Reports of Colorado’s Demise are Greatly Exaggerated

The nation deserves an honest debate about the future of marijuana legalization. In the opinion piece “Marijuana devastated Colorado, don’t legalize it nationally,” Jeff Hunt does a disservice to our national dialogue.

After Colorado voters legalized adult-use marijuana in 2012, Governor John Hickenlooper tapped me to help lead the experiment as his Director of Marijuana Coordination, an effort to honor the democratic will with sound policy. I was not involved in the legalization debate and had limited knowledge of the industry. That was an advantage in the Governor’s eyes. This was a divisive policy issue, and it required people who could honestly listen to everybody’s concerns. The Governor likes to remind us that at its heart, good government is not all that difficult: gather the facts, listen to everybody, make the best decision possible based on the evidence provided; repeat.

Unfortunately, the national debate over legalization often gets the facts wrong. By cherry-picking data, drawing specious conclusions, and giving limited context to others’ findings, Jeff’s article obfuscates the impact legalization has had on Colorado’s well-being.

To begin, Colorado remains a great place to live and work. Denver, where you will find the greatest concentration of marijuana retail stores, is consistently rated one of the best cities to live in national publications like U.S. News and Forbes. Marijuana has not necessarily delivered that distinction, but legalization has not devastated Colorado. Most of us are pretty happy. And a small percentage of us are stoned.

To run through Jeff’s other assertions.

  1. The black market has increased in Colorado, not decreased. Yes, Colorado has a problem with homegrown marijuana finding its way to other states, often through organized crime. This is mainly a function of older homegrow rules in our medical, not adult use system—a situation the Colorado legislature recently reformed. The adult-use marijuana program is quickly capturing a market that once belonged to drug dealers. Jeff provides no evidence—because it does not exist—that the black market in Colorado is larger post-reform.

  1. Marijuana money has not gone to schools. Last year, schools received $70 million for construction needs from marijuana taxes. Every budget woe is not being solved, but that funding is still significant, and it is money that would have once gone to the pockets of black market dealers.

  2. Poison control center calls and emergency room visits are up. Again, Jeff is correct, but fails to put those data in an honest context. At its peak, poison control centers were receiving 230 calls for marijuana in a year. In that same year, centers received 6598 calls for alcohol. Moreover, those calling poison control or showing up in emergency rooms are having a bad night, but they are not dying from a marijuana overdose. Finally, Jeff also conveniently avoids noting that both poison control center calls and emergency room visits declined from their initial peaks, a possible sign that regulatory reform and public education can combat this negative externality.

  3. More minority kids are being arrested for marijuana related crimes. Jeff is one year behind on his data here. While 2014 showed an increase across the board for minority marijuana arrests, 2015 shows a more complicated story. Youth arrest rates are down 23% since legalization, with Hispanic arrests down 6% and African American arrests up 17%. Also, total arrest rates for all races are down--Hispanic arrest rate is down 46% and African-American arrest rate is down 41%. Racial disparities still exist, but people of color face less of a threat of arrest under legalization than under prohibition.

  4. Marijuana-related traffic deaths are up. Jeff is incorrect. What is true is that drivers involved in fatal accidents have tested positive for marijuana at a greater rate than previously, but there is no way to discern if marijuana was the cause of the accident. It is complicated, but the data Jeff references show the presence of marijuana in a person’s system long after the intoxicating effects of marijuana have worn off. This is still a concerning trend, but it is an area that needs more research before we can draw any conclusions. Also of note, Colorado’s roadways are historically as safe as they have ever been.

And, of course, there are a lot of positive data markers that Jeff refuses to note. Youth use, which we all feared would increase, has shown no changes to date in Colorado according to two national surveys and one statewide survey. Violent crime and property crime have also shown no discernible impact from the legalization of marijuana. The number of treatment admissions to substance abuse centers for marijuana have decreased across all age groups.

Marijuana legalization’s impact on society is complicated. The data are messy, the observation biases are many, and conclusive evidence is hard to come by. Those that say that legalization in Colorado has served as a panacea to all social ills is lying to you, as are those who claim that legalization has devastated Colorado.

But before we draw any conclusions, positive or negative, we should heed the best advice Jeff gives, “The true impact of marijuana on our communities is just starting to be learned.” We all, Jeff included, should practice what he preaches.

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