The Costs of Marijuana Legalization: A Colorado Snapshot

My children will grow up in a city with marijuana stores on what sometimes seems like every corner. Since Colorado legalized medical marijuana dispensaries back in 2006, a blooming industry in legal pot has blossomed—an industry that’s only continued to expand with the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2014.

Even though Colorado Springs has said no to retail recreational shops, medicinal outlets are nonetheless everywhere. In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that a gas station nearby has been converted to a pot shop: Gas & Grass it’s now called, which, well, isn’t the greatest combination, as we’ll see in a moment. What was once a Russell Stover candy shop? Yup. Marijuana now. On the daily commute between our house and our children’s school, I pass at least half a dozen marijuana shops. Their telltale green crosses make me feel bad for the color green and for the symbol of the cross.

But, like many cultural changes these days, I’m increasingly in the minority. A new Gallup poll finds that 58% of Americans believe marijuana should be legal, up from 51% a year ago. Meanwhile, the number of adults who report using marijuana sometime in the last year has more than doubled in the last decade, up from 4.1% in 2001 to 9.5% in 2013.

Obviously, we’re going through a cultural sea change with regard to our attitudes toward a drug that was once looked at more critically. Advocates for liberalizing pot laws—whose efforts have resulted in recreational legalization in 4 states (with 21 more considering it) and medical usage in 23 others—insist that marijuana is no big deal, that the worst that might happen is a case of the giggles and the munchies. And if someone happens to eat two bags of Cheetos, is it really cause for a moral panic?

I’m not panicking. But I do think it’s worth another look (similar to the one I wrote for Plugged In’s blog last year) at what experts are saying about marijuana use’s costs to society. What happens when children grow up seeing marijuana stores as often as they see a McDonald’s?

The Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area tracks drug use and abuse across Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. For three years, the organization has released a detailed assessment of legalizing marijuana in Colorado. The group’s findings are, ahem, sobering. And those who argue that marijuana usage is a benign habit with no social costs, the research argues otherwise.

The detailed, 182-page report examines a wealth of statistical information related to areas such as youth usage, adult usage, impaired driving, emergency room visits, underage exposure and criminal activity. I’m not going to dive deeply here, but a couple of those statistics stood out to me like a flashing red warning light.

In 2013, 11.2% of Colorado youth between the ages of 12 and 17 were considered current marijuana users. That compares to 7.2% nationally, a 56% higher incidence of usage (which ranked Colorado 3rd nationally). Between 2008 and 2014, Colorado saw a 40% spike in drug-related expulsions from schools, the majority of which were marijuana related.

Meanwhile, young children (children up to 5 years old) are also getting their hands on marijuana, with exposure among this age group up 138% from 2013 to 2014—and that after a 225% jump in accidental exposure after medical marijuana was legalized in 2006. Among young adults (18 to 25), 29% are current marijuana users, compared to 18.9% nationally (ranking Colorado 2nd).

On the road, traffic deaths related to pot soared 92% between 2010 and 2014. In just one year, from 2013 to 2014 (when recreational use was approved), marijuana-related traffic deaths jumped 32%. Those fatal accidents in 2014 represented 20% of all traffic deaths last year in Colorado, up from 10% five years ago. Last year also saw jumps in emergency room visits (29%) and hospital admissions (38%).

Statistics like these reflect the on-the-ground reality that Colorado’s marijuana experiment has come with real costs to residents who live here. Pot isn’t just a happy, hippy pastime for users wanting to take the edge off.

I’m going to give the last word here to Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Alternatives to Marijuana. In an interview with USA Today, he said that scientific and sociological data such as this should get our attention:

“The fact that use and addiction have doubled in the past 10 years should serve as a wake-up call to those who think legalization is no big deal. Rather, the potency of marijuana has skyrocketed, and along with that has come a new batch of mental health problems, emergency room mentions, learning deficiencies and school problems, and car crashes not seen in previous generations. This research tells us that embracing legalization—and the new tobacco-like industry that comes with it—is a grave mistake.”