Colorado releases report on impacts of marijuana legalization |

Colorado releases report on impacts of marijuana legalization

Study shows that marijuana-related arrests are down, adult use continues to grow

Nick Donovan, a manager at Altitude Organic Cannabis in Dillon, reaches through a plexiglass barrier to show a customer a cannabis product on Feb. 16.
Photo by Jason Connolly / Jason Connolly Photography

The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice released its biennial report on the Impacts of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado this week, a comprehensive study meant to determine how the legalization of recreational marijuana has affected crime rates, traffic safety, usage rates, hospitalizations and other topics related to the substance.

In 2013, the state Legislature passed a bill requiring the Division of Criminal Justice to conduct a study on the impacts of Amendment 64, a 2012 voter-approved measure that legalized recreational marijuana use in the state beginning in 2014. Of note, the report says that the data provided should be interpreted with caution, as a majority of the data sources included vary in terms of historical baselines and reliability.

“Consequently, it is difficult to draw conclusions about the potential effects of marijuana legalization and commercialization on public safety, public health or youth outcomes, and this may always be the case due to the lack of historical data,” the report reads.

The number of marijuana users among Colorado residents and visitors continues to grow. Marijuana sales in the state summited the $2 billion mark for the first time last year, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue, a more than 220% increase from the near $684 million in sales in 2014.

The report published this week supports the increased use, as well. According to the Colorado Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a statewide telephone survey conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment included in the study, marijuana use remained stable between 2014 and 2016 with about 13.5% of adults reporting using marijuana in the past 30 days. That number grew to 17.5% in 2017 and to 19% in 2019.

In 2019, the last year data is available, men (22.9%) reported greater use in the past 30 days than women (15.1%). Individuals ages 26-34 reported the highest use rate in the past 30 days (29.4%), followed by the 18-25 age group (28.8%), 35-64 age group (17.3%) and individuals 65 and older (9.3%).

Public safety

Legalization has obviously had dramatic impacts on arrests related to marijuana. As expected, the total number of marijuana-related arrests dropped 68% between 2012 and 2019, from 12,225 to just 4,290. While the arrest totals and rates for all races have decreased since legalization, the report does note that Black and Hispanic individuals are still being arrested at a disproportionate rate.

“The 2019 marijuana arrest rates for whites (76 per 100,000), Hispanics (107 per 100,000) and Blacks (160 per 100,000) show that there is still disparity by race,” the report reads. “… This disparity has not changed in any meaningful way since legalization.”

The arrest rate for men in 2019 (125 per 100,000) was also almost three times that of women (44 per 100,000).

One major concern with legalization was the fear that there would be more impaired drivers on the road, and the report shows that there has indeed been an increase in marijuana-related DUIs or DUID (driving under the influence of drugs) in recent years. Though, how big the increase has been is difficult to say for a number of reasons: There are more peace officers trained to identify drug impairment now (221 in 2020) than in 2012 (184), law enforcement may choose not to perform additional testing for marijuana if they know someone is impaired by alcohol, ongoing issues with testing and more.

According to data collected by the Colorado State Patrol, which the study uses as the benchmark agency for issues related to impaired driving, the total number of reported DUIs fell 16% between 2014 and 2020, from 5,705 to 4,805. Though, the number of state-patrol-issued summonses for marijuana related DUIs — marijuana alone or in combination with another drug — has increased 120% since 2014, from 684 to 1,508 in 2020.

The number of drivers in fatal crashes who tested positive for marijuana or in combination with other substances increased from 47 in 2013 to 120 in 2019, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. Though, the study notes that a positive test doesn’t necessarily indicate impairment.

Public health

The study shows that the biggest increase in marijuana-related hospitalizations occurred prior to recreational legalization. There was about a 100% increase in hospitalization rate between 2010 and 2013, what the report calls the era of medical marijuana legalization, from 1,260 to 2,446 per 100,000 total hospitalizations. The increase continued through 2016, when there were 3,516 marijuana-related hospitalizations per 100,000, though the numbers have been stable ever since, with 3,515 per 100,000 in 2019.

The number of calls to poison control related to marijuana exposure has also increased considerably, according to data provided by the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center. There were a total of 127 in 2013, which ballooned to 223 in 2014 after legalization and peaked in 2019 with 276. While the initial increase occurred among all age groups, the study notes that the most significant jump was among exposure for children ages 5 and younger, from 15 in 2012 to 103 in 2019.

Among individuals seeking treatment for substance use, the admission rate for individuals reporting marijuana as their primary substance has decreased since legalization, from 222 per 100,000 Colorado residents in 2012 to 182 in 2019.

Youth impacts

While adult use continues to increase, legalization appears to have had little impact on youth marijuana use. According to the most recent Healthy Kids Colorado Survey in 2019, a sampling of more than 46,500 high school students from around the state, 20.6% reported using marijuana in the past 30 days compared to 19.7% in 2013 and more than 24% in 2009.

The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey also shows that the number of students trying marijuana before age 13 has declined, from 9.2% in 2015 to 6.7% in 2019.

Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a smaller sampling of just 447 respondents, showed a small decrease in use among youths from 12.6% during the 2013-14 school year to 9.8% during the 2018-19 school year.

The number of juvenile marijuana arrests has also decreased dramatically since legalization, a 37% dip from the 3,265 arrests in 2012 to 2,064 in 2019.

According to data from the Colorado Department of Education, drug suspension rates have decreased from 551 students per 100,000 in the 2010-11 school year to 426 in the 2019-20 school year. Similarly, the drug expulsion rate decreased from 91 in the 2010-11 school year to 23 in the 2019-20 school year.

Graphic by Taylor Sienkiewicz /

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