Colorado's Governor Sees the Light on Marijuana Legalization

He opposed it, but now sounds cautiously optimistic.

In 2012 John Larson, a retired high school math and science teacher, voted against I-502, the initiative that legalized marijuana in Washington. Yet last week Larson was one of the first government-licensed marijuana merchants to open a store in that state: Main Street Marijuana in Vancouver. "If people were dumb enough to vote it in, I'm all for it," he told The New York Times. "There's a demand, and I have a product."

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper also seems to have had a change of heart about marijuana. The former brewer, who opposed Amendment 64, his state's legalization initiative, is not about to become a budtender. But in a recent interview with Reuters, Hickenlooper conceded that the consequences of letting people grow, sell, and consume pot without risking arrest have not been as bad as he feared.

"It seems like the people that were smoking before are mainly the people that are smoking now," Hickenlooper said as Colorado marked six months of legal recreational sales at the end of June. "If that's the case, what that means is that we're not going to have more drugged driving, or driving while high. We're not going to have some of those problems. But we are going to have a system where we're actually regulating and taxing something, and keeping that money in the state of Colorado…and we're not supporting a corrupt system of gangsters."

Hickenlooper sounds cautiously optimistic, and there are good reasons for that. Possession and consumption of cannabis have been legal in Colorado and Washington since the end of 2012. In Colorado, so has home cultivation of up to six plants and noncommercial transfers of up to an ounce at a time. Since the beginning of this year, anyone 21 or older has been able to walk into a store in Colorado and walk out with a bag of buds, a vape pen loaded with cannabis oil, or a marijuana-infused snack. And for years in Washington as well as Colorado, such products have been readily available to anyone with a doctor's recommendation, which critics say is so easy to get that the system amounts to legalization in disguise. Despite all this pot tolerance, the sky has not fallen.

study released yesterday by Colorado's Marijuana Enforcement Division supports Hickenlooper's impression that legalization has not had much of an effect on the prevalence of cannabis consumption. The authors, Miles Light and three other analysts at the Marijuana Policy Group, note that the percentages of Coloradans reporting past-month and past-year consumption of marijuana in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) rose between 2002 and 2010, mirroring a national trend. But consumption fell a bit in Colorado after 2010 while continuing to rise in the rest of the country. That is striking because Colorado's medical marijuana industry began to take off in the second half of 2009 after the legal standing of dispensaries became more secure.

Another surprising finding is that marijuana use during this period was less common in Colorado than in the country as a whole. Based on NSDUH data from 2010 and 2011, 12 percent of Coloradans 21 or older were past-year users, compared to a national figure of 16 percent. But among those past-year users, daily use was more common in Colorado: 23 percent of them reported consuming marijuana 26 to 31 times a month, compared to a national rate of 17 percent. It's not clear to what extent Colorado's medical marijuana system is responsible for this difference in patterns of use.

More-recent NSDUH numbers for Colorado are not available yet. But Light and his colleagues, in estimating total marijuana consumption for 2014, assume that prevalence rates remain about the same this year, despite broader legalization. "We do not include an additional prevalence increase factor," they explain, "because the NSDUH user population for Colorado was flat between 2009/2010 and 2010/2011." That assumption may prove to be mistaken, and in any case prevalence may rise as the recreational market develops and prices fall. But so far it looks like Hickenlooper is right: Legalization has not resulted in a lot of new pot smokers.

The experience with medical marijuana is also instructive when it comes to underage consumption. Studies that compare states with medical marijuana laws to other states do not find much evidence that allowing patients to use cannabis for symptom relief drives up recreational use by teenagers. In the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the share of Colorado high school students reporting past-month marijuana use fell by 11 percent between 2009 and 2011. (Nationwide that number rose by 11 percent during the same period.) Recreational sales may result in more diversion to minors than medical sales do, although legal retailers card all customers to make sure they are 21 or older, something black-market dealers do not have much incentive to do. Hickenlooper worried aloud about underage consumption in the Reuters interview. But when he was asked if there is "any evidence that it's easier for underage kids to get marijuana than six months ago," he replied: "No, we haven't seen that….One of the reasons so many people voted to legalize it was [that] it's been pretty easy to get it for decades."

