Marijuana Legalization: Disaster or Catastrophe?

Drug warriors are desperate to show that repealing pot prohibition in Colorado was a terrible mistake.


In 2012 Coloradans approved Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana for recreational use, by a vote of 55 percent to 45 percent. Last February a Quinnipiac University poll found that 58 percent of Colorado voters supported that decision, while 38 percent opposed it and the rest weren't sure.

For prohibitionists determined to portray marijuana legalization in Colorado as a disaster, those poll results are inconvenient, since they indicate that public support for Amendment 64 was higher after more than a year of legal recreational sales and more than two years of legal possession and home cultivation than it was in 2012. Honest drug warriors would acknowledge the Quinnipiac numbers and perhaps try to balance them with other poll results. Dishonest drug warriors would do what the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA) does in its new report on marijuana legalization: change the numbers.

The RMHIDTA, a federally supported task force dedicated to suppressing marijuana and other illegal drugs, claims only 50 percent of Colorado voters supported legalization in that Quinnipiac survey—eight points lower than the actual result. It also understates the 2012 vote for Amendment 64 by a point, but the comparison still supports the story that the task force wants to tell: The consequences of legalization in Colorado have been so bad that public support for the policy already has fallen.

Even assuming that the RMHIDTA's misrepresentation of the Quinnipiac survey was a mistake, the direction of the error is not random. You can be sure that if the report had overstated support for legalization by eight points, someone would have caught it before the text was finalized. Which underlines a point that should be obvious by now: Despite its pose as a dispassionate collector of facts, the RMHIDTA, which issued similar reports in 2013 and 2014, is committed to the position that legalization was a huge mistake, and every piece of information it presents is aimed at supporting that predetermined conclusion. So even when the task force does not simply make stuff up, it filters and slants the evidence to play up the purported costs of legalization while ignoring the benefits. Here are some examples of what I mean.

Drugged Driving

The report says "there was a 32 percent increase in marijuana-related traffic deaths" after legal recreational sales began in 2014 (emphasis in the original). Here is an interesting fact about "marijuana-related traffic deaths": They do not necessarily have anything to do with marijuana. The report uses this phrase to describe fatalities from accidents involving vehicle operators who "tested positive for marijuana," which could indicate the presence of inactive metabolites or THC levels so low that they had no impact on driving performance. A positive result does not mean a driver was impaired at the time of the crash, let alone that marijuana contributed to the accident.

As the report emphasizes in another chapter, adult marijuana use has been rising in Colorado since 2006. You would expect the percentage of drivers who "test positive for marijuana"—whether or not they are impaired and whether or not they get into accidents—to rise as well. It is not clear to what extent recent increases in what the RMHIDTA insists on calling "marijuana-related traffic deaths" are due to this population-wide trend and to what extent they are due to an increase in dangerously impaired drivers. The task force seems determined to obscure this crucial distinction.

Another factor to consider: The number of cannabinoid screens performed for law enforcement agencies in Colorado nearly tripled between 2009, when the medical marijuana industry started to take off, and 2014, the first year of legal recreational sales. That could reflect increased enforcement, increased stoned driving, or a combination of both. Likewise with last year's increases in marijuana-related DUID arrests by Denver police, which the RMHIDTA also cites as evidence that legalization has made the roads more dangerous.

Emergency Room Visits and Hospitalizations

In 2014, the report says, "there was a 29 percent increase in the number of marijuana-related emergency room visits" and "a 38 percent increase in the number of marijuana-related hospitalizations." Like "marijuana-related traffic deaths," "marijuana-related emergency room visits" and "marijuana-related hospitalizations" are not necessarily marijuana-related. As the report explains, these numbers, also known as "marijuana mentions," refer to patients whose marijuana use was determined by lab tests, self-reports, or "some other form of validation by the physician." The fact that a patient had used marijuana at some point "does not necessarily prove marijuana was the cause of the emergency admission or hospitalization."

