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Marijuana forum highlights concerns

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On Monday, Feb. 26, a community forum on the "Effects of Marijuana on Our Community" convened at the Delta Performing Arts Center. This forum came together in response to the ballot question on taxation of retail marijuana and marijuana products in Delta and Orchard City. Marijuana sales are not yet legal in either community.

The forum focused on several aspects of marijuana commercialization: risk to school age youth, criminal behavior increases, urgent care/emergency room costs, impact of grow houses on home values, mental health and addiction recovery, and utility cost increases.

A common sentiment shared among the speakers was the belief that marijuana sales will hurt the "hometown secure feeling" of Delta.

"Our goal is to inform the public what could happen if marijuana sales are to go into legalization," said Scott Schaible before the event. "There's a lot of talk about the revenue benefits, but at what cost?"

Schaible kicked off the lineup of seven speakers by being clear to emphasize the evening was about sharing facts, not opinions. Schaible is familiar with mental health and addiction because of his work with youth and his own recovery from addiction.

He shared that while those for legalization are entitled to their opinions, "to disregard the costs [of marijuana] is inexcusable."

Schaible stated that clinicians in addiction recovery centers will testify it is an addictive and a gateway drug, particularly because of the increase in THC levels.

"The effects of high THC in marijuana can change the brain's processing of good and wrong decision making, even triggering the impulse to take one's own life," he said.

Marijuana use at an early age can lead to complications such as decreased IQ, addiction risk, and risk of dropping out, he emphasized. He believes availability of marijuana is the cause for increased problems in schools and law enforcement, reasoning that limiting availability will reduce issues.

Schaible also gave a handout with tips for parents on how to talk with their children about marijuana.

Concluding with a statement from a 2012 Huffington Post article on Colorado ranking highest in the nation for substance abuse with alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, Schaible ended with, "If the rationale is revenue, then I guess we should legalize cocaine as well."

Pat and Dave Andrews voiced their concerns that more suicides like their grandson's will follow legalization of marijuana sales. After losing his grandparents, Benjamin, their grandson, started using marijuana and declined academically and socially.

After he began using other drugs such as LSD, counseling revealed he was also trying to soothe childhood trauma.

"When the police searched his room [after his death], they found a manner of drugs," said Pat. "Benjamin was trying to erase the horrors of his life by using drugs. First marijuana, then harder drugs."

Dr. Kevin Pulsipher, a family medicine doctor in Delta, said his experiences have formed strong opinions regarding medicinal and recreational use of addictive substances such as marijuana.

"It is noted in the literature that recreational use of addictive substances far outweighs medicinal use," he said.

Pulsipher warned that the effect on children is of grave concern due to its changed genetics and impact on the development of the brain. "Legal access always creates a backdoor to illegal access and illicit access," he said.

Like Schaible, Pulsipher also emphasized the increased cost to emergency rooms and medical facilities due to hindered judgment from marijuana use, particularly impaired driving.

Next, Undersheriff Mark Taylor spoke on his research on the effects of marijuana. After citing the pros and cons for retail marijuana legalization, Taylor focused on a 2016 report, "The Legalization of Marijuana: The Impact from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area." This report is available online at www.sheriffs.org.

A chuckle of disbelief echoed from the audience as Taylor cited from related data that "as of January 2016, there were 424 retail marijuana stores in the state of Colorado compared to 322 Starbucks and 202 McDonald's."

Taylor referenced several incidences of vehicular homicide in various cities across Colorado resulting from teen drivers using marijuana. In Delta County, he shared, law enforcement received notification in November 2014 of a large marijuana grow above Cedaredge. After obtaining a search warrant, approximately 3,400 marijuana plants were located on the premises.

"Every contact we had with this individual was extremely violent, pushing law enforcement to the limits," said Taylor. "He was always armed and belligerent, making us nervous."

In 2016, investigators learned of a group that purchased property around Delta County, intent to grow marijuana. After obtaining search warrants making arrests, law enforcement realized many of the properties were destroyed due to the marijuana growth. "This is happening right here in our own backyard," he concluded.

Ron Austin, mayor pro-tem for Delta, concluded the lineup of speakers for the evening. The amenities Delta County is known for, such as the Grand Mesa, hunting and fishing, Devil's Thumb and various businesses, do not alone provide financial stability, he acknowledged.

"Here's the blessing," he said. "Unlike some cities, we are not so desperate [for financial needs] as to be forced into making risky decisions."

Austin noted that new revenue needs to help set Delta apart in a positive way while attracting others who wish to "share in our designation as an All-America City."

We need to evaluate and explore our options, he said. "We must recognize that financial assistance can come with a cost."

Austin said many desire to provide their children with a community and careers that encourage them to return after higher education.

He assured the audience he is committed to doing everything within his ability to fulfill this vision. "Our community sharing in that vision is a key element to maintaining Delta going forward," he concluded.

The question-and-answer session following the speeches generated some positive feedback.

Discussion from this session included other cities' experiences and what can be practically done in Delta. After another audience member asked if other cities have seen revenue benefit, Kevin Carlson, a city council candidate, shared some facts from Telluride, which has six legalized marijuana shops. He said the revenue generated from the shops seems to be "a wash" due to extra expenses from staff and licensing.

A local pastor asked how church communities can address the issues leading people to marijuana in the first place. While the responses did provide clear answers, the speakers agreed there is more to the marijuana discussion that just the surface issue of use.

After the event, audience member Hannah Armstrong shared her frustration. "We're supposed to be known for our outdoors and our businesses. Instead Colorado is becoming known for marijuana and I think that's sad," she said.

Armstrong also noted she wanted to do more research following the forum. "Many people talk about suicide being an issue with marijuana but taking away the drugs won't take away the problem if the thoughts are already there," she said. "We need to look more at the root of the problem."

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