Marijuana

Drug Warriors Try but Fail to Show That Marijuana Legalization Has Been a Disaster in Colorado

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Jacob Sullum

A new report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA) gathers together all the horrible things that have happened in Colorado since the state began loosening its marijuana laws in 2001. The result falls short of the terrifying effect the authors presumably were hoping to achieve.

The introduction presents the report as an objective attempt to "document the impact of the legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational use in Colorado," with an eye toward informing the "ongoing debate in this country concerning the impact of legalizing marijuana." Given the provenance of the report (a government agency that would not exist without drug prohibition), readers may be skeptical of this just-the-facts pose. It becomes increasingly risible as you wade through the document, which considers only bad effects of legalization, down to the uniformly negative "related material" and "comments" listed at the end of each chapter. Judging from this report, no one in the United States thinks legalization has been anything short of a disaster. Here are some of the more subtle ways in which the RMHIDTA distorts Colorado's experience:

Drugged Driving. The very first page of the report emphasizes that "traffic fatalities involving operators testing positive for marijuana have increased 100 percent from 2007 to 2012" and that "toxicology reports with positive marijuana results for driving under the influence have increased 16 percent from 2011 to 2013." Later the report notes that "traffic fatalities in Colorado decreased 14.8 percent from 2007 to 2012," a period that includes the commercialization of medical marijuana. Although it's possible the drop would have been sharper without medical marijuana, knowing that traffic fatalities are declining in Colorado tends to undermine the impression that relaxing pot prohibition results in more blood on the highways. Here is another relevant fact that the report not only downplays but omits entirely: "Testing positive for marijuana" does not necessarily mean a driver was under the influence at the time of the crash, let alone that marijuana contributed to the accident. Positive test results include marijuana metabolites that can be detected long after the drug's effects have worn off as well as THC levels too low to affect driving ability. The RMHIDTA indirectly acknowledges that point with this warning:

THIS REPORT WILL CITE DATASETS WITH TERMS SUCH AS "MARIJUANA-RELATED" OR "TESTED POSITIVE FOR MARIJUANA." THAT DOES NOT NECESSARILY IMPLY THAT MARIJUANA WAS THE CAUSE OF THE INCIDENT.

Actually, those terms do imply that, which is why they are so misleading. When you see a chart like the one on page 11 of the report, showing a 24 percent increase in "marijuana-related fatalities" in the three years after the medical marijuana industry started to take off, you can be forgiven for thinking there was a 24 percent increase in marijuana-related fatalities. But that change could simply reflect a general increase in marijuana consumption, which would result in more fatally injured drivers and more DUID arrestees "testing positive for marijuana," whether or not they were impaired on the road.

Underage Use. As I noted last week, data from the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) indicate that marijuana consumption by Colorado teenagers has been declining more or less steadily since the state began lifting its blanket ban on cannabis. The RMHIDTA prefers the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), presumably because it shows an increase in underage pot smoking. Specifically, "there was a 25 percent increase in youth (ages 12 to 17 years) monthly marijuana use in the three years after medical marijuana was commercialized (2009) compared to the three years prior to commercialization." Nationwide, according to NSDUH, that number rose by about 12 percent during the same period. The bigger increase in Colorado is consistent with the idea that diversion from legal buyers is boosting marijuana use by teenagers. But it is inconsistent with the Colorado-specific data from the YRBS, which the RMHIDTA does not cite at all. 

Emergency Room Visits. "From 2011 to 2013," the report says, "there was a 57 percent increase in emergency room visits related to marijuana." Furthermore, "The percent of all hospitalizations that were marijuana related increased 91 percent from 2008 to 2013." Or to put it another way, the share of "hospitalizations that were marijuana related" rose from 0.96 percent in 2008 to 1.74 percent in 2013, while the share of emergency room visits that were "related to marijuana" rose from 0.62 percent in 2011 to 0.87 percent in 2013. Judging from these figures, it does not seem like hospitals are being overrun with marijuana-related cases. But even those tiny numbers exaggerate the scope of the problem, as revealed by these notes:

INCREASES [in E.R. visits] OBSERVED OVER THESE THREE YEARS MAY BE DUE PARTLY, OR COMPLETELY, TO INCREASES IN REPORTING BY EMERGENCY ROOMS.

