Marijuana legalization in Colorado: the good, the bad and the ugly

High there!  As Virginia politicians scramble to stake out positions on reforming marijuana laws in the Old Dominion ahead of this November’s elections, it is useful to look at the actual experience in Colorado after five years of legal recreational marijuana sales.  There is no universally accepted source of truth regarding the success or failure of Colorado’s marijuana legalization. However, many articles have been written regarding Colorado’s experience and the general perception seems to be positive albeit with some significant concerns. As Virginia moves down the road of marijuana reform its political class would be well advised to heed the lessons of those who have already gone down that path.

Jerry Ford and Jerry Garcia.  Colorado has a long history of marijuana reform stretching back to the days of the Ford Administration.

  • 1975 – Marijuana decriminalized, possession of less than one ounce becomes a civil offense punishable by a fine of $100 for the first offense.
  • 2000 – Medical marijuana legalized for certain conditions by voter referendum; 54% support the measure allowing possession of up to 6 ounces of pot or up to six marijuana plants.
  • 2006 – First referendum for marijuana legalization fails with 58% voting “no.”
  • 2009 – Residents of Breckenridge vote 73% to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in that town. Marijuana possession remains illegal at the state level.
  • 2012 – Colorado voters legalize the recreational use of marijuana with 55% voting “yes.”
  • 2013 – A series of specific regulations regarding the sale of recreational marijuana are passed in Colorado and signed into law by then Governor John Hickenloopoer.
  • 2013 – The taxing regime for recreational marijuana is passed by the electorate.
  • January 1, 2014 – Sales of legal recreational marijuana start.

The Good. Revenues are exceeding expectations, jobs are being created at a substantial rate and Colorado’s youth do not seem to be negatively affected.

The Bad. The incidence of traffic-related crashes and fatalities show mixed results. More Coloradans are getting high.

  • Since recreational marijuana was legalized, traffic deaths involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana more than doubled from 55 in 2013 to 138 people killed in 2017. However, the speed with which marijuana metabolizes makes this statistic controversial. Some argue that the marijuana levels measured in this manner do not represent impairment at the time of the accident.
  • According to Current Compliance, “Current past-month recreational marijuana use in Colorado shows a 45 percent increase over the past-month use average of the three-years prior to recreational legalization.”
  • Also according to Current Compliance, “Adult marijuana use increased 67% in the three years post-legalization, and now is 110 percent higher than the national average.”

The Ugly. Rates of hospitalizations with possible marijuana exposures, diagnoses or billing codes are way up and the black market remains stubborn.

  • Marijuana-related hospital visits increased from 575 per 100,000 in 2000 to 3,517 per 100,000 in 2016. Many blame the “technology of marijuana.” Edibles have been created that allow for rapid ingestion of large amounts of THC. Selective breeding has created more potent strains of pot. Candy-like edibles are mistaken by children as harmless treats. Extraction techniques have isolated THC from the rest of the plant making its rapid ingestion easier. All this has led to people finding themselves much higher than they imagined, causing some to seek medical treatment. While undoubtedly scary, nobody has died from a THC overdose and it is debatable as to whether anybody could overdose on marijuana.
  • Unsurprisingly, the legal market for marijuana in Colorado has spawned a fast growing black market where legal Colorado weed is illegally shipped to states where marijuana possession is still against the law. How much Centennial State marijuana makes it to Virginia is anybody’s guess but a recent traffic stop in Tennessee netted 100 pounds of Colorado ganja.

Lessons for Virginia. Colorado’s experience has been pretty much what was expected with one big exception. Once legal, more people used marijuana. More people were found to be operating motor vehicles with marijuana in their system (although alcohol DUIs have declined). People hide in the legal Colorado business then illegally export the marijuana elsewhere. Jobs are created, taxes raised are significant. All of that was expected. The biggest unexpected consequence was the impact of edibles and concentrated THC. Colorado has moved to ban the sale of marijuana-infused candy that looks like traditional candy. Every bite of a marijuana edible must be labeled “THC.”  The concentration of THC in legal products has been regulated. Colorado’s lessons should be heeded by other states – including, possibly, Virginia.

— Don Rippert

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6 responses to “Marijuana legalization in Colorado: the good, the bad and the ugly”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    How much finds its way back to Virginia? Well, how much did you bring back?

    That hospital visit stat is amazing. And has there been any change in the overall traffic accident rate? That argument about how long the residue shows up on tests is wishful thinking I suspect.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Not me. DC area airports are pretty buttoned down. All those cute little dogs sniffing everything. Besides, there’s so much coming across the bridges from DC it’s hard to imagine shipping it in from Colorado. At least that’s what I hear.

      The residue question is complicated. Blood tests are much more accurate with regard to time of ingestion than urine tests. No doubt that marijuana residue can stay in the urine or hair for weeks. The question is how accurate the blood tests are. Big question for Virginia. Stopping DWS (Driving While Stoned) would go a long way to calm people in Virginia down in my opinion.

      The hospital stay stat is amazing. I can only imagine some yokel from out of state gulping down an entire edible candy bar, seeing pink elephants and beating a path to the nearest ER. The symptoms are described as psychotic episodes.

      Maureen Dowd found out the hard way …

      1. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        Senior year we’d figured out the proper amount for a box of Betty Crocker brownie mix. A recipe long forgotten….

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    In our travels this summer, we visited Eastern Oregon and Washington – both of which allow marijuana. Other than noticing the shops where it was sold, both states seem perfectly normal with lots of friendly people and “big sky”!

    For those who have never been there – EASTERN Oregon and Washington are nothing like western. They are more arid and more open prairie – both landscapes are primarily volcanic ”
    Columbia basalt flows
    The thick, layered lava flows of the CRBG erupted as flood basalts, which originate as some of the most highly effusive eruptions in the world. The CRBG sequence a classic example of flood basalt activity that erupted more than 350 lava flows from about 16.7 Ma to 5.5 Ma.”

    Now, I’m quite sure once one has had a few “tokes” – that all this lava stuff is just fun, fun…….

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Went to Plimoth Plantation today. All of a sudden, there was a very strong smell of MJ in the air. Don’t know where it came from. Then it was gone.

  4. NorrhsideDude Avatar

    I still find it funny that we’ll contemplate legalizing marijuana and gambling but increase the age on vaping because high school kids are picking it up. But then again some are considering giving 16 year olds the right to vote but 18 year olds aren’t wise enough to decide to smoke or vape but legally are responsible for all their actions.

    Weird illogical times we live in where even mentioning personal responsibility is taboo.

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