It’s been five years since the era of legal marijuana sales began in Colorado, and that’s been enough time to begin to be able see what sorts of impact the freeing of the weed has had on the Rocky Mountain State. From the economy and the fiscal health of the state government to law enforcement and public safety, legalizing marijuana has consequences.
Thanks to marijuana sales reports and tax revenue reports from the state Department of Revenue, as well as a legislatively mandated biennial report from the Division of Criminal Justice, we can see what some of those consequences are.
1. They sure buy a lot of weed in Colorado, and the state’s coffers are filling up with marijuana tax revenues. Total marijuana sales in the state were more than $683 million in 2014—the year legal sales began—and have since more than doubled to more than $1.4 billion last year. Since legalization, the amount of legal weed sold in the state has now topped $6 billion. That’s created nearly 20,000 jobs, and it has also generated more than $900 million for the state government in marijuana taxes, licenses, and fees. Tax revenues have increased every year since legalization, and those dollars help fund public school projects, as well as human services, public affairs, agriculture, labor and employment, judicial affairs, health care policy, transportation and regulatory affairs. Pot revenues still only account for 1 percent of state revenues, but every $900 million helps.
2. Marijuana arrests are way down, but black people are still getting busted disproportionately. Even though pot is legalized, there are still ways to get arrested on a marijuana charge, such as possessing more than an ounce or selling or growing unlicensed weed. Still, arrests have declined dramatically, dropping by 56 percent during the legalization era. Both possession and sales offenses declined, but arrests for unlawful production were up markedly, reflecting the state’s continuing fight to eliminate the black market. The age group most likely to get busted was 18-20-year-olds, who can only legally use or possess marijuana if they have a medical card. They are getting busted at a rate 30 times that of adults. Arrests are way down among all ethnic/racial groups, but black people are still getting arrested for pot at a rate nearly twice that of whites.
3. Legalization has not led to more traffic fatalities. While the number of car drivers in fatal wrecks who had marijuana in their systems has increased dramatically, the report notes that “detection of cannabinoid in blood is not an indicator of impairment but only indicates presence in the system.” Marijuana DUIs were up 3 percent, but fatal traffic accidents involving marijuana-impaired drivers actually decreased by 5 percent.
4. Use rates are up slightly among adults, but not among teens. The number of adults who reported using marijuana in the past 30 days has increased by 2 percent, with nearly one-fifth of men reporting past month use. That’s almost double the number of women reporting past month use. These are high rates of use compared to the nation as a whole, but the state has always had relatively high use rates, even dating back before legalization. (There is a chicken-and-egg question here: Do Coloradans like to smoke pot because weed is legal, or is weed legal because Coloradans like to smoke pot?) But what about the kids? Well, the kids are alright. Marijuana use rates among middle and high school students have been unchanged since legalization, and so have graduation rates.
5. Emergency room visits linked to marijuana increased. Some 575 people presented to hospitals with marijuana-related problems back in 2000, but that number jumped to more than 3,500 by 2016. Emergency room visits and calls to poison control centers were both up. It’s important to note, however, that the vast majority of marijuana-related ER visits are related to panic or anxiety reactions and end with the patient eventually calming down and going home. Marijuana ER visits are not life-threatening events. The rise is also likely a function of new, naive users, especially of edibles, biting off more than they can chew.
Phillip Smith is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter,