On January 22, President Obama stated in regards to marijuana legislation “What I am doing is asking my Department of Justice just to examine generally how we are treating nonviolent drug offenders. Because I think you’re right, what we have done is instead of focusing on treatment, the same way we focused say with tobacco or drunk driving or other problems where we treat it as a public health problem, we’ve treated this exclusively as a criminal problem. And I think that it’s been counterproductive and it’s been devastating in a lot of minority communities. It presents the possibility at least of unequal application of the law and that has to be changed.”
This statement follows the trend that some states have been setting in legalizing recreational marijuana. On January 1, 2014 –a little over a year before this statement—Colorado became the first state to sell recreational marijuana, followed closely by Washington in July. These states will soon be followed by Oregon and Alaska who passed similar legislation in the November elections. While it may be too soon to judge the success of Colorado’s policy, we can analyze the initial implementation and start looking for the elements needed for a smooth transition in drug policy from criminalizing to approaching it from public health and regulatory lenses.
The Colorado law allows adults aged 21 or over to buy and possess up to one ounce of cannabis while in the state as well as growing up to six plants. The law also provides for licensing of cultivation facilities, product manufacturing facilities, testing facilities, and retail stores. When coming up with the initiative, the state worked closely with government, industry, law enforcement, public health, health care and other stakeholders to come up with regulations to adequately address issues of market size, safety, consumer access, producer access, growing conditions, security, and taxation.
A recent Brooking’s report states that “Colorado has largely succeeded in rolling out a legal marijuana system, and its early implementation efforts have been impressive”. The report suggests that the following elements have played a role in this success:
- Limitations on the amount of marijuana that can be purchased at one time, with different limits for Coloradans and tourists; although any adult is allowed to possess up to 1 ounce, non-residents of Colorado will be restricted to purchasing ¼ ounce (7 grams) in a single transaction.
- Extensive requirements for video surveillance at both grow operations and at marijuana dispensaries.
- Seed-to-sale tracking systems that assist regulators in enforcement and seek to prevent illegal product diversion.
- Temporary barriers for market entry.
- Pushing for a vertical marketplace
- A new DUI law that sets a legal limit for the amount of active THC in your system while driving ( 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood). If the policy suspect that you are driving while high, they can require you to take a blood test (refusal can result in similar penalties as refusing a breathalyzer test, such as loss of license).
- Maintaining consumption illegal in public. Additionally a law prohibits marijuana consumption in vehicles as well as open containers of marijuana in any vehicle.
Local officials have a similar view to Brooking’s on the program’s initial success. Lewis Koski, the director of Marijuana Enforcement for the state of Colorado has said that officials are keeping on top of the situation: “We’ve recently been focused on how to comprehensively and effectively regulate the edibles manufacturing process,” he said. “We also do licensing and monitoring of the businesses that cultivate, manufacture, transport, and sell marijuana, and our licensing process is pretty robust.” The department also runs stings to check for age compliance. Increased youth access to marijuana is one of the most often heard fears of legalization. “We put undercover underage individuals into the retail stores to see if they could buy anything, but what we’ve seen is a 100% compliance rate,” he said.
In terms of additional effects measured in the last year, Colorado has experienced the following:
- A slight decline in youth use. Data released last week by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) indicates that marijuana use among high school students continues to decline, despite warnings that legalization would make pot more appealing to teenagers. In the 2013 Healthy Kids Colorado survey, 37% of high school students reported that they had ever tried marijuana, down from 39% in 2011. The percentage who reported using marijuana in the previous month (a.k.a. “current” use) also fell, from 22% in 2011 to 20% in 2013.
- Marijuana possession charges in Colorado for 2014 are below 2,500, down from nearly 30,000 in 2010 (Data from the National Incident Based Reporting System reveals that arrests for marijuana possession were responsible for 80% of all marijuana arrests in Colorado over the last five years).
- A 41% decrease in all drug arrests in the state in the last two years.
- A decrease of 5.2% of violent crime in Denver.
