What Have Been the Positive and Negative Effects of the Legalization of Cannabis in Colorado?

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Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently said, "Trust me, if the data was coming back and we saw spikes in violent crime, we saw spikes in overall crime, there would be a lot of people looking for that bottle and figuring out how we get the genie back in," he said. "It doesn't seem likely to me, but I'm not ruling it out” (CNN, April 20, 2018).

That’s a real concern but finding facts to support the Governor’s concerns isn’t easy. Here, too, we must distinguish between the facts and the “alternative facts.”

What Have Been the Positive and Negative Effects of the Legalization of Cannabis in Colorado?

Research finds loaded and slanted presentations of the same data, so we’ll do our best to calm the debate:

Positive effects of legalization in Colorado:

The Denver-based Marijuana Policy Group is an economic and policy consulting firm that regularly provides research and analysis that empowers decision making in businesses, government agencies, and investors associated with the regulated cannabis industry.

The Marijuana Policy Group (2016) reports that “legal marijuana activities generated $2.39 billion in state output.” It created 18,005 new full-time jobs in 2015. They claim, “spending on marijuana creates more output and employment per dollar spent than 90 percent of Colorado industries.”

The report expects the legal marijuana demand to grow by 11.3 percent per year through 2020. This growth projects the regulated market will become saturated with total sales value peaking near $1.52 billion.

While tax revenues from cigarette sales lead income from other “vices.” The 2015 marijuana excise and sales tax revenues were $121.2 million, almost doubled the $63.4 million in 2014. In 2015, those revenues were 14 percent higher than casino revenues, 5 percent lower than lottery income, and three times more than alcohol tax revenues.

Time Money recognized that Gov. Hickenlooper also signed a budget bill including a Marijuana Tax Cash Fund specifically supporting housing programs for the homeless, mental health programs in jails and health programs at local middle schools. “We expect to reduce incarceration, hospitalization, and homelessness for many of Colorado’s most vulnerable citizens.” In the fiscal year 2017-2018, that means:

  • $15.3 million toward providing permanent supportive housing and assistance for the homeless;
  • $9.7 million to add 150 health professionals at high schools across the state, and
  • $7.1 million to end the use of jails for holding people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The Colorado Department of Public Safety report (2016) included these findings:

  • In terms of court filings, the total number of marijuana‐related court filings declined 81% between 2012 and 2015, from 10,340 to 1,954. The number of felony filings declined 45% (1,023 to 566);
  • misdemeanors declined 1% (586 to 409);
  • petty offenses dropped 89% (8,728 to 979), and
  • Filings fell 69% for juveniles 10 to 17 years old, 78% for young adults 18 to 20 years old, and 86% for adults 21 or older.

The reduction in court filings reduces costs to the court and empowers the courts to leverage their schedules more efficiently.

And, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment’s (CDPHE) 2017 report, policy and education efforts about the potential health effects of marijuana appear to be working. For example, marijuana exposure calls to the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center including calls about accidental exposure to children under 9. In fact, “the overall rate of marijuana-related emergency department visits dropped 27 percent from 2014 to 2015.”

Negative effects of legalization in Colorado:

Any new program with the broad impact of Colorado’s 2014 legalization of marijuana will have complex results, some of them negative. But, if we try to contrast apples with apples, we should acknowledge the following problems:

The CDPHE’s second study in 2017 shows:

  • 6 percent of pregnant women choose to use marijuana while pregnant.
  • Marijuana use during pregnancy is associated with negative effects on exposed children, including decreased cognitive function and ability to maintain attention on task.
  • 14,000 children are at risk of accidentally eating marijuana products that are not safely stored.
  • 16,000 are at risk of being exposed to secondhand marijuana smoke. 
  • Since legalization, one in four adults ages 18-25 reported past-month marijuana use, and one in eight use daily or nearly daily.

The Division of Probation Services reports the percent of 10‐ to 14‐year‐olds testing positive for THC once or twice increased from 19 percent between 2012 to 23 percent in 2014, but the percentage testing positive three or more times increased from 18% to 25%. On the other hand, the percent of 15‐ to 17‐year‐olds testing positive once or twice declined slightly, from 26 percent in 2012 to 25 percent in 2014, while those testing positive three or more times increased 2 percent.

Reporting on crime in Colorado, The Denver Post said, “Crime rates dropped or remained static in many of the nation’s 30 largest cities last year, but in Colorado the crime rate per 100,000 people spiked by 3.4 percent, fueled by a rise in auto thefts, rape, murder and robbery.” That’s more than 11 times the 0.3 percent increase noted among the nation’s 30 largest cities. But, the report assumes no causal connection between the crime rate and marijuana legalization.

An analysis out of Berkeley finds, “we see that criminal trespassing, liquor possession, marijuana possession, disturbing the peace, and paraphernalia possession saw the highest increases near dispensaries. Contrarily graffiti, theft of vehicle parts, vehicle theft, bike theft, and theft of items from cars decreased.”

Fortune says, “Since 2013, Denver has seen its crime rise as the national average has fallen. In 2016, the crime rate was up 4%, with violent crime rising 9%.” But, it also reports that the Denver police say they don’t believe that can be attributed to marijuana.

And, finally, The Denver Post reported extensively on the correlation between marijuana consumption and fatal car crashes:

  • Marijuana is figuring into more fatal crashes overall, from 10 percent in 2013 to 20 percent in 2016.
  • Of the drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2014 who tested positive for cannabinoids, more than 52 percent had no alcohol in their system. By 2016, it had grown to 69 percent.
  • The average age of drivers in deadly crashes in 2015 who tested positive for marijuana was nearly 35, with a quarter of them over 40.
  • In 2016, of the 115 drivers in fatal wrecks who tested positive for marijuana use, 71 were found to have THC in their blood, indicating use within hours. Of those, 63 percent were over 5 nanograms per milliliter, the state’s limit for driving.

Police and pathologists are attributing the increase to the higher THC-potent strains now available.

What you can conclude from the effects of legalization of cannabis in Colorado

Any reasonable person would admit they can’t draw significant and final conclusions about the positive and negative effects of legalization in Colorado. This is 2018, and there’s just not enough data since 2014. There is evidence of positive and negative trends, but it is still not clear if these changes indicate causes or correlations.

There is money to be had but perhaps not quite so much as once projected. Court filings are down, but there is no change in the racial bias in convictions. The marijuana black market may have lost much of its audience, but there is no credible data to prove one way or the other.

No one has shown a direct connection between legalization and the increase in violent crime, but the increase in DUI arrests and marijuana-related car fatalities presents a real concern, a learning opportunity to educate and inform.

The legalization of marijuana in Colorado is a young situation, an issue that the legislature and public opinion will modify and revise over time.