It is therefore hard to know what to make of the increases highlighted by the report. They could be due to increased cannabis consumption, increased willingness to admit marijuana use, increased inquisitiveness by hospital staff, or some combination of those factors, none of which necessarily means that marijuana-related medical problems actually went up between 2013 and 2014, although it's possible they did.

Notably, the report includes a chart showing much smaller numbers for "marijuana-related" E.R. visits prior to 2013, even while cautioning that "inferences concerning trends…should not be made" because of "incomplete reporting" in 2011 and 2012. If the chart is misleading, why include it? Similarly, if "marijuana-related" does not mean what most people will assume it means, why use that term? The answer seems obvious: to strengthen the case against legalization, even if that means relying on spurious evidence.

Marijuana Exposures

The report says "marijuana-only" calls to the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center "increased 72 percent" in 2014. Here the RMHIDTA is on firmer ground, since these calls really do involve marijuana and have increased in recent years. It is plausible that the increase, which has also been seen in Washington, is related to greater availability of marijuana edibles, first from dispensaries and later from recreational shops.

Most calls involve adults, although about 18 percent involve children 5 or younger. Whether people are mistaking edibles for ordinary food or taking bigger doses than they should have, these calls surely represent undesirable outcomes. But as usual, the RMHIDTA fails to put this troubling trend into perspective. Although the number of marijuana-only calls rose 148 percent between 2012 and 2014, last year's total, 151, still accounted for just 0.3 percent of the 50,000 or so calls that the poison control center received. The Colorado center does not report outcomes on its website. But according to data from the Washington Poison Center, just 3 percent of marijuana exposure cases involve a "major effect," and there have been no fatalities.

The RMHIDTA, which has a strong incentive to locate "marijuana-related" deaths in Colorado, describes one homicide, two apparent accidents, and three suicides. Marijuana's causal role in these six deaths is open to debate. But even if we take it as a given and include all 165 "traffic deaths related to marijuana" (which may or may not actually be related to marijuana) in 2013 and 2014, the death toll attributed to cannabis pales beside the thousands of alcohol-related deaths in Colorado during the same period.

Cannabis Consumption Trends

The RMHIDTA, which falsely claims that opponents of pot prohibition anticipate "no increase in use" after legalization, mistakenly counts rising consumption by adults as a cost of legalization. From an economic perspective, increased marijuana use should be counted as a benefit, since it means greater consumer satisfaction. Still, the task force is right that underage consumption is cause for concern.

It is not clear whether the loosening of marijuana prohibition in Colorado has led to an increase in consumption by teenagers. According to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health presented in the RMHIDTA report, the share of 12-to-17-year-olds in Colorado who admitted using marijuana in the previous month rose from 10.17 percent in 2009, when dispensaries began to proliferate, to 11.16 in 2013, the first year after Amendment 64 passed. That's an increase of about 10 percent. During the same period, the national average for past-month use rose only slightly, from 7.03 percent in 2009 to 7.15 percent in 2013. That's an increase of about 2 percent. 

That comparison looks like evidence that Colorado's marijuana policies have increased underage consumption. But there was a similar divergence between Colorado and the national average before2009. In fact, the rate of past-month use by Colorado teenagers rose by 34 percent between 2006 and 2009, more than three times the increase between 2009 and 2013, while the national average rose by about 4 percent. That hardly fits the story the RMHIDTA wants to tell, according to which greater availability of marijuana from dispensaries, beginning in 2009, resulted in more adolescent pot smoking.

State-specific results from this survey are not available yet for 2014. It will take several more years of data to get a clearer sense of where underage consumption is headed in Colorado and how that trend compares to what is happening in states that have not legalized marijuana. While it is entirely possible that leakage from the legal market will boost underage consumption, that conclusion is clearly premature when we have no information about marijuana use by teenagers after recreational sales began.

The Parable of the Stoned Comedian

These are just a few examples of how the RMHIDTA systematically misrepresents what we know about the consequences of legalization. The more general problem is a confirmation bias that leads the task force to collect every scrap of information that reflects badly on legalization while ignoring anything that suggests a more positive (or less negative) view.