What about drugged driving, another concern mentioned by Hickenlooper? A study reported in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence last April found that "the proportion of marijuana-positive drivers involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes in Colorado has increased dramatically since the commercialization of medical marijuana in the middle of 2009." Or as the headline over a University of Colorado at Denver press release put it, "Marijuana use [has been] involved in more fatal accidents since commercialization of medical marijuana." The implication is that easier availability of marijuana in Colorado has led to an increase in traffic fatalities. But as with a similar analysis of data from six states that was published by the American Journal of Epidemiology in January, that is not what the study shows.

Using data from the federal government's Fatality Analysis Reporting System, pharmacologist Stacy Salomonsen-Sautel and her co-authors found that the proportion of fatal crashes involving "marijuana-positive drivers" was 4.5 percent in the first six months of 1994, 5.9 percent in the first six months of 2009, and 10 percent at the end of 2011. The upward trend accelerated after Colorado regulators rejected restrictions on medical marijuana in July 2009, and there was no similar increase in the 34 states that at the time did not have medical marijuana laws. Meanwhile, the proportion of fatal accidents in which drivers tested positive for alcohol remained about the same.

Do these data mean that legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use results in more blood on the highways? No. What Salomonsen-Sautel et al. call "marijuana-positive drivers" actually tested positive for metabolites that linger in blood and urine long after the drug's effects wear off. "THC metabolites are detectable in an individual's blood or urine for several days and sometimes weeks for heavy marijuana users," the authors note toward the end of the article. Hence a "marijuana-positive" result does not indicate the driver was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the accident, let alone that marijuana was a factor in the crash. "This study cannot determine cause and effect relationships, such as whether marijuana-positive drivers contributed to or caused the fatal motor vehicle crashes," Salomonsen-Sautel et al. concede. "Colorado may have an increased number of drivers, in general, who were using marijuana, not just an increase in the proportion who were involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes….The primary result of this study may simply reflect a general increase in marijuana use during this same time period in Colorado." (Salomonsen-Sautel et al. assume that marijuana consumption continued rising in Colorado after 2010, although the NSDUH numbers suggest otherwise.)

Another reason to doubt that greater tolerance of marijuana boosts traffic deaths: "There was a decreasing trend in fatal motor vehicle crashes in Colorado since 2004." There was a similar decline in the 34 comparison states, so it does not look like readier access to marijuana has interfered with this welcome trend. In fact, there is some evidence that it has on balance reduced traffic fatalities by encouraging the substitution of marijuana for alcohol, which has a more dramatic effect on driving ability.

A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research casts some doubt on that hypothesis, finding that medical marijuana laws are associated with a 6-to-9-percent increase in the frequency of binge drinking among residents 21 or older. It is too early to say whether legalizing marijuana for recreational use will have a noticeable impact, whether positive or negative, on accident trends in Colorado or Washington. But for what it's worth, fatal crashes in Colorado, after rising from 2011 to 2012, fell slightly (from 434 to 428) between 2012 and 2013. In Washington fatal crashes rose slightly (from 403 to 405) between 2012 and 2013.

Hickenlooper did not mention crime rates, but some opponents of legalization warned that cash-heavy cannabusinesses would invite robberies, leading to an increase in violence. Instead the frequency of burglaries and robberies at dispensaries has declined since they began serving recreational consumers in January.FBI data indicate that the overall crime rate in Denver, the center of Colorado's marijuana industry, was 10 percent lower in the first five months of this year than in the same period of 2013.

