Marijuana Reformer: Fed-Funded Anti-Pot Group Making World a Less Safe Place

As we've reported, the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a law-enforcement group that receives federal funding, has spent the past several years churning out material intended to show the negative effects of marijuana legalization in Colorado.

Its latest effort in a series known as "The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact" is "Youth and Adult Marijuana Use," which uses data from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, to argue that since legalization, Colorado has become the state with the most cannabis use by young people.

The group's efforts have led to a slew of stories parroting these claims, including this CBS4 piece and a Fox21 report on view below.

Problem is, info from experts, including a representative from SAMHSA, suggests that the