As a guinea pig for adult-use cannabis legalization, Colorado is often a target for prohibitionists trying to magnify what they consider shortcomings of the first state-legal market.
Two key arguments repeated by lawmakers voting against reform efforts include their concerns about how legalization might impact youth as well as the possible increase of impaired drivers on their state roadways.
In Minnesota, where House members discussed an adult-use bill for roughly five hours in May, before it passed via a 72-61 vote, Republican Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen took aim at Colorado in his efforts to deter passage of House File 600. While H.F. 600 did clear the House, it did not make its way through the Senate.
“Since recreational marijuana was legalized [in Colorado], traffic deaths in drivers which tested positive for marijuana increased 135 percent while all other traffic deaths increased 24 percent,” he said. “So, one of the members said, ‘This doesn’t cause death.’ Well, it does with increased traffic death.”
Gruenhagen went on and said, “One other finding is that marijuana use ages 12 and older increased 30% and is 76% higher than the national average, currently ranking third in the nation in Colorado.”
Lawmakers who oppose adult-use legalization in other states that have debated or passed bills this year have echoed similar reservations before casting their no votes.
While the representative from Minnesota declared to have non-partisan studies on his side, his claims have since been debunked (youth impacts) or gone unsubstantiated (traffic safety) by Colorado’s most recent biennial “Impacts of Marijuana Legalization” report, which was released this July and commissioned by the state’s Division of Criminal Justice.
After Colorado voters passed a ballot measure to fully legalize cannabis in the 2012 general election, possession and cultivation became legal on Dec. 10, 2012, when Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an executive action adding Amendment 64 to the state constitution. The commercial sale of cannabis to the general public under an established licensing system did not begin until Jan. 1, 2014.
Before adult-use legalization, Coloradoans legalized medical cannabis through a 2000 ballot measure. Data going back to 2005 is included in the commissioned report on the impacts of legalization, which was mandated by the Colorado General Assembly in 2013.
The executive summary of this year’s report states: “The majority of the data sources vary considerably in terms of what exists historically, and the reliability of some sources has improved over time. 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.
“Furthermore, the measurement of available data elements can be affected by [the] very context of marijuana legalization. For example, the decreasing social stigma regarding marijuana use could lead individuals to be more likely to report use on surveys and also to health workers in emergency departments and poison control centers, making marijuana use appear to increase when perhaps it has not.”
Impact on Youth