Although the prospect of more money for the government to spend has always struck me as a pretty weak argument for legalization, Hickenlooper is happy to have tax revenue from the newly legal marijuana industry. So far there has not been much: just $15.3 million from the recreational sector in the first five months of 2014 ($23.6 million if you include medical sales), although monthly revenue rose steadily during that period. The economic activity associated with the new industry, including not just marijuana sales but various ancillary goods and services, is bound to be much more significant than the tax revenue. And although Hickenlooper says he does not want Colorado to be known for its cannabis, legalization (along with abundant snow) may have something to do with the record numbers of tourists the state is seeing. It seems clear, in any case, that legalization has not hurt Colorado's economy, which Hickenlooper accurately describes as "thriving."

Another benefit of legalization that can be measured in money is law enforcement savings, which various sources put somewhere between $12 million and $60 million a year in Colorado. Those estimates do not include the human costs associated with treating people like criminals for growing, selling, and consuming an arbitrarily proscribed plant. Prior to legalization police in Colorado were arresting 10,000 pot smokers a year. Today those criminals are customers of legitimate businesses, which are replacing the "corrupt system of gangsters" decried by Hickenlooper.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.

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  • Rich||

    *** meekly raises hand ***

    Governor Hickenlooper, have you personally, you know, had "something taxed", yet?

  • ||

    But don't you know? Democrats "evolve" on social issues while Republicans "sell out" when they change their minds.

    It's the big difference between the two major parties when it comes to how they are reported on.

  • sarcasmic||

    "But we are going to have a system where we're actually regulating and taxing something, and keeping that money in the state of Colorado…and we're not supporting a corrupt system of gangsters."

    Government isn't a corrupt system of gangsters?

  • UnCivilServant||

    You expect the Governer to confess to that?

  • taylor522||

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  • Brian D||

    Of course not! Government is smoothly run by saintly Top Men (and Womyn) who occasionally lose their way and go to jail. KKKorporashuns, on the other hand, are run by profit-hungry, and sometimes bible-thumping demons, and staffed by slaves.

  • ||

    Government isn't a corrupt system of gangsters?

    Asking a government executive that is like asking a mafia Don if his family is just a social club.

  • John||

    Those are "our gangsters". And yes, legalizing marijuana is going to end up being just like legalizing gambling. The state won't really legalize it. They will just take over the business and grant a state enforced monopoly to their cronies.

    In states that have legalized gambling, gambling is still illegal unless you gamble with the state sponsored crony. If start a poker game in my basement, the cops are still going to show up and arrest me if they find out. The only difference is that they will be arresting me to enforce the monopoly instead of arresting me because gambling is bad. From my end, I am not seeing much difference.

  • BSubversive.com||

    Sometimes I wish I never got introduced to this damn site and I wish somebody would offer me the blue pill and take all of this reality away so I could drift away in blissful ignorance.

    The day the light bulb lit up and I finally realized that government acts exactly like an organized crime syndicate, using violence to enforce their ownership over markets was the day I basically stopped being a GOP donor drone and basically embraced anarchy.

    Nobody I'd trust to actually be in government would ever choose to do so. So we end up with power craving assholes and there really is no way to effect change.

    Whether you call him a mafia don, mayor, governor or president, the job is the same, simply a difference in scope and a veneer of legitimacy. At least the mafia don might have some principles and an understanding of how the world actually works. Rather than putting those guys in jail, we should have put them in charge and put the piece of shit politicians into the slammer.

  • sarcasmic||

    Nobody I'd trust to actually be in government would ever choose to do so.

    And that's why libertarians will never have any influence. Because they don't seek power.

  • BSubversive.com||

    Which is why being in government should be just like sitting on a jury. Something you do out of civic duty for a short period and then return to your real life. That goes for both the legislators, the judges, and the government employees. Government should never be anybody's career, only a pain in the ass you do out of a sense of duty.

  • sarcasmic||

    Something you do out of civic duty for a short period and then return to your real life.

    It used to be like that, but that ship has sailed.

  • anon||

    It used to be like that, but that ship has sailed.

    As incompetent as Government is, I'm surprised it got built.

  • Free Society||

    As incompetent as Government is, I'm surprised it got built.

