Opponents warned of increases in crime, car accidents, and drops in tourism, but a report reveals Colorado’s mostly flying high with recreational use.
July 1 marks the historic six-month anniversary since Colorado’s Amendment 64 was enacted into law, making Colorado the first place in the world to legalize the sale of personal use marijuana for adults 21 and older.
With the six-month mark approaching, many are asking: How has legalization gone for Colorado?
In the grand scheme of things, six months may not be much, but since marijuana has never been legal before, many are curious how the state has been affected, especially since opponents to marijuana legalization warned of a host of negative consequences, such as an increases in crime, car accidents and teenage use of marijuana, and a decrease in tourism.
The Drug Policy Alliance released a report last week revealing that, in fact, legalization’s impact on the state has been better than many expected.
At a press conference on Thursday, Stephen Gutwillig, deputy executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the report was released about two weeks before Washington state begins legal sales of marijuana for adults and about a month after Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the sale and possession of marijuana. He stressed the importance of highlighting what’s happened in Colorado, since the state is responsible for the drug law reform momentum that has occurred.
For example, New York recently became the 23rd state, plus Washington, D.C., to legalize medical marijuana, and two states — Alaska and Oregon — are expected to have voter initiatives on their ballots this fall that would legalize marijuana for adults in a manner similar to the legislation passed in Colorado in 2012.
On the federal level, Congress has introduced legislation in recent weeks that would force the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration to recognize and respect state laws, and allow for more research on the drug’s potential medical uses, especially for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Drug Policy Alliance and other marijuana legalization advocacy groups recognize that it is still too early to say whether marijuana legalization is solely responsible for the positive changes seen in Colorado. But that hasn’t stopped many from arguing that this is so, while also noting that 54 percent of state residents still support ending marijuana prohibition.
As Gutwillig said, it’s important to keep tabs on how Colorado has been affected — both positively and negatively — by marijuana legalization, since lawmakers throughout the United States and the world at large are watching the state to see if ending prohibition is something that should be pursued in their jurisdictions.
During Thursday’s press conference, Art Way, senior drug policy manager for the Colorado chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance, discussed legalization’s impact on public health and safety, as well as the criminal justice system, in the first six months.
While Way recognized that it’s still early, he said the numbers are positive. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting data, the overall crime rate in the state is down 10.1 percent from 2013, while violent crime has decreased by 5.2 percent. The number of burglaries at dispensaries, which are cash-only businesses, has reached a record low.
Retired Lt. Tony Ryan worked for the Denver Police Department for 36 years and is a member of the pro-marijuana legalization group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition since 2005. He told MintPress News that the drop in crime reflects that the war on drugs is a great distraction to law enforcement and disrupts officers’ ability to do their job.
Law enforcement was created to respond to calls for service from the people they serve, Ryan said, a reason they were granted the authority to deal with various crimes and situations, investigate incidents and set a situation right. When a police officer has to deal with drug war policies, however, that officer is unable to perform his regular duties.
“I used to make a joke that the highest people during a drug raid were the cops,” Ryan said.
Instead of being high on marijuana, he explained, the cops are high on adrenaline, which is why officers often do things they later regret. It doesn’t help that law enforcement are also addicted to the “drug war dollars” they receive from enforcing federal marijuana laws, he noted.
According to the six-month report, counties throughout the state issued fewer than 900 marijuana-related citations and arrests in the first half of 2014, with Denver reporting around 260 citations or arrests. This puts the state on track to adjudicate fewer than 3,000 marijuana-related cases in 2014, according to Way, who added that it’s a step in the right direction, since about 5,000 citations were issued in 2013. (By comparison, between 10,000-12,000 citations were issued every year throughout the last decade in which prohibition was in effect in the state.)
Since law enforcement often focused on marijuana possession charges in the past — even minor possession charges — Way said legalization has kept thousands of Coloradans from having to deal with the judicial system. Given that it costs around $300 to adjudicate each case — and that’s on top of the tax revenue generated by the marijuana industry — the state could potentially save $10 to $40 million from no longer prosecuting minor possession cases, according to the Colorado Center of Law and Fiscal Policy.