The RMHIDTA sifts through news reports for every mention of traffic accidents involving cannabis consumers but ignores the main conclusion of a landmark study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, released last February, that found no association between marijuana use and car crashes. The task force treats negative trends, such as the 10 percent increase in underage marijuana use between 2009 and 2013, as evidence against legalization, but warns that positive trends, such as the 10 percent decline in marijuana-related drug treatment admissions during the same period, may not mean anything. The report never estimates the law enforcement savings, or even the decrease in marijuana arrests, that flow from legalization, but it finds space to fault state-licensed cannabusinesses for being victims of burglary, which it describes as "marijuana-related crime."

To show how truly horrific the consequences of legal marijuana can be, the report even devotes a paragraph to Ralphie May, a comedian "who was so high that he struggled to make it onto the stage," "had trouble finishing a joke," and "constantly lost his place." Meanwhile, the economic benefits of legalization, which you might think would rate at least as much space as the perils of cannabis-impaired comedy, get a sentence: "It will take years of data collection to complete an analysis of whether marijuana legalization is economically positive or an economic disaster." That's the RMHIDTA's idea of balance. 

Addendum: Russ Belville and Christopher Ingraham point out another egregious misrepresentation in the report, this one lifted directly from an International Business Times article about the NHTSA crash-risk study. Page 30 of the report, toward the end of the chapter on impaired driving, quotes that article as saying "researchers found that marijuana users are 25 times more likely to be in an accident than those that did not use the drug." That is in fact what the article said, but it's not what the study said. As I explained last February, the study found that  drivers who tested positive for active THC were 25 percent more likely to be involved in crashes. But once the researchers took sex, age, and race/ethnicity into account, the risk ratio shrank from 1.25 to 1.05 and was no longer statistically significant.

In other words, after the researchers adjusted for a few potentially confounding variables, there was no statistically significant association between marijuana and crash risk. The quote used in the report not only overstates the unadjusted risk ratio by a factor of 20; it gets the study's main finding completely wrong and suggests that marijuana impairs driving more than alcohol does, which is the opposite of the truth. As with the incorrect poll results, you could attribute this misrepresentation to carelessness: first by IBT reporter Amy Nordrum, then by the authors of the RMHIDTA report, who uncritically regurgitated her erroneous reporting. But this is a special kind of carelessness: the kind that desperately latches onto any assertion that seems to support the prohibitionist position, regardless of whether it happens to be true.

This article originally appeared at

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  1. I blame myself for the RMHIDTA regurgitating that hogwash. While I didn’t mean for this to happen that fact only mitigates but does not eliminate my culpability.What happened was I’m really enthusiastic about recommending that people read my favorite book titled How to Lie with Statistics, by Darrell Huff. Evidently them good ol’ boys thought that it was a tactical manual. Can you ever forgive me?

    Did you hear the one about the first sitting Governor to publicly state that it looks like there’s a darn good chance that the regulated re-legalization of cannabis is workable? Them good ol’ boys over to the Rocky Mountain HIDTA are going to be madder than wet Mudhens when they hear about this one:

    1. /snip/
      [Governor John] Hickenlooper, founder of a beer brewery and a former mayor of Denver, opposed the historic 2012 measure that legalized pot for adults 21 and older. But in the interview published on Wednesday in Westword, he says legalization hasn’t been so bad, after all.

      “Now I look at how far we’ve come, and I think there’s a real possibility that we’ll have a system that works? if you eliminate the black market, make it harder for kids to get marijuana. We can put more money into education for kids,” he says. “The sky isn’t falling. People thought it was the end of civilization as they know it. It wasn’t: The sky is mostly still up there with the stars and the clouds.

      Twenty-one months after the roll out of recreational-marijuana stores in Colorado, the one thing Hickenlooper wants everyone in or out of Colorado to know about ending marijuana prohibition is: “Most people who were not smoking marijuana before it was legalized still don’t.”

