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New Research Offers Insights Into Col. Marijuana; More Desperately Needed

Colorado has been a national leader in the recreational marijuana bonanza sweeping the nation since voters there bucked the federal prohibition back in 2012. Entrepreneurs there haven’t looked back since.

But it’s still a new industry on a federally banned substance, which means unknowns abound. A new biennial report from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice evaluates if the tax revenue coming in is worth the impact on the community, though it’s not as reliable as public officials want. Even so, the new data remains a mixed bag.

“This report provides a wealth of valuable information to help policy makers, law enforcement, schools, the marijuana industry and the public understand the effects of legal recreational marijuana in our communities,” Executive Director of the Department of Public Safety Stan Hilkey said in a press release accompanying the new research.

Despite the overall decrease in arrests, Blacks are still twice as likely to be detained for marijuana — “a disparity that has not changed in any meaningful way since legalization,” the study highlighted.

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When Colorado first legalized recreational cannabis use in 2012, 13,225 marijuana- related arrests were recorded. By 2019, this number had significantly dropped to 4,290. In that time period, marijuana possession arrests decreased by 71%, and sales arrests were down by 56%. Marijuana production arrests were the only area to see a very small increase by 3%. Juvenile arrests in 2019 were also down compared to 2012 numbers, from 599 per 100,000 to 349 per 100,000 — despite no significant change in youth marijuana use.

“What I read in this report is youth use has stayed flat since legalization — that’s something I think everyone should pat themselves on the back for, whether it’s regulators, teachers, the industry, parents,” Truman Bradley, the executive director of the state lobbying organization Marijuana Industry Group, told The News Station, “Can we do more? Yes and we need to. Right? We want to see this use drop — not stay flat — but the fact that youth use has stayed flat now for almost a decade is very, very telling.”

Despite the overall decrease in arrests, Blacks were still twice as likely to be detained for marijuana — “a disparity that has not changed in any meaningful way since legalization,” the study highlighted.

The report also notes, arrests of drug trafficking organizations involved in cannabis cultivation skyrocketed in 2018 and 2019 because of the DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. In those two years, the state witnessed the most arrests since marijuana was legalized. Interestingly, while 57,711 indoor plants were seized, the number of outdoor plants eradicated drastically varied year to year.

The report notes an increase in calls to poison control that mention marijuana exposure.

Hospitalization rates rose between 2010-2013, when 1780 per 100,000 hospitalizations were reported as marijuana-related. Since then, the numbers have plateaued.

These hospitalizations are a small percentage of the population, but they still need to be monitored because researchers and elected officials don’t know the reason for the initial spike.

“If E.R. visits are going up, is that because the stigma of cannabis is going down and people are a little bit more comfortable to go there? I think this is an area where we just need a little bit more data.”

Executive Director Truman Bradley

Public health concerns about marijuana poisonings across America have been growing. Colorado reflects this nationwide upsurge, with calls to poison control in regards to Colorado marijuana incidents increasing from 41 calls in 2006 — notably pre-marijuana legalization — to 276 in 2019. However, pinpointing where bad weed is coming from is difficult, because recorded poisoning cases fluctuate between different age groups as well as in the type of consumption — like, did they smoke a joint, eat an edible, ignite a wax or consume a THC-infused beverage, etc.

Traffic safety has long been a talking point in legal states, despite studies suggesting there’s no need to fear. The DCJ report builds upon these worries, citing marijuana impairment in DUIs increasing from 12-31% from 2014 to 2020. However, on the same page, the DCJ rescinds its own statistic by noting that “the detection of any cannabinoid in blood is not an indicator of impairment but only indicates presence in the system. Detection of delta-9 THC, one of the primary psychoactive metabolites of marijuana, may be an indicator of impairment.”

“We are putting pins in a chart or in a graph and starting to try to understand what those mean.”

Bradley told The News Station

Including this note basically summarizes the meaning, or lack thereof, of this entire report: There remain a ton of unknowns when it comes to marijuana and the impact of legalization, not only in America but across the globe.

After 50 years of the “war on drugs,” there remains little data providing researchers the baseline historical comparisons they need to do deploy the scientific method in a meaningful way to this newly legal — if ancient product — industry.

That makes evaluating changes in Colorado — which was the first state to legalize cannabis for adults back in 2012 — a struggle. But this report continues building on the last few reports the state has dropped. Still, it remains a long-term journey for researchers, and the public through them, to construct the full mosaic legislators truly need to effectively make public health recommendations around marijuana; even as it’s now legal in the majority of states.

“We are putting pins in a chart or in a graph and starting to try to understand what those mean,” Bradley told The News Station. “So, the only danger I see is potentially drawing some hasty conclusion, but taking snapshots in time is really important.”

Helen is print reporter, broadcaster and a senior in college working on a BA and an MA in broadcasting and media. Her full bio is here.

Helen is print reporter, broadcaster and a senior in college working on a BA and an MA in broadcasting and media. Her full bio is here.

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