As Colorado allows adults to legally purchase marijuana for recreational and medical use, some parents are voicing concerns about how children may be affected by easy access to pot.
A statewide voter initiative in 2012 legalized recreational marijuana. On Jan. 1, the law was to take full effect.
The state is processing hundreds of new applications to sell and grow marijuana. The market is also expected to soon include a wide range of marijuana-infused products -- including highly potent food items.
In interviews with Catholic News Service, some Coloradans cautioned that the proliferation of legal pot carries inadequate child protections, while the products especially appeal to youth and young adults. They say young people will encounter the drug more in homes and at schools that are not yet prepared to manage the proliferation of marijuana-laced foods and some disguisable forms of the drug.
Denver Police Chief Robert White said in late December that his staff will not actively enforce bans on recreational smoking in public, adding to some parents' fears that the murky situation will become a legal free-for-all.
The state's passage of Amendment 64 legalizing recreational pot conflicts with federal law, which prohibits possession and sale of marijuana.
Denver-based attorney and Catholic parent Rachel O'Bryan, who served on a criminal law working group for the Amendment 64 Implementation Task Force, doubts most Coloradans are aware of what the new law will mean for society as a whole and for youngsters especially. O'Bryan pointed to 2013 surveys by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the city of Denver's Office of Drug Strategy showing marijuana use by 8th graders is at 6.5 percent nationwide but 18 percent in Denver.
"After my work on the task force ... I realized no one was looking out for the well-being of children in this process and when you make something more accessible in society it seems more acceptable," said O'Bryan, who spoke with CNS by phone during a vacation in Sarasota, Fla.
"The potency (of THC, marijuana's active ingredient) is unlimited and that will lead to higher addictions - we can't even get the government to say there should be no marijuana candy, and that will be bad across the board," she said. "When it looks like real food, the kids can take that into schools you wouldn't even know."
O'Bryan estimates that most Coloradans who voted in support of Amendment 64 did so without considering how marijuana use would be restricted, taxed or regulated, let alone understanding issues of potency or consumption in public places.
"Limiting open consumption on the streets of Denver is one of the issues I have worked hard on, and now they are saying you are on your own in your neighborhood while kids walk home from school. What kind of enforcement is that when the police will not enforce it?" O'Bryan said.
A decade ago, California became the first state to allow medical marijuana sales. Although in conflict with a federal ban on marijuana, almost 20 states and the District of Columbia allow some medical marijuana consumption. In addition to Colorado, Washington state allows small amounts of recreational marijuana use.
Although the Catholic Church has largely stayed neutral in the debate, in December, Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila posted on the Denver Catholic Register's website an essay by E. Christian Brugger, a moral theologian at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. Brugger discussed some of the legalization issues, including a long list of negatives associated with pot smoking, especially for teens.
"Moral psychology indisputably shows that desire arises from the senses: from seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting and feeling," Brugger wrote. "Children, especially adolescents, who see their peers, their neighbors, or worse, their parents smoking pot, who smell the distinctly sweet odor, who hear about the 'merits of getting high,' are much more likely to desire it, try it and become users."
There are an estimated 228 medical marijuana retail shops in the Denver area. Another 111 are in the process of licensing to sell recreationally.
Gina Carbone, a Catholic mother of four teen boys and founder of Smart Colorado, a parent group advocating for youth safeguards against legalized marijuana in Colorado, opposed the law change.
"Young people are getting it from other people, not necessarily through the stores, but with a proliferation of it there are marijuana products coming into school," said Carbone, who lobbied the Denver City Council against recreational pot. She spoke to CNS from Miami where she was vacationing. "If you talk to counselors and teachers and the kids are showing up stoned."
Carbone said she has spoken to at least one Denver-area Catholic school principal about the need for a science curriculum on marijuana and the need to better educate teachers, parents and students.
"The more kids are exposed to something the more they are desensitized to it and the more youth rates will go up," she said. "Open up magazines and newspapers in town and you will see advertisements for marijuana and along with messages coming through music and pop stars. Kids have been told it is an organic, natural product, will help them with sleep problems, ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] and so on."
Carbone points out a difference in marijuana potency today from when she was a youth in the 1980s. "Growers have gotten it down to a science," she said. "Pot dispensaries are providing product with THC levels that are extremely potent, and the more potent it is the more addictive it is. There is more research that has been done recently and we know its adverse effects on the adolescent brain compared to the adult brain."