      1. That’s just crazy making. Heck, I’ve just been waiting for them to legalize heroin so I can get me some. I can actually get some pretty easily, but the only reason I don’t is because that would be illegal. I hear the same thing happens in Alabama, everyone would be dorking themselves with dildos if they legalized them. Thank goodness for common sense laws, I don’t think my bum would be happy with a 12 inch black dildo pumping it and if they were legal I’d surely have to run out and buy one.

        1. I hear a lot of people are just itching to get out the guns and knives and engage in mass murder, but they don’t want to break the law! Because, obviously, that’s how laws work, right? 😉

    2. A cross-section of law-enforcement personnel comprise the RMHIDTA. And as you should already know, law enforcement personnel are trained to lie as part of their job. Cops do this routinely, as Reason has pointed out on more than one occasion. Cops are trained to lie to people to manipulate them into doing what the cops want, which may be confessing, ratting on an acquaintance, or accepting a guilty plea in exchange for the cops’ promise to not go after family members. This is how law enforcement is trained to operate and this is how they do business all over the country and at every level.

      Combine that fact with the fact that cannabis prohibition is a major source of police power and you will conclude that reports like the annual report from RMHIDTA are inevitable. The police are on the verge of losing a lot right now. They will lose numbers, as surely we won’t need as many police once we’ve declared peace on agricultural products. They will lose income as they will not have as many excuses for asset forfeiture or as many chances to experience the financial rewards of police corruption. They will lose influence as the witch hunt comes for drug users to a close. And they will lose funding for some of the shiny toys that they’ve been buying from the military. All in all, this really is a disaster for law enforcement.

      My heart bleeds…

    3. Meanwhile, Obama’s head of the DEA — Rosenberg — just came out yet again and said that marijuana use has too be stopped. He said it has no medical properties. What an idiot.

      As of now, marijuana money is going into the wrong hands. Marijuana is stronger and easier to get than ever before, albeit much more expensive than it should be? and all that money is going back to the cartels!

      To smoke casually from the “black market”, it will run you $100/month. This is much more expensive than it needs to be. More expensive than my cell phone ($20/month from Tmobile), car insurance ($25/month from Insurance Panda), netflix ($10/month), and gym ($15/month) COMBINED!!! Would you rather put money into the hands of violent gangs and drug dealers? or into taxes for schools, hospitals, public infrastructure, etc.???

      Legalize it, tax it and regulate it. Colorado and Washington State have shown that it works!

  2. Honest drug warriors

    No. Such. Thing.

    1. Unless you count the Liberal Kool-aid as a drug…

      1. Even then.

  3. This blizzard of bushwa is entirely typical, an has been for more than half a century at least. It is the core of most public Crusades, and almost all attempts to sell Big Plans. Our self-appointed Betters have little regard for the intelligence of The Masses, and that many of us view them, their plans, and their moral superiority with suspicion and contempt merely reinforces their opinion.

    Nor is it limited to one side of most debates, damn it. I have been keeping half an eye on the “Legalize Marijuana” movements (for there have been several) since the 1970’s. many of the arguments made were and are cogent, but there is at least as much outright hogwash.

    I wish I could say there was evidence that the public was getting to suspicious of the tactic to be fooled, but I have to say that where I have seen it fail in recent years, I think it failed because the Liberal Establishment has lost some talent and lies badly.

  4. Drug Warriors are so terrible. Local Liberty did a segment regarding the stupid and immoral drug war, we called it “Fuck the Drug War!


  5. yay lobby funded propaganda!

  6. I live in Colorado. Purely anecdotal but the only 4 effects I can believe from legalization are:

    There has been a slight increase in ER/medical. All edibles – eat, nothing, eat more, nothing, boom. The pot industry is ‘working on it’. Akin to pharma industry and side-effects. A dosage/instructions issue. Hopefully it will reduce the number of people who use after their own experiment goes bad. I don’t see it as a ‘killer weed’ issue even though – yes – it will be associated with Richard Kirk’s legal defense for murder and a college students jump suicide.

