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.”

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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Many policy making parties and those interested in those processes apply certain tests these days on similar products and practices. Let's discuss how these apply to marijuana:  1) marijuana requires huge amounts of electrical power to grow. This drives a huge amount of environmental impact including carbon impact, heat generation. It loads the grid approximately to the same extent as data centers (about 1%) 2) MJ also uses huge amounts of water, with similar sustainability concerns. The pumping required also uses a tremendous amount of electricity meaning that it has carbon, heat and pollution impacts. 3) use of MJ does lead to over eating. All of the arguments current in the social discussion about overeating extend to MJ. 

How is it possible to justify its use if it leads to such deleterious impacts? Is it moral to promote it? Other than mitigation of pain, is there a benefit to it? Furthermore shouldn't we find an analgesic alternative that obviates the use of "medical MJ" and requires people to get high to relieve their pain?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Marijuana is a very prominent and controversial issue in society today. Every year, the previously illegal substance makes potential criminals of millions through penalty and harsh jail sentences and profit actual criminals of hundred of millions. In most states, marijuana is illegal due to the believe of it being a dangerous drug, when its actually used for many medical reasons. The legalizing of marijuana in Colorado has been a great benefit because it takes money off the hands of drug traffickers and create less marijuana related crime, and with most states heavily in debt, marijuana would bring in billions of tax revenue annually into the economy that could be used towards advancing social services and controlling state deficit.  There will be open competition and lower prices so it can take the drug cartels out of business. Also by taking criminals who were locked behind bars due to marijuana possessions, this creates second chances for many lives. The legalization of marijuana is claimed to bring enough money and time for the police officers in order for them to go after the criminals. It's evident now that the legalization of marijuana has impacted Colorado’s economy in a positive way including low marijuana related crime and even health. Government would simply be transferring revenue from organized crime to the public purse. Last but not least, the legalization of marijuana would bring billions of tax revenue annually into the economy. The tax revenue could go towards the expansion of social services, reduce state deficit and in some cases create surplus revenue for the state. Although due to the marijuana legalization a lot of people are complaining about the state being overpopulated, and the cost of living here are sky rocketing, which makes it hard on some; who can't keep up with our growing economy and population. But the more money we make off marijuana the more we tax it then it will makeColorado one of the rich state, also it will bring it extra money to build new schools, and new jobs.


Amal Ali

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I live in Canada, but I just read part of an article that was criticizing Harper for refusing to legalize marijuana here. Now that the Liberals are in power, many are hoping they will follow through in their promise to legalize marijuana, pointing to Colorado as an example. "We know the results of the great Colorado weed experiment, and, generally, things have been just fine." It's a great comfort to know that my fellow Canadians have done their research and concluded that the legalization of pot will reap many benefits, and everyone will be "generally fine".
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milhistorian More than 1 year ago
How is it "callous" to say that something will cause greater harm than good. Your niece suffers, and that is bad, and legalizing marijuana will alleviate her suffering, which is good.
However, legalizing marijuana will also cause suffering to others, if this article is accurate. How is that good?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm sorry, I realize I was upset after I read this article and also worried about what the results might be in Canada. I do acknowledge that there will be benefits to legalizing marijuana, and I truly hope that your niece and others who suffer in this way will benefit personally from it. But I do know that many others will use marijuana for non-medicinal purposes, in a negative way, and there will be harsh consequences. Please forgive me for my callousness and my lack of consideration for those who will wisely take advantage of the legalization. I am sorry about your niece.
Marissa More than 1 year ago
Consider moving to Ohio. We just voted on pot legalization yesterday and the motion was soundly defeated. I know y'all like to accentuate the negative and ignore the positive here, but things aren't always as universally gloom and doom as you like to think. 

More to the point, isn't this an entertainment/media site? What is a blog post about local politics doing here?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If we can't include discussion on policy here, then let's also tell Hollywood and the entertainment crowd to kindly excuse themselves from such discussions.
Dan Haynes More than 1 year ago
Here in Ohio, we voted down Issue 3 yesterday. It would have allowed recreational use, but also put all production into the hands of a small monopoly. It is believed that our state legislature will legalize medical use on its own in the near future, then recreational use will be voted on again a few years from now. I'm a non-smoker so I don't really have a dog in the fight as far as recreational use, but Issue 3 was a bad deal for our state.

People need to take a break from the moralizing and hand-wringing and remember that  marijuana use, recreational and otherwise, was legal nationwide until 1913. It's not like some new menace.