagers.
Monitoring the Future's data also shows nationwide marijuana use dropped then slightly fluctuated among high school students after 1995, a year before California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana.
The trend shows up in specific states that legalized medical marijuana, according to government data. Marijuana use among Colorado youth, for instance, dropped from 22.7 percent to 22.0 percent between 2005 — the earliest year for which data is available — and 2011. (Colorado legalized medical marijuana in 2001, but dispensaries did not begin popping up until 2007.)
Meanwhile, a study found a slight increase in marijuana use during the first five years of decriminalization in Australia, and people appeared more likely to start using marijuana at an earlier age during those five years. But after five years of decriminalization, the policy seemed to have no impact on marijuana use among youth or adults.
One report found drug use fell among teenagers in Portugal following the decriminalization of all drugs, but use ticked up for young adults aged 20 to 24.
This, for now, is what we know about usage after medical marijuana legalization and decriminalization. But we're still waiting to see whether full legalization leads to an uptick of use in places like Colorado and Washington.
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Nationwide marijuana legalization could produce billions in revenues for all levels of government, but the total impact would still be a small share of government budgets.
A 2010 paper from the Cato Institute found legalizing marijuana would net all levels of the government $17.4 billion annually. Half of that would come from reduced spending, particularly for drug enforcement. The other $8.7 billion would come from taxing marijuana like alcohol and tobacco.
While that sounds like a big number, the amount of government spending from municipalities, states, and the federal government is really big, too. So that $17.4 billion works out to 0.3 percent of all 2008 government spending in the United States.
Colorado became the first state to get a real-world look at the potential tax revenue, with marijuana tax receipts for the first month of full legalization totaling $3.5 million. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper's February budget projection estimated marijuana would produce $134 million in the following fiscal year (about 0.5 percent of the state's overall budget), but, citing uncertainty in the market, his administration later revised the estimate downward by more than $20 million.
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So far, Colorado's experiment with marijuana legalization has gone better than many critics expected.
Marijuana possession was legalized in Colorado soon after voters approved legalization in 2012, but retail sales of recreational marijuana didn't start until January 2014.
A survey from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment showed that marijuana use among high school students did not increase in 2013, after the legalization of possession in 2012 but before the beginning of sales in 2014. It's possible legal marijuana sales could affect teen pot use differently than the mere legalization of possession, but the effect of sales won't show up until future numbers.
The data comes as a bit of a blow to critics of relaxed marijuana laws. Opponents of Colorado's legalization measure argued it would increase teen pot use by increasing access to the drug. Supporters of legalization claimed teens already had ample access to marijuana through the illicit market, and a legal, regulated system could better prevent adolescent drug use.
Revenue from sales generally increased between January and July, as the state, cities, and counties licensed more shops for business.
Still, tax revenues from marijuana have fallen short of expectations. Experts and analysts attribute the shortfall to two reasons: many people continue getting their pot through the less-taxed medical marijuana system, and many local governments, including the state's second-largest city (Colorado Springs), ended up forbidding sales of recreational marijuana.
That could be bad news for Colorado's schools. Prior to the launch of retail sales, Colorado voters approved new taxes on recreational marijuana in 2013. Colorado Proposition AA added a 15 percent excise tax and a 10 percent sales tax to marijuana sales, which applies on top of Colorado's statewide 2.9 percent sales tax. The first $40 million raised by the excise tax must go to the construction of public schools, and the entirety of the additional sales tax must go to enforcing regulations on the recreational marijuana industry.
Prior to legalization, law enforcement officials warned crime would rise along with the legalization of pot. But Denver's experience contradicts those warnings. (Denver is just one city, but it's also the city with the most pot shops in Colorado.)
One major problem did emerge after the beginning of sales: marijuana edibles that are riskier to consume than other marijuana goods and could be inadvertently marketed to children. A legislature-backed task force proposed tightened regulations on edibles that would reduce serving sizes and improve labeling on packaging, but the proposal requires administrative approval before the rules become official.
There have also been some less prevalent concerns about a few people blowing themselves up while making marijuana-based hash oil. So far, officials have responded by warning pot users to not cook hash oil at home.
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Most states have a standard for what counts as drunk driving — and with the legalization of marijuana, Colorado and Washington had to figure out what counts as drugged driving.
Both Colorado and Washington allow drivers to have less than five nanograms of active THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, per milliliter of blood. If a driver breaches the limit, administrative and criminal penalties could apply. (Advocacy group NORML tracks state-by-state laws regarding drugged driving here.)
Whether Colorado and Washington use the correct threshold for punishing drugged driving remains in dispute.
Marijuana advocates point out that THC can remain in a person's system days after it's consumed, and THC levels don't correlate with level of impairment. Even the federal government acknowledges that it's "difficult to establish a relationship between a person's THC blood or plasma concentration and performance impairing effects." Some research also found being high doesn't impair all drivers in the same way.
Still, some experts and experiments suggest marijuana can hinder a person's ability to drive. Columbia University researchers estimated that, while alcohol multiplies the chance of an accident by more than 13 times, the detection of marijuana nearly doubles the risk.
So it's not as bad as alcohol, but still notably worse than driving sober. The issue, then, is finding the correct way to evaluate a drugged driver's level of impairment — and there's been little luck so far in finding a scientifically supported measure.
Before drivers get to sobriety checkpoints, Colorado officials hope to discourage drugged driving through an education campaign. Some of the PSAs use a little humor to get their point across.
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This is very much a work in progress. It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge.
So if you have additional questions or comments or quibbles or complaints, send a note to German Lopez: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy posts the latest news on its efforts in the war on drugs. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also keeps a list and explanation of its classifications for illicit drugs, including marijuana.
For those interested in learning more about states where marijuana is already legal, The Denver Post put up a great FAQ on Colorado and the Washington State Liquor Board maintains a similar FAQ on Washington.
For more reporting on the issue, The Denver Post's marijuana page and The Cannabist offer two of the best resources for the latest news on marijuana in Colorado and around the country. The New Yorker also ran a a really interesting story about how Washington has navigated the surprising challenges of regulating legal marijuana. And 5280 magazine printed a beautiful glossary tracking Colorado's experiment with marijuana legalization.
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