    Pot tourism does suck. Why are all you potheads from outside CO such assholes? I’m sure its not the pot itself. But seriously – fuck off. Legalize it in your state you fucking useless POS.

    If I drove at night in some areas where there is a second factor (colleges, weekend drinking, crappy drivers); then I can see that now-legal pot use makes things a teeny bit worse. Still nothing compared to texting, cell phones, alcohol DUI.

    The overall poll numbers are prob related to the camels nose. Anyone who thinks pot legalization was ever actually a ‘libertarian moment’ is deluded. Potheads want the same ‘rights’ as drunks. Its all about the ‘equal rights’ just like gay marriage. So now, there is talk about public pot bars. Soon ‘ooh. Its a disability so we should be protected from being fired. waahwaahwaah’.

    Now get off my lawn.

    1. Drug induced fatalities will inevitably rise in CO, it’s sort of silly to think it will decrease. And Sullum’s argument is basically “All these bad aren’t NECESSARILY related to marijuana use”

      I seriously doubt that the American public, who lacks discipline is all areas of life (diet, spending) will somehow use pot responsibly. A minority will get addicted.

      The black market apparently still exists in CO, and blacks who use pot still get arrested at a higher rate than blacks. Libertarians will slowly realize that ending the “drug war” won’t solve anything as long as the cartels can adapt their strategy.

      1. I seriously doubt that the American public, who lacks discipline is all areas of life (diet, spending) will somehow use pot responsibly. A minority will get addicted

        Contrary to popular belief, it’s none the government’s damn business whether I use a substance responsibility, be it alcohol, pot, or fatty foods. If, in my irresponsibility, I infringe on the life, liberty, or property of another individual, then the government may legitimately intervene.

        1. What you sound like is the sort of person who will deliberately act irresponsibly, infringe on someone else’s life/liberty/property – and then demand that the government intervene to protect you from the consequences of your action if the government doesn’t intervene.

          1. What part of my post-or anything I’ve ever said on this website, for that matter-indicated that?

            1. Because it reads like everything is about you doing whatever the hell you want and government restricting you. Not you and someone else – both acting responsible and self-restrained.

              Government doesn’t arise out of thin air. It happens because someone (prob legitimately) wants or believes they need protection from someone else. It may grow for all sorts of reasons from there but there’s only reason it will ever shrink. Because people don’t believe they need that protection anymore.

              1. The operative word is “believe,” as in faith, superstition, innumeracy and the chance to scream Satan before (or after) shooting someone…

                1. Fuck you. I live where pot is now legal. If it becomes illegal again, it won’t be because of ‘drug warriors’ or ‘government’ or ‘nannies’. It will be because potheads demonstrate they are a nuisance to everyone else.

                  You live in a state where pot is illegal. Please stay there and wallow in your superiority complex fantasies.

                  1. Most do stay put! They just risk their freedom, unlike those that partake in your state!

                    1. Oh. What heroism.

                  2. JFree: you are a prejudiced A-hole who seems to know absolutely nothing about the science of cannabis and its effects on the body. Also, you are clueless about it’s effect on society vs. The effects of prohibition as indicated by this study amongst others.


                    People who use cannabis are mostly normal, hard working normal people. Some are extremely successful, some are average, some may be burnouts…. just like in any walk of life.

                    If someone uses cannabis and harms someone (it happens, but rarely). They should suffer consequences.

                    Otherwise, mind your own fucking business.

  7. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ??????

  8. Being a Mexican Drug Lord, I for one think the legalization of pot in certain states is a terrible mistake. What message are we sending to the children for heavens sake? Everyone knows there is nothing as important in the entire universe than children, bless their little hearts. Now let’s recover our common sense and get the poison known as marijuana made illegal again for Christ’s sake! Especially with the pope coming God damn it!

  9. we have progressed from reefer madness 101 to 301level reefer madness. never trust a government agency that has a more tha four letter acronym. talk about an article full of baloney.