- Traffic fatalities have reached near historic lows and are slightly lower than those in 2013; according to the Colorado Department of Transportation, there were 258 fatalities from January to July 2014, compared to 263 during the same period in 2013.
While all of these effects may not have a direct causation to marijuana legalization, they do show that marijuana legalization has not had substantive negative effects that many expected.
Additionally, Colorado has had a great economic boost since legalization—both in terms of state revenues and employment. Colorado is now ranked as one of the fastest growing economies and unemployment is at its lowest since 2008, well below the national average. There are roughly 10,000 people who have already become licensed by the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division, working as growers, trimmers and budtenders, as well as bakers and chocolatiers and tour guides.
In terms of state revenue, the state is set to save somewhere between $12 million and $40 million in annual criminal justice system costs, according to the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. This adds to the millions that 2014 brought in marijuana taxes and fees. Colorado sold $801.9 million worth of recreational and medical marijuana during the first year, which amounted to almost $68 million in taxes, licenses and fees in the first 11 months ($49 million exclusively due to recreational marijuana).
These taxes are going primarily to two places: the Public School Capital Construction Assistance Fund, a fund that provides financial help to school districts that have difficulty financing projects to build, renovate, or maintain schools so that unsafe or overcrowded schools do not impair students’ abilities to learn; and the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund, the bulk of which will go towards youth prevention efforts focused on marijuana and overall mental health. This year, $33.6 million of the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund will go towards enforcement and oversight of Colorado’s new marijuana industry, including a continuation of several initiatives that promote public health and public safety, a robust regulatory oversight, law enforcement and the prevention and deterrence of youth marijuana use.
Art Way, Colorado state director for the Drug Policy Alliance has stated: “Colorado is being real and facing the fact marijuana is here to stay. In doing so, we are establishing a public health approach to minimize the potential harms of marijuana (…) All marijuana offenses have declined by about 50%, and law enforcement resources have been freed up to fight violent crime. The state is saving millions of dollars a year in criminal justice system expenses.”
While the majority of implementation can so far be ruled as a success, there are still things on which the state needs to work on. The same Brooking’s report mentions the following:
- Inconsistent servings of THC in edibles;
- Unregulated homegrown risk diversion;
- Misaligned incentives in taxes and tourism.
The main controversy has been in regards to edibles. The state is still trying to come up with a way to regulate the edibles manufacturing process. There has also been concern from opponents for infusing the drug in gummy bears, lemon drops and other products that might appeal to children.
Long term effects of use will also have to be analyzed down the line. Not surprisingly, Colorado now has the second highest percentage of marijuana use in the nation behind Rhode Island. Looking at the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the Denver Post found that around 1.02 out of 8 residents older than 12 had used marijuana in the last month. This translates to approximately 12.7 percent, who are now using per the 2012-2013 study compared to 2011-2012’s finding of 10.4 percent. This has still not factored in the number of individuals using since recreational marijuana facilities have opened, which is expected to bring the numbers up.
UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, who studies policy related to marijuana legalization has stated “I don’t think this tells us about the long-term impacts of legalization (…) the number of medical marijuana patients in Colorado rose over the same time period, so the results are not surprising (…) researchers will have a better idea about pot use in the first state to legalize recreational sales of the drug once they can focus on data showing how many people use pot daily.” Recreational use in 2014 and the coming years will be a big teller on how much it is affecting the everyday population. Whether regular marijuana use has negative health impacts will be up to scientists to determine, as more in-depth studies can be conducted on how marijuana use affects the brain.
In the coming months, additional data from Colorado will be available, as well as data from the one year mark in Washington. The initial picture from Colorado brings a positive balance both in terms of numbers, but also perhaps more importantly in the change of approach. Colorado is now tackling drug policy in a much more integral way; it will no longer be exclusively from a criminal and public security standpoint, but it will also bring the crucial public health side into the debate, which has largely been lacking. Establishing a public health approach will allow us to analyze the effects and risks in order to minimize the potential harms of marijuana.