    It makes perfect sense why the government was built and persists. People like to live at the expense of other people. Humans instinctively maximize their resources with the least possible effort.

    As it turns out, this instinct is expressed in the form of a huge extortion racket with the power and willingness to exterminate all of humanity. None of it possible without the existence of pseudo-moral principals that will have people thanking you after you pillage them and murder their children.

  • Free Society||

    And that's why libertarians will never have any influence. Because they don't seek power.And that's why libertarians will never have any influence. Because they don't seek power.

    Which is why you have a moral duty to advocate the expansion of liberty without the existence of political power, my minarchist friend.

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    BSubversive.com

    And what do you think that embracing the whore of anarchy will do for you? I will be interested in your response. What kind of a society do you want to live in?

    Clearly, you detest government of any kind. And yet, you make the statement that some criminal should be put in charge of things.

    What is it that you want for yourself? I hope you realize that those who support anarchy in the U.S. are in a minority.

  • Robert||

    I am seeing a huge difference between not being allowed to buy pot from anybody or gamble with anybody and being allowed to buy pot from, and gamble with, someone.

    The number of people who wanted to use cannabis was far greater than the number who wanted to sell it. Therefore legalizing its purchase accomplished maybe 90% of what allowing anybody to sell as well as buy would have. Going from 0 to 90 is a lot bigger deal than going from 90 to 100.

    Similarly with gambling vs. opening a casino. Not many people want to open casinos, but many more want to gamble, so allowing them to gamble with even a few entities (state owned or licensed) is probably 90% of complete liberation; I'd say 99% but for the lack of price competition.

  • perlhaqr||

    Not many people want to open a casino, it's true. But a lot more people want to host a poker game. And sometimes, that gets you shot. Google "Sal Culosi" for an example.

  • Free Society||

    Robert you basically just described the slow boiling frog scenario. Artificially restrict supply. Then begin to allow artificially limited supply and no one will question that you're the legitimate producing agent of the product.

  • John||

    If I had to guess, I would say Hickenlooper getting his ass handed to him over gun control has a lot to do with this. Thanks to gun control, a huge number of voters have turned against him. Supporting legalized marijuana is just him trying to win back some support by playing to his base.

  • Robert||

    That's ridiculous. Why wouldn't he want popularity no matter what?

  • Loki||

    That and he's probably worried about some of his base abandoning him over fracking:

    As a former oil geologist who supports energy development in Colorado — he once drank fracking fluid — Mr. Hickenlooper has long had a touchy relationship with some environmental advocates.
  • Swiss Servator, Alles Klar||

    OT: Catch a thief, get fired. Why? You guess who/what the thief is...

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/....._local_pop

  • John||

    If I am a plaintiffs' employment law attorney, I am breaking the ethics rules and calling that guy. He needs to be filing with the EEOC and then if they don't sue, he should. They fired a black employe for doing his job. I wish Target luck with explaining their legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for firing him in court.

    I generally and skeptical of discrimination claims. But in this case, I would throw the book at Target if I were on a jury.

  • sarcasmic||

    And nothing else happened.

  • Brian D||

    More proof of how woefully underfunded our po-po are.

  • Pathogen||

    Stealing shoes, and formula for his children... if only the deputies had a strong union..

  • Curtisls87||

    One of the commenters on the article used that line of thinking, in reverse.

    "Thank goodness Target is non-union and this guy has the freedom to deal on an individual basis with his employer without the burden and expense of having someone be his advocate and have legally-enforceable consistent treatment. "

    I'm thinking, dude, he has legal counsel that came to his aid without having to pay union dues. Seems to me like he's "represented."

  • Pathogen||

    This was obviously an elaborate sting operation devised by Target and the Fairfax County sheriff’s office to catch a rogue Target employee, redhanded. Northington crassly flouted company protocol, and refused to follow corporate guidelines. Fortunately the sting was managed without bloodshed, that rather unhinged neo-anarchist was thwarted in his endeavors... and that deputy made it home at the end of his shift.

