While comparing state cannabis programs can be a bit like comparing apples and oranges, Colorado offers a particularly interesting window into the outcomes of legalization. As the first state to launch adult-use cannabis sales, regulators also embarked on an unprecedented data collection effort.
The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice’s Office of Research and Statistics published its third “Impacts on Marijuana Legalization in Colorado” report this month, and with it, data on everything from arrests and impaired driving to use rates among youth.
Colorado’s data collection is by design. Lawmakers passed SB 13-283 in 2013, a year after voters passed Amendment 64 and legalized cannabis for adults. This legislation directed the Division of Criminal Justice within the Colorado Department of Public Safety to embark on a study of the various impacts that came with Amendment 64.
Nearly eight years have passed since the first sales took place, in early 2014, offering insights to regulators and policymakers in the state and across the country.
Disparities in arrests persist:
Cannabis-related arrests continue to drop, but police still disproportionately arrest people of color. While the total number of arrests plummeted 68% between the years 2012 and 2019 (or, from 13,225 arrests to 4,290), Black people in Colorado were arrested more than twice as often as white people in 2019.
“This disparity has not changed in any meaningful way since legalization,” the report noted.
Disparities exist for youth arrests, too. While cannabis-related youth arrests dropped 37% (or, 3,265 in 2012 to 2,064 in 2019), the arrest rate for Black teens was 22% higher than for white teens (429 vs 352 per 100,000).
The authors of the report note that legislation aimed at “zero tolerance” school policies “appear to have decreased expulsions, suspensions, and referrals to law enforcement.”
A lack of clarity on the road:
Cannabis-impaired driving has largely held steady. Citations for driving under the influence of only cannabis rose from 6.3% (359) in 2014 to 8.7% (417) in 2020. And the number of fatal car crashes that involved a driver who tested positive for cannabinoids rose from 23 in 2013 to 42 in 2019.
This data point comes with a giant asterisk, though.
“Note that the detection of any cannabinoid in blood is not an indicator of impairment but only indicates presence in the system,” the report underscores.
There is still no national standard for cannabis-impaired driving, and little understanding of how to measure and detect impairment. Nonetheless, Colorado regulators have continued to craft public education and awareness campaigns through the state’s Department of Transportation.
Consumption is up among adults, but down among youth:
What happened to consumption rates after legalization? For adults, past month cannabis consumption rose from 13.4% in 2014 to 19% in 2019, which the authors of the report note is a “significant increase.”
When it comes to youth, it’s another story. There was “no significant change in past 30-day use of marijuana” from 2013 and 2019, according to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey of more than 50,000 middle and high schoolers. This is noteworthy considering that high school students’ perception of harm related to cannabis consumption is down, from 57.6% of surveyed teens reporting that they thought there was “moderate/great risk” in regularly consuming cannabis in 2011, to 50.1% in 2019.
And, it appears that cannabis is tougher to obtain for high schoolers post-legalization. In 2011, 57.2% said that cannabis “would be sort of/very easy to get,” but in 2019, that number fell to 51.4%.
Public safety concerns are few:
One major talking point for the passage of the SAFE Banking Act, which would protect financial institutions that want to work with the cannabis industry from federal enforcement, is public safety. Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter, the main sponsor of the Act, has for years pointed to cannabis business robberies in his state and elsewhere as a public safety threat warranting serious discussion of the Act.
But, the report found that such robberies have not risen: there were 134 in 2012 and 121 in 2019.
“There has been concern that, due to the cash-only nature of the industry, robbery would be prevalent but this has not been the case,” the report noted.
Just this month, Perlmutter reiterated the public safety argument, in response to a statement that Sen. Cory Booker made when he, along with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Wyden, announced a draft of their comprehensive cannabis reform proposal, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA).
“I will lay myself down to do everything I can to stop an easy banking bill that’s going to allow all of these corporations to make a lot more money off of this, as opposed to focusing on the restorative justice aspect,” Booker said.
In response, Perlmutter tweeted: “I urge the Senate to take immediate action to pass the bipartisan SAFE Banking Act to reduce the significant public safety risk threatening our communities,” adding, “Cannabis-related businesses are forced to operate as high-volume cash businesses, targeted by violent criminals & putting our communities at risk. The #SAFEBankingAct isn’t about making corporations richer-it’s about protecting employees, patients & customers of small businesses.”
A note of caution:
Finally, the authors noted that the data published in their report “should be interpreted with caution.”
“The majority of the data sources vary considerably in terms of what exists historically and the reliability of some sources has improved over time. Consequently, it is difficult to draw conclusions about the potential effects of marijuana legalization and commercialization on public safety, public health, or youth outcomes, and this may always be the case due to the lack of historical data,” the authors wrote.
“Furthermore,” they continue, “the measurement of available data elements can be affected by very context of marijuana legalization. For example, the decreasing social stigma regarding marijuana use could lead individuals to be more likely to report use on surveys and also to health workers in emergency departments and poison control centers, making marijuana use appear to increase when perhaps it has not.”