Minor possession charges may no longer be an issue for the state, Way said, but those who are in possession of more than 1 ounce are still being prosecuted. Law enforcement also appears to be setting the tone on what is acceptable use and what is not by ticketing those who use marijuana in public with a civil fine.
Although there has been an increase in the number of public use and consumption citations in the state, marijuana is no longer taking up a lot of police officers’ time and resources, Way said.
Even before the release of the Drug Policy Alliance report, Ryan said the majority of law enforcement officials were in favor of legalization, even if they didn’t admit it publicly, since many officers were frustrated by being tied up for hours with a marijuana-related crime like possession, while someone else needed help with something like a burglary.
While the Drug Policy Alliance report didn’t look at domestic violence rates in the state, Ryan said legalized marijuana may result in a decline in domestic violence and other types of violent arguments between people. Those who are typically violent after consuming alcohol may opt to try a substance that is not known to make people violent, Ryan continued.
As far as traffic accidents go, Way pointed out that on St. Patrick’s Day weekend in March, law enforcement ramped up efforts to curb driving under the influence of both alcohol and marijuana. While many may have expected more drivers to be high than drunk, Colorado police reported 450 drivers were under the influence of alcohol, compared to three who were under the influence of marijuana. He said similar figures are expected for the upcoming Fourth of July holiday weekend.
Marijuana dispensaries and customers appear to be abiding by the rules, Way said, noting that the state Department of Revenue recently issued a report that found not one dispensary in Denver or Pueblo, Colorado, sold marijuana to underage youth, giving the dispensaries in those cities a 100 percent rating.
Mike Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, said the decrease in crime can partly be attributed to people shedding the “marijuana is bad, I don’t want it in my community” attitude, and instead recognizing that marijuana continues to be sold on the streets even after 100 years of prohibition.
“Just like alcohol prohibition,” Elliott said, people need to decide whether they want someone like Al Capone selling marijuana or if they would prefer to have the drug sold by licensed, tax-paying owners of small businesses. “The answer is pretty obvious.”
Marijuana-related crime may not be the issue some predicted, but one facet of legalization Colorado hadn’t prepared for concerns the regulation of edibles and informing consumers about the potency of edibles compared to the flowering buds that would typically be smoked or vaporized.
State Rep. Jonathan Singer was one of two state legislators to publicly endorse Amendment 64. He said he knew it was his responsibility to regulate and tax marijuana the right way.
“Before I was here at the capitol, I worked to protect children” as a social worker with Child Protective Services, Singer said at Thursday’s press conference, before explaining that he realized if we “treat marijuana like the drug it is, not the drug we fear it to be,” we could help youth get on the right path and work to keep many teens from dropping out of high school.
Singer said he favored marijuana legalization because he noticed that problems with marijuana use were often overstated, while alcohol and prescription drug abuse issues were often understated. This imbalance was creating cognitive dissonance and other problems for teens.
Though apparently pleased with marijuana legalization in the state so far, out of concerns with the edible market, he recently introduced legislation that would boost regulation of the state’s large edibles market.
In the past six months, 40 percent of all personal use marijuana sales have been edibles and concentrated forms of marijuana. But since 1 ounce of the flowering bud variety of marijuana is not as potent as 1 ounce of concentrate, Singer noted that some Coloradans have a larger marijuana supply than the state intended, which is why lawmakers are now working to change the rules governing edibles.
Besides possibly reducing the amount a person can have in his or her possession when it comes to concentrates, Singer said he has introduced a bill that would distinguish edible products from other baked goods so that people, especially children, can tell the difference between a Duncan Hines cookie and one infused with marijuana.
Part of the push for people to recognize and understand the difference between cookies containing marijuana and those without, is because edible makers don’t intend for one person to eat a marijuana-infused cookie in one sitting.
