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Reefer Madness or Pot Paradise?

DENVER — Serenity Christensen, 14, is too young to set foot in one of Colorado’s many marijuana shops, but she was able to spot a business opportunity in legal weed. She is a Girl Scout, and this year, she and her mother decided to sell their cookies outside a dispensary. “Good business,” Serenity said.

But on the other side of Denver, legalization has turned another high school student, David Perez, against the warehouselike marijuana cultivations now clustered around his neighborhood. He said their skunky aroma often smacks him in the face when he walks out his front door.

These are the ripples of five years of legal marijuana. Colorado’s first-in-the-nation experiment has reshaped health, politics, rural culture and criminal justice in surprising ways that often defy both the worst warnings of critics and blue-sky rhetoric of the marijuana industry, giving a glimpse of what the future may hold as more and more states adopt and debate full legalization.

Since recreational sales began in 2014, more people here are visiting emergency rooms for marijuana-related problems, and hospitals report higher rates of mental-health cases tied to marijuana. At the same time, thousands of others make uneventful stops at dispensaries every day, like the hiking guide in the college town of Boulder who now keeps a few marijuana gummies in a locked bag to help her relax before bed.

Some families rattled by their children’s marijuana problems have moved, seeking refuge in less permissive states. But over all, state surveys do not show an increase in young people smoking pot.

And while low-level marijuana charges have plummeted, the racial divide in drug arrests has persisted. State numbers show that African-Americans in Colorado were still being arrested on marijuana charges at nearly twice the rate of white people.

“You don’t see drug-addled people roaming the streets, but we haven’t created a utopia,” said Jonathan Singer, who was one of just two state legislators who endorsed the Colorado ballot measure that made it legal for adults 21 and over to buy, consume and grow recreational marijuana.

Mr. Singer nodded to his 3-year-old, who sat in the back seat one afternoon as they headed to a picnic. “The fact that I’m willing to have this conversation in front of my daughter,” he said, “shows how much we’ve destigmatized this.”

The ‘Drug Talk,’ Rewritten

This is the world reconfigured by legalization — the world that 18-year-old Ethan Pierson grew up in. He was born the same year that Colorado’s first medical-marijuana law took effect. He watched dispensaries bloom along the commercial streets leading to his high school in suburban Lakewood.

“If you live in Colorado, it feels like somebody’s always smoking next to you,” said Mr. Pierson, who abstains.

Doctors, educators and state officials have been particularly worried about the effects of legalization on Colorado’s youth. Would a proliferation of recreational pot shops make marijuana seem innocuous to teenagers, despite studies showing that it is harmful to their developing minds? Would teenage pot use spike? How would it affect graduation rates and school discipline?

Five years in, surveys show that most Colorado teenagers are like Mr. Pierson: They may have tried it, but 80 percent are not current marijuana users. State surveys show that teenage marijuana use has fallen slightly since medical marijuana sales ramped up in 2009, and has been basically flat since full legalization.

But Mr. Pierson and other students and parents said that legalization had changed marijuana’s image and availability.

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