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A worker processes marijuana in the trimming room at the Medicine Man dispensary and grow operation in northeastern Denver in December, 2013. (ED ANDRIESKI/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
A worker processes marijuana in the trimming room at the Medicine Man dispensary and grow operation in northeastern Denver in December, 2013. (ED ANDRIESKI/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Globe editorial

With pot legalization, Colorado lights up a big experiment Add to ...

For a glimpse of what the future might hold for Canada if this country opts to legalize marijuana, Colorado has just become our crystal ball.

At the stroke of midnight this New Year, the Rocky Mountain state became the first to legalize the sale and purchase of pot for recreational use by adults 21 years and older. Washington is poised to do the same in a few months. Alaska, California, Oregon and Nevada could be next, and pot proponents are closely watching how Colorado’s great drug experiment unfolds. Canadians would be wise to do the same, treating Colorado like a laboratory.

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Here’s what we know so far: Since Colorado’s pot shops opened for business, sales have been brisk. Thousands queued up on Jan 1st to purchase their legal limit of marijuana -- one ounce -- from about 40 licensed shops, which operate like liquor stores, requiring customers to prove their age before a purchase. All sales are subject to a 21 per cent sales tax.

All of this marks a new era in American drug policy. So far, it hasn’t caused the sky to fall. Legalization provides a new source of tax revenue for the state, has created a marginal number of jobs and may even even reduce the use of alcohol. Colorado’s new law also goes a long way in moving past the tired rhetoric of America’s long-running and costly war on drugs. That too, is a good thing.

None of that’s to say Canada should blindly follow in Colorado’s footsteps. It’s just too early to tell whether there is a net benefit to legalization. It’s one thing to support legalization for medical purposes, a practice that has existed in Colorado since 2000, to alleviate unnecessary suffering. Legalizing pot in very small amounts also seems likely to be innocuous, considering the cost of criminalization is so high. The United States spends $50-billion annually on the war on drugs, arresting 750,000 people a year for marijuana-related offences. Many of these cases may simply be clogging up the courts, and the prisons, to no good end.

But legalizing the recreational use of marijuana is something entirely different. Does it tacitly encourage drug use by removing the stigma associated with it? Should smoking pot really be as culturally and legally acceptable as having a drink? This isn’t just about morality. It’s about the consequences of drug use on people’s health. Will legalization pave the way for the use and abuse of heavier and more dangerous drugs? Will having pot more easily available make its use by adolescents more prevalent? Some medical studies show THC impairs their cognitive abilities.

Thanks to Colorado’s decision, we’ll have the ability to more thoughtfully answer these and other questions. The state is conducting a pot legalization experiment that the rest of the continent can learn from. Canadians should watch closely, keep an open mind – and refrain from passing judgement one way or the other until the smoke has cleared.

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