"MARIJUANA-RELATED" IS ALSO REFERRED TO AS "MARIJUANA MENTIONS." THIS MEANS THE DATA COULD BE OBTAINED FROM LAB TESTS, SELF-ADMITTED OR SOME OTHER FORM OF VALIDATION BY THE PHYSICIAN. THAT DOES NOT NECESSARILY IMPLY MARIJUANA WAS THE CAUSE OF THE EMERGENCY ADMISSION OR HOSPITALIZATION.

Again, don't make the rookie mistake of assuming that "marijuana-related" incidents are related to marijuana.

Marijuana-Related Exposures. OK, these actually do involve marijuana—specifically, marijuana accidentally ingested by little kids (5 or younger). There was a "268 percent increase" in such cases in the three years after 2009, compared to the three years before then. In less impressive raw numbers, that's an increase from about five to about 18 kids a year in the entire state, which suggests that adults are generally being pretty careful about keeping their marijuana edibles away from children.

Drug Treatment. Marijuana-related drug treatment admissions fell from 7,194 in 2009 to 6,082 in 2013. Here is how the report describes that 15 percent drop: "Marijuana treatment data from Colorado in years 2005–2013 doesn't appear to demonstrate a definitive trend."

Crime. The RMHIDTA says people who claimed that crime dropped in Denver in the first six months after recreational sales began are wrong. "Actually," says the report, "reported crime in Denver increased 6.7 percent during that time period" (January through June of this year, compared to the same months in 2013). That is true overall, but there were drops in several kinds of violent crime, including murder (38 percent), robbery (5 percent), and forcible sex offenses (19 percent).

[Thanks to Wes Melander for the tip.]

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  1. You gave them too much credit by assuming all driving fatalities are drivers. I’m guessing if anyone died on a road as driver, passenger, pedestrian, etc., was counted regardless of whether they were using or not.

  2. In other words, if a van full of users was T-boned by a texting teen, everyone would be counted for the stats.

    1. If only all the idiot dopers would just realize that smoking the debbil’s weed makes one a magnet for death. Puff a joint on the sidewalk and look up – you’ll see all the cars swerving towards you, the last thing you’ll ever see.

      So, in your van example, sure, the teen shouldn’t have been texting, but it was really the hotboxed hopheads’ fault.

  3. Small world! The picture is of a store in Denver named Mountain Man Medical. Not only was that the store I went to last time I was in Denver, the person in the picture was the person that helped me!

  4. LOL at “budtender.”

  5. Even if every single part of the report was completely true and representative it wouldn’t make a difference in the rightness or wrongness of legalization. And that’s a far more important point than quibbling as to what constitutes “marijuana-related” and playing “my researcher can beat up your researcher”. Individuals should be held accountable for the consequences of their behavior as individuals, and the irresponsible shouldn’t be used as an excuse to punish the responsible. Period. When you start making legality contingent on the health and safety of a product you’ve already lost the debate.

  6. I’m no statistician, so take this with a grain of salt, but I always have to question it when I see that a stat has strangely specific and seemingly arbitrary dates or demographic groupings. If you’re going to give the “trending” statistics for 2005 to 2013, why would it be presented alongside a similar stat stretching only from 2009 to 2011? It seems to me there’s some cherry-picking going on there. In fact, the only thing missing here is the arbitrary yet specific grouping of ages to force the desired results… “among people aged 17 to 23,” …usually an indicator that numbers have been carefully fudged to conceal the true picture.
    All in all, it doesn’t inspire trust.

  7. It’s not germane to this article, but a couple of months ago, I read an item that said that legalization in CO and WA has put a dent in the Mexican cartels’ profits.

    But we all already knew about that benefit.

  8. What on Earth does one go to the ER for related to pot?

  9. “But that change could simply reflect a general increase in marijuana consumption…”

    Or an increase in testing?

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