Many people didn’t realize that the typical marijuana-infused cookie contains about five servings — not one. This is why there were so many news reports about people eating too much marijuana and not having a good time, Singer explained.
Jordan Wellington, director of compliance at Vicente Sederberg LLC, said people also don’t know how to properly consume edibles because unlike with alcohol, the general public has never been educated on how to dose themselves.
Law Enforcement for Prohibition’s Ryan agreed that the issue with edibles is related to a lack of education. “You can’t outlaw stupidity,” he told MintPress, applauding the state Legislature for its work to regulate edibles more heavily.
Though some have called for prohibition to be reinstated due to the overdose problems with edibles, especially after it was reported that one child died of a marijuana overdose after eating a homemade marijuana-infused brownie, Ryan explained that while there have been a handful of instances in which a child has gotten ill from consuming edibles, people still have poisons in their homes that have killed other children.
“More kids are going to the hospital for household poisons than marijuana, but you don’t hear about that,” Ryan said.
In the first half of 2014, Colorado’s marijuana industry was responsible for generating around $20 million in state taxes and fees. By the end of the year, Wellington said the state estimates it will collect $60 to $100 million in tax revenue from marijuana sales, as well as licensing fees and application fees.
The money is primarily going to ensure that the agency responsible for enforcing marijuana rules has the funds it needs to enforce laws and do compliance checks, but some will also be spent on constructing schools and creating youth and public education campaigns about marijuana. Gov. John Hickenlooper has also proposed setting aside around $10 million to research the medical efficacy of marijuana.
There are around 2,000 or so marijuana business licenses in the state, and about 10,000 people are employed by the industry. In addition to growers, budtenders and those who make smoking apparatuses, the marijuana industry has also contributed to economic growth by creating jobs for construction workers, electricians, plumbers, accountants, attorneys and landlords, among others.
Though there is no way to prove that marijuana — not the snow-capped mountains or the Denver Broncos — was ultimately responsible for the increase in tourism the state saw in the first part of this year, Elliott, of the Marijuana Industry Group, said the legalization of marijuana doesn’t appear to be negatively impacting people’s desire to visit the state like some opponents warned it would.
Unlike other industries, marijuana proponents across the nation, including in Colorado, are not only asking to be taxed, but are approving tax increases on the substance. As Elliott said, this is because “we want to make sure sufficient tax revenue is available to take care of issues that may arise,” which is why some cities, like Denver, have additional taxes on the drug.
“We’re more than happy to pay taxes,” Elliott said, explaining that those in the marijuana industry are currently treated like drug traffickers. Unlike other businesses, he explained, those in the marijuana industry can not deduct items from their taxes such as rent and payroll, which he says is typically done to promote job growth in an industry or organization.
“It’s an attempt to crush us,” Elliott said, but we “don’t want them to treat us like drug cartels anymore.”
While lawmakers like Singer are doing everything they can to regulate marijuana in the state, Elliott said, a statewide solution won’t fix the problems the industry faces due to its current federal status as a Schedule I drug. Many in the state are encouraging Congress or President Obama to act and de-schedule marijuana, in order to truly treat the substance in a manner similar to other de-scheduled drugs such as alcohol and cigarettes.
“I think when it comes to the drug war, everyone agrees it has been a failure,” Elliott said. “It’s obvious now we are not hurting anything” by legalizing marijuana.
In an effort to treat marijuana-related businesses more like legal operations, Singer is also working on legislation that would give dispensaries access to banking and credit card processing options, so they no longer have to operate as cash-only businesses. He said addressing some of the flaws in the state’s legalization system should happen as soon as possible, since legalization legislation likely won’t move forward in other states if Colorado doesn’t get it right.
Coloradans may be doing everything in their power to make sure that they are not the first and last to legalize marijuana use. But as Elliott, Gutwillig, Ryan, Singer, Way and Wellington all hinted, a change on the federal level must occur soon, too, if the industry is truly going to be treated as a legal operation.