  • toolkien||

    People are missing the positives here. See how far we have come from the cop simply walking in, twirling his baton, helping himself to some fresh fruit, and winking and grinning for you to do something about it? We have come a long, long way. It wrenches the heart to see our boys in blue having to resort to petty theft like a common mundane.

  • Pathogen||

    "..we are going to have a system where we're actually regulating and taxing something.."

    Well, thank god for that, it's just a matter of time before the state government fucks that goose, and looses their golden egg. The urge to "vice tax" the shit out of any shunned market is just to enticing for those habitual fuck-ups. Anything to put some miles between Hickenlooper, and his questionable judgment in past legislation, I suppose.. November gives him night terrors...

  • briannnnn||

    My favorite quote not in the article was "The governor saw his most recent poll numbers and immediately discarded 'principals.'"

  • anon||

    Vice taxes are so easy, and that's why pols love them. Take any "vice;" I'd wager less than 33% of any given demographic partakes in such, allowing these fucks to be like "yeah tax that! Your taxes won't go up!"

  • briannnnn||

    I think the you basically defined vice: something that less than 33% of people do on a regular basis. It's a lot easier to tax these so called "vices" than to tax sitting on your ass watching tv, even though it's more vicious than smoking a cigarette once in a while.

  • Robert||

    That can't be a sufficient definition, because then it would include things like buying insulin, using a seeing-eye dog, and owning a green colored car.

  • briannnnn||

    Would you be surprised if the government traced tower things...?

  • anon||

    "It seems like the people that were smoking before are mainly the people that are smoking now," Hickenlooper said

    Jesus fucking christ these people are idiots. How long have they been told that just because something's legal doesn't mean that everyone's going to run out and do it?

  • bassjoe||

    Legalization doesn't lead to the "civilization is ending" result that prohibitionists claim it will lead to? Shocking.

    Non-sequitor: I've been reading a bit into the pre-Prohibition temperance movement. Wow, those people were scarily deluded, not to mention creepy; how did they manage to get the required numbers of congress-critters and states to vote for the 18th Amendment?

  • perlhaqr||

    Weird. A politician that isn't completely immune to facts? How strange.

  • JohnAVL||

    Just curious, if the weed sellers can't use the normal FDIC insured banking system for their income and have to operate in cash, where are the millions of tax dollars that the State of Colorado collects deposited or is there some special deal that has been worked out with the Feds? Seems like a double standard!

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Another benefit of legalization that can be measured in money is law enforcement savings, which various sources put somewhere between $12 million and $60 million a year in Colorado.

    I'm skeptical of these numbers. That says that the worst case average is $6k per incident. I suspect the real cost is much higher than that. Hell, at $60MM that's only 600 full time employees w/ benefits (assume ~$100k total compensation) for the entire state.

  • NSW||

    I don’t believe the Larson fellow owns the recreational shop listed here (Main Street Marijuana). In the NY Times article listed it says Larson has applied for three licenses. Two have been denied for various regulatory reasons, and one is up in the are since it has a Vancouver address listed but is technically in an unincorporated part of the county. The Main Street place is in downtown Vancouver (or what passes for a downtown there…can’t say I’ve really explored the city to be honest) and is most likely not near any city/unincorporated county borders.

    The big reason I bring this up is I don’t think the people who run the Main Street store would want to be associated with this John Larson fellow, or at least I hope the industry and consumers shun him. This man has gone on the record saying the following:

    “If people were dumb enough to vote it in, I’m all for it,”

    He’s also on the record of being against the passage of the Amendment. In essence, he’s telling his whole customer base they are dumb but since they are dumb he is there to capitalize on them. I would urge people in the area not to buy at a store where the owner thinks you’re an idiot, but he’s willing to profit from your supposed idiocy. I hope when he gets his license people boycott his business, and I’ll be more than happy to spread the word. He was more than happy to spread his word on how dumb his customers are via the New York Times.

  • obd2spacecom||

    It's the big difference between the two major parties when it comes to how they are reported on.
    super vag k+ can

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