Report Shows Pot Prohibitionists' Desperation

The Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area exaggerates the costs of marijuana legalization in Colorado while ignoring the benefits.


During a debate while running for re-election in 2014, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was asked whether voters in his state had been "reckless" when they approved marijuana legalization two years earlier. "To a certain extent you could say it was reckless," he replied.

Last May, after repeatedly saying he would reverse legalization if he had "a magic wand," Hickenlooper told the Los Angeles Times, "If I had that magic wand now, I don't know if I would wave it. It's beginning to look like it might work."

See if you can guess which Hickenlooper quote appears in the latest report on marijuana legalization in Colorado from the drug warriors at the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA). It's not much of a puzzle. Since suppressing the use of marijuana and other illegal drugs is RMHIDTA's mission, its reports on legalization are indictments masquerading as objective assessments. The same organization that last year falsely claimed public support for legalization had declined in Colorado this year portrays a governor who sounds cautiously optimistic about legalization as unambiguously against it.

The report's treatment of Hickenlooper is of a piece with its one-sided approach, which focuses exclusively on the negative consequences of legalization and exaggerates what we know about them. RMHIDTA likes to present dramatic, seemingly scientific charts that make legalization look like a big mistake. The difficulties of interpreting the data presented in the charts are usually relegated to a footnote, assuming they are mentioned at all.

On page 79 of the new report, for instance, there is a column chart showing a dramatic increase in "marijuana-related emergency department visits" between 2012, the year Colorado voters approved legalization, and 2013, the year the initiative began to take effect. The footnote says, "2011 and 2012 emergency department data reflects [sic] incomplete reporting statewide. Inferences concerning trends, including 2011 and 2012, should not be made."

Similarly, a line graph on page 17 shows a sharp increase in "traffic deaths related to marijuana," which a footnote defines as "fatalities involving operators testing positive for marijuana." A footnote in the introduction (on page 11) warns, "This report will cite datasets with terms such as 'marijuana-related' or 'tested positive for marijuana.' That does not necessarily prove that marijuana was the cause of the incident."

On reason "marijuana-related" crashes are not necessarily related to marijuana is that people can test positive for THC, marijuana's main psychoactive ingredient, even when they are not impaired. In fact, as the report notes in its summary of an Associated Press story published last May, "There is no science that shows drivers become impaired at a specific level of THC in the blood. A lot depends on the individual. Drivers with relatively high levels of THC in their systems might not be impaired, especially if they are regular users, while others with relatively low levels may be unsafe behind the wheel."

RMHIDTA's habit of inviting inferences in headlines while warning readers not to draw them in footnotes reaches ridiculous extremes on page 45, where a column chart labeled "Colorado School Dropouts" (above) shows what looks like a dramatic increase between 2013-14 and 2014-15. Although the difference between the 2013-14 total (10,546) and the 2014-15 total (11,114) is about 5 percent, the graph makes it look like the number of dropouts more than doubled, because the Y axis begins at 10,200. But never mind: "Rocky Mountain HIDTA has been asked about the number of school dropouts in Colorado numerous times and is, therefore, providing the data. Rocky Mountain HIDTA is not equating the number of dropouts with marijuana legalization."

Similarly, a chapter offering "related data" includes this warning: "Some of the data reported in this section is because [sic] there have been so many inquiries on the particular subject, such as crime and suicides. This is not to infer [sic] that the data is [sic] due to the legalization of marijuana." When you present trends in the context of a report that purports to describe "the impact" of marijuana legalization in Colorado, the clear implication is that they show the impact of marijuana legalization in Colorado. If the data don't do that, including them at the behest of curious readers makes little sense.

Because RMHIDTA is keen to show that legalization has been a disaster in Colorado, it favors the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), which indicates that "youth past month marijuana use increased 20 percent in the two year average…since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana compared to the two?year average…prior to legalization" (emphasis in original). RMHIDTA does not like the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey (HKCS), even though it has a much larger sample, because HKCS indicates that adolescent marijuana use has been essentially flat since the drug was legalized. RMHIDTA argues that HKCS is unworthy of inclusion in the report because it had a low response rate (46 percent) in 2015. But one suspects the survey would have been acceptable if its results were more alarming. Even the increase found by NSDUH was not statistically significant—a point that RMHIDTA conveniently overlooks.

Although the data so far are equivocal, increased secondhand access to marijuana (through relatives, friends, and acquaintances who buy it legally) could still lead to an increase in cannabis consumption by Colorado teenagers. But it seems clear by now that pot prohibitionists were wrong when they warned that relaxing legal restrictions on marijuana, as more than two dozen states have done since 1996, would boost underage consumption by making the drug seem safer and more socially acceptable. In a recent analysis of NSDUH data, researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that the perceived riskiness of cannabis consumption fell among adults and teenagers between 2002 and 2014, a period when 16 states and the District of Columbia legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use. But cannabis consumption rose only among adults, and it actually declined among teenagers.

RMHIDTA views any increase in adult marijuana use as unequivocally bad. But since an increase in use reflects greater consumer satisfaction, it really should be counted as a benefit of legalization, except to the extent that it causes measurable problems. On that score the CDC's analysis is reassuring, because the increase in adult use was not accompanied by a commensurate increase in "dependence and abuse" (as measured by questions about marijuana-related problems). In fact, marijuana use was less likely to qualify for that description in 2014 than it was in 2002.

Among 18-to-25-year-olds who reported using marijuana in the previous year, the incidence of dependence and abuse fell from 20.1 percent in 2002 to 15.3 percent in 2014, a 24 percent drop. That same rate fell from 10.9 percent to 8.7 percent—a 20 percent drop—among respondents older than 25. Abuse became less common even as the share of cannabis consumers reporting that they used marijuana every day or almost every day during the previous year rose from 14.5 percent to 19.9 percent among 18-to-25-year-olds and from 11.4 percent to 19.4 percent in the older group.

Another analysis of NSDUH data, reported last month in Lancet Psychiatry, notes that the overall prevalence of marijuana use disorders among adult cannabis consumers fell from 14.8 percent in 2002 to 11 percent in 2014, a 26 percent drop. That downward trend is broadly consistent with results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), although NESARC generates larger rate estimates and measures a smaller drop.

Critics of prohibition have long argued that banning an intoxicant encourages bad habits and makes it hard to develop a culture of responsible use. It is also plausible that drug users who are undeterred by prohibition are, as a group, especially prone to excess. Therefore it is not surprising that cannabis consumers became less likely to abuse the drug as prohibition began to crumble. While that development is not conclusive evidence that repealing prohibition promotes self-control, it should be of interest to anyone who recognizes that legalization has benefits as well as costs. Needless to say, there is no mention of this intriguing trend in the RMHIDTA report.

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