    1. You mean agencies like the CIA and NSA? That’s over four letters if you mix them together and add them up.

  10. those poll results are inconvenient, since they indicate that public support for Amendment 64 was higher after more than a year of legal recreational sales and more than two years of legal possession and home cultivation than it was in 2012

    Know what else was higher after more than a year of legal recreational sales?

  11. It is a disastrous catastrophe.

    1. Disastrophe

      1. Tis but an ocean to me…

  12. Drug warriors, the global warmists of the drug world. If the numbers don’t support your premise just massage roughly till they do. Drug prohibition, because alcohol prohibition worked so well it just makes sense.

    1. That’s probably true. OTOH, Reason/Sullum are just as bad. Richard and Kristine Kirk don’t fit the ‘there are no victims with legalization only with prohibition’ narrative. If the individual doesn’t fit the narrative; then divert attention with a whole bunch of top-down BS designed to manipulate people like you. No accident imo that this article comes out the day Kirk changes his plea. Screw the individual. All hail the narrative of the ism.

      1. Izzat kinda like a narc with a loaded gun, cocked and with the safety off, kicking in doors? Ever heard of Henry Virkula?

      2. A person who believes that Richard Kirk didn’t specifically plan to murder his wife in the 1st degree and was not attempting to avoid criminal liability by blaming it on cannabis is an idiot.

        All it takes to convince you morons that cannabis was at fault was, he was high, he killed her, case closed. It’s a dictionary picture worthy example of confirmation bias. Fortunately Mr. Kirk isn’t going to get away with it, because there were people smart enough to look at the totality of the evidence, which says Mr. Kirk is a a murdering lying scumbag playing you for a chump.

        Go find me another comparable case. They’ve been selling medibles in California for over a decade now…there are 38 million Californians…is it really that hard to figure out that you’re a bigot?

        1. hard to figure out that you’re a bigot?

          Word, I might add ASSHOLE as well.

  13. Then there’s this. Thanks WA state legislators for screwing this up even more.


    1. Gov. Jay Inslee is an asshole.
      Take it from one who knows.

  14. The numbers I was looking for but didn’t find in the article is whether there has been a spike in total vehicle deaths or ER visits . Only if there were excess over trend could any effect at all possibly be attributed to pot .

    1. No. Actually every single traffic accident caused by an impaired driver where pot is an impairment can be attributed fully or partially to pot. Drivers cause accidents. Trends don’t cause or prevent accidents – now or in future. Trends only cause or prevent social concern about such accidents. And yeah that data is reported in the report that’s linked.

  15. Good article. Eternal vigilance really does seem to be necessary to keep tax-funded National Socialists from bringing back prohibition. “The Dry Blockade” was a typical Republican election-year book struggling to again rob voters to send narcs with hatchets and Tommy guns to break up pubs and breweries. Fanaticism is really creepy… and violent.

  16. I’m NOT surprised to hear that Theresa Flores who wrote “The Slave Across the Street.” Who Also has the SOAP organization blames sex trafficking in Colorado on marijuana legalization! She stated this at the recent ‘chosen advocates conference’ in Colorado. So not only does the war on drugs and the war on prostitution have similar societal implications- the rhetoric is now over lapping!!! GROSS.

  17. Disband the DEA and all of these Task Forces which have preyed upon the community for decades using asset forfeiture for their own games.

    And always remember that cops are trained to LIE. Do not talk to cops. If they ask you questions respond with a question. “Am I being detained or may I leave ( go about my private business)” is a good beginning.

    Most of all, never believe what a cop tells you.

  18. The elephant in the room asks: What is the big problem with living clean and sober?
    Do our lives suck so bad we have to go around drugged?
    What is the impetus about not living in reality?

    1. We’re not looking to be high 24/7. We just want the occasional escape from reality when things get a little rough.

      And yes, there’s a good number of people out there whose lives do suck really bad. And a lot of it does stem from things beyond their control… such as being wrongly targeted for a no-knock drug raid.

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