Time flies when you’re having fun.
It has been five years already since Colorado legalized marijuana production and use across the board: medical, recreational, and hemp. On October 26, 2018, the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice issued a comprehensive baseline report on the impacts of marijuana legalization.
The study, titled “Impacts on Marijuana Legalization in Colorado,” was mandated in 2013 with the passage of Colorado’s Amendment 64 which permits the retail sale and possession of marijuana (MJ).
The Colorado General Assembly passed SB 13-283 which directed the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice (DCJ) within the Department of Public Safety to conduct a study of the impacts of Amendment 64.
Stan Hilkey, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, explained that hundreds of hours of research backed the publication, “with a painstaking effort to present an unbiased and transparent report with credible data for all consumers.”
The purpose of the Colorado report was to set up a preliminary baseline to compare against future data. Because the legalized MJ industry is so new in the United States, no prior economic, health or criminal data exists to see if social problems are getting worse, staying the same, or improving.
Because we lack historical data about MJ post-legalization, “it is difficult to draw conclusions about the potential effects of marijuana legalization and commercialization on public safety, public health, or youth outcomes, and this may always be the case due to the lack of historical data,” according to the report.
Hilkey pointed out that the report’s authors followed the highest ethical standards and acknowledged a lack of historical perspective:
“Integrity in the pursuit of being both comprehensive and honest about where data gaps exist is important to our professional research staff.”
The Colorado impact study takes a close look at wide-ranging data, including MJ use among underage youth, influence on vehicle accident rates, criminal activity levels, and tax revenues.
The report is organized into sections about the impact of marijuana (MJ) legalization on:
Public Safety – Offenses and arrests, court case filing, crime around MJ establishments, traffic safety, probationer drug test results, illegal cultivation on public lands, diversion out of state, and transfer using parcel services.
Public Health and Behavioral Health Services – adult usage, hospitalizations, and emergency department visits, poison control, treatment trends, and suicide rate trends.
Impact on Youth – youth use, criminal justice involvement, school data, and drug-endangered children.
Additional Information – Licensing and revenue, medical MJ cardholders, and overall crime in Colorado.
Here are some highlights from the Colorado MJ legalization impact study:
- The total number of marijuana arrests decreased by 52% between 2012 and 2017.
- The number of marijuana-related court filings declined 55% between 2012 and 2017, from 11,753 to 5,288.
- The total number of DUI citations issued by the Colorado State Patrol (CSP) decreased from 5,705 in 2014 to 4,849 in 2017. The prevalence of marijuana or marijuana-in-combination identified by Patrol officers as the impairing substance increased from 12% of all DUIs in 2014 to 15% in 2017.
- The proportion of 18- to 25-year-old probationers testing positive for THC increased, from 32% in 2012 and 41% in 2017. The proportion of 36 and older probationers testing positive for THC also increased, from 14% in 2012 to 21% in 2017.
- The number of plants seized on public lands increased. There were 80,926 plants seized in 2017, up 73% from 46,662 in 2012.
- In 2017, 15.5% of adults reported marijuana use in the past 30 days, compared to 13.6% in 2014, a significant increase. Also, in 2017, 7.6% reported daily or near daily use. This compares to 6.0% in 2014, a significant increase.
- The number of calls to poison control mentioning human marijuana exposure increased over the past 10 years. There were 45 calls in 2006 and 222 in 2017. Between 2014 and 2017, the frequency of calls reporting human marijuana exposure stabilized.
- There was no significant change among Colorado, high school students in past 30-day use of marijuana between 2013 (19.7%) and 2017 (19.4%). In 2017, 19.4% of Colorado high school students reported using MJ in the past 30-days compared to 19.8% of high school students nationally that reported this behavior.
- The number of juvenile marijuana arrests decreased by 16%, from 3,168 in 2012 to 2,655 in 2017.
To sum it all up:
- MJ arrests for both adults and juveniles went down, along with legal filings, and DUI tickets.
- There has been no significant change to youth use of MJ since legalization and more adults are admitting to using it.
- More probationers tested positive for MJ, more illegal plants were confiscated, and poison control calls went up.
The Colorado MJ impact assessment closes by repeating its initial caution that uncertainty regarding the confidence in the underlying data makes interpretation challenging:
“It is critical to avoid ascribing changes in many social indicators solely to marijuana legalization.”
That said, the Colorado MJ impact report is a landmark document that will serve as a basis for comparison in future years as state officials continue to evaluate the pros and cons of MJ legalization. Hilkey summed up the Department of Public Safety’s position:
“I believe this report will be a helpful tool to inform policymakers, parents, school staff, law enforcement, the marijuana industry and others to better understand the effects of legal marijuana in our communities.”
Kristi Kelly, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, was very upbeat about public safety trends after MJ legalization, observing that, on the whole, people engaged in legitimate business are following state law and cooperating with law enforcement. According to Kelly, the report underscores how unfounded former fears of a rise in rampant criminal activity and the underpinning of modern society were:
“It really stood out to me how marijuana legalization can have a positive effect on public safety.”
A news release from Colorado’s Governor John Hickenlooper applauded the baseline analysis:
“This is exactly the kind of data collection we need to inform our regulatory and law enforcement framework.”
In 1998, Washington State legalized marijuana for medicinal use and then was the second state to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2012.
In March 2016, the Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (NWHIDTA) released a similar impact analysis in their one-year lookback titled “Washington State Marijuana Impact Report” which examined “the regulatory functions set by marijuana policy, present data on the impacts of the industry, and to depict where the state stands after one year of commercialization.”
Legalization caused Washington MJ policy to shift from the realm of criminal offenses to civil enforcement. The assessment included licensing violations, MJ product testing, commercial marketing, the transportation of MJ, effects on youth and adults, and crime.
The Washington study concluded that the “new industry” of legalized marijuana is expanding so fast that the entire nation is feeling its impact. The “capital-driven market” is growing so fast that regulations are lagging behind.
Analysts in Washington noted that their MJ laws have built-in compliance mechanisms that oversee the commercial side:
“Accountability and responsibility is currently in the hands of the marijuana market place with an obligation to self-regulate in order to avoid state – or federal – intervention.”
After all, why would anyone want to kill the goose that is laying all those beautiful golden-green eggs?