Wednesday, August 20, 2014

No, legal pot hasn't turned Colorado into a crime-ridden wasteland

Sacramento Bee via Getty Images

The New York Times over the weekend ran a piece that suggested marijuana legalization is leading to a rash of big, unexpected problems in Colorado. Despite some of the facts in the piece, the story's tone was clear in its implication: legalization is going worse than expected.

"I think, by any measure, the experience of Colorado has not been a good one unless you're in the marijuana business," Kevin Sabet, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told The Times. "We've seen lives damaged. We've seen deaths directly attributed to marijuana legalization. We've seen marijuana slipping through Colorado’s borders. We've seen marijuana getting into the hands of kids."

What we know about Colorado's experience so far, however, is that it's going much better than many, particularly opponents of legalization, suggested prior to legalization. There are some unexpected problems with marijuana edibles and a few people blowing themselves up while making marijuana-based hash oil, and we don't yet know how or if legalization has affected teenage marijuana use. But the problems we have seen are affecting a very small portion of the population.

As Ron Kammerzell, director of enforcement at the Colorado Department of Revenue, previously put it, "I would say that the rollout was extremely smooth, the sky hasn't fallen like some had predicted, and we're moving forward and trying to fine tune this regulatory model."

The Times's story suggests this isn't the case, and that we have "scant hard data" to prove otherwise. But we actually have a good amount of data on Colorado's experience, and it's all much more positive than legalization opponents would like you to believe.

Crime is down

As Vox previously covered, violent crime rates are down in Denver, where most retail marijuana dispensaries are, following legalization.

Violent_crime

A similar downward trend can be seen in property crimes.

Property_crime

We don't know if this drop is related to marijuana. But, at the very least, the stats show that crime isn't rising — and that directly contradicts previous and ongoing warnings from law enforcement.

Edibles are sending kids to the hospital, but they make up a tiny sliver of all patient visits

It's true, as several media reports have found, that some children's hospitals have seen an uptick in emergency visits related to marijuana.

In Aurora, Children's Hospital Colorado saw eight children who ingested marijuana edibles during all of 2013. So far in 2014, the hospital has treated nine, six of whom became critically ill.

The marijuana-related visits, however, represent less than a percent of a percent of all unique patient visits at the hospital so far this year.

Screen_shot_2014-06-03_at_2.19.45_pm

The symptoms in the marijuana cases ranged from mild sleepiness to a coma requiring insertion of a breathing tube. Although marijuana is relatively safe for adults, Children's Hospital Colorado staff say it can cause serious health complications when it's ingested by a young child with low body mass.

But most of the reported cases involved toddlers ages 3 and under. That children so young can grab marijuana edibles at all, advocates say, speaks more to irresponsible parenting than the dangers of the actual drug.

"Marijuana should be treated as any other drug or medicine and kept out of reach of children," Melissa Vizcarra, spokesperson for Children's Hospital Colorado, wrote in an email.

Drugged driving is a concern, but it's overblown

With the way legalization opponents frame the issue, one would think that considerably more people are now driving under the influence of marijuana in Colorado.

But between January and May only 12.5 percent of total DUI tickets were marijuana citations, according to the latest data from the Colorado State Patrol. The rest of the cases involved other drugs, including, of course, alcohol.

This isn't really revelatory. As Columbia University researchers previously found, the presence of marijuana in the system doesn't increase the chances of a fatal car accident as much as other drugs. The biggest driver of intoxicated traffic accidents is, in fact, the perfectly legal alcohol.

Deadly_traffic_accidents_while_under_the_influence

It's also unclear if the 12.5 percent cited by state officials even represents an increase from the previous years, since the Colorado State Patrol only started tracking marijuana citations in 2014. So watching this trend in future years will show whether legal marijuana will truly lead to more drugged driving cases.

Interstate trafficking isn't a huge problem

As The New York Times piece notes, interstate trafficking doesn't seem to be a problem after legalization. Colorado's neighbors, for instance, aren't reporting spikes in marijuana seizures.

The Kansas Highway Patrol, in fact, saw a 61 percent decline in marijuana seizures from January to mid-May compared to the same time period last year.

Kansas_marijuana_seizures

Nebraska also saw a downward trend in marijuana seized, although the trend was less pronounced in Nebraska than in Kansas.

Screen_shot_2014-06-03_at_4.15.44_pm

This doesn't necessarily mean that legalization led to less illegal marijuana trafficking outside Colorado, but it does go against claims made by law enforcement prior to legalization. Opponents in particular argued that, with cheaper, legal pot now available in Colorado, criminals would carry marijuana out of the state and sell it illegally.

There's a good reason why this isn't the case: Colorado residents aren't able to buy more than one ounce of the drug, and out-of-state visitors can only buy a quarter of an ounce. An ounce is a significant amount of pot, but it doesn't allow the kind of mass trafficking that cartels and other criminal organizations take part in. Now, it's possible to get around this limit by going between different dispensaries, but that requires quite a bit of legwork and hassle to get a substantial stash for what's most likely a small profit.

Jobs are being created

Left out of many reports on legal marijuana is its potential economic benefits. The Marijuana Industry Group estimates that there are 10,000 jobs directly involved with medical and recreational marijuana, with 1,000 to 2,000 joining the industry in the past few months. That job growth is expected to continue as industry sales remain strong.

Retail_marijuana_sales_in_2014

These numbers show pretty substantial growth in the first few months. It's an open question whether that growth will continue, although there are some promising signs. According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, there are a lot of people waiting to get into the industry: the state has approved 200 retail business licenses, but about half of those are waiting for local approval to actually open.

The numbers also mean more tax revenue. Now, the revenue isn't going to solve a budget crisis overnight; even Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper's optimistic estimate of $134 million in tax revenue from marijuana only represented about 0.5 percent of the state's overall budget. But those millions are certainly not nothing, and they'll end up benefiting a lot of schools.


Update: Added a quote from The New York Times's piece and current, corrected Colorado State Patrol data for DUI citations.

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