COMMENT:

Not long ago I visited Colorado to see the effects of legalised marijuana. I quickly realised the drug has come a long way since the days of Cheech and Chong.

Our referendum will not be about a "toke" or a "tinnie", we're talking Big Marijuana, a new money-making industry of lobbyists and special interest groups putting profits over evidence-based policy protecting public health and safety, and ready to flout and challenge any regulations.

While dope shops in Colorado have forms of marijuana buds to smoke, almost half of the business is now in highly potent cannabis concentrates — edibles, dabbing (smoking highly concentrated THC) and vaping.

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The average psychoactive component of cannabis (THC) of all tested flowers last year in Colorado was 19.6 per cent, and the average potency of concentrated extract products was 68.6 per cent. Potency rates of up to 95 per cent have been recorded.

The 2 per cent THC "Woodstock weed" has been replaced by gummy bears containing 10 times the legal limit of THC per serving, or a 90 per cent THC dab.

"Ditch weed" used to mean under 3 per cent THC. Today, "ditch" in Colorado is anything up to 15 per cent. This is definitely not your parent's pot.

With increased potency comes increased health risks, including mental illness, psychotic symptoms, suicidal thoughts among teens, respiratory problems and a greater likelihood of addiction. And addiction is exactly what Big Marijuana wants.

It fascinates me that at the same time as we are rightly booting Big Tobacco out of the country, we are in the process of putting down the welcome mat for Big Marijuana.

We finally understood the claims made by Big Tobacco, that the product was healthy, that it wasn't addictive and that they weren't targeting young people, were all lies. Supporters of dope are now peddling the same myths.

In Colorado I saw all sorts of THC-infused products, including coffee, ice-cream, baked goods, lollypops, fizzy drinks, tea, hot cocoa, breath mints and spray, pills, gummy bears, chewing gum, marinara sauce and even suppositories.

Big Marijuana deliberately targets these products at the young. The earlier they can get someone addicted, the better for business.

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Users will be drinking it, chewing it, sucking it and eating it as a dessert. These products are easily transportable and readily concealed or disguised. Teens and twenty-somethings will love it, and that should worry us all.

The US Attorney for the District of Colorado published an article in the Denver Post recently entitled: "It's high time we took a breath from marijuana commercialisation, Colorado."

He said: "Colorado's youth use marijuana at a rate 85 per cent higher than the national average. Now marijuana-related traffic fatalities are up by 151 per cent. Now 70 per cent of 400 licensed pot shops surveyed recommend that pregnant women use marijuana to treat morning sickness ...

"Now Colorado has issued over 40 little-publicised recalls of retail marijuana laced with pesticides and mould. And now Colorado has a booming black market ..."

Despite 65 per cent of local jurisdictions in Colorado banning any medical and recreational marijuana businesses in their local areas because of public discontent, there are now more marijuana stores statewide than McDonald's and Starbucks combined.

Other disturbing trends include the yearly rate of marijuana-related hospitalisations in Colorado increasing 148 per cent, and toxicology reports show the percentage of adolescent suicide victims testing positive for marijuana has increased.

At a time when New Zealand's mental health system is bursting at the seams, why would we legitimise a mind-altering product which will simply add to social harm? It's patently obvious legalisation will increase its use, and harm.

There is one positive about the referendum, though. It has revealed the ultimate agenda of drug advocates. The smokescreens of "medicinal cannabis" or "decriminalisation" no longer work. We now know the ultimate goal: legalisation of recreational dope. And, if we listen to drug advocates internationally, they will want legalisation of not just this drug but all drugs — cocaine, heroin, P.

Big Marijuana has high hopes for New Zealand, but liberalising marijuana laws is the wrong path to go down if we care about public health, public safety and about our young people.

Drug use is a major health issue, and that's why the role of the law is so important. This is not a "war on drugs", this is a defence of our brains. People should always come before profits.

Now the focus is on Canada. That's where I'll be visiting next, once the new law settles in and the trends start to emerge.

• Bob McCoskrie is national director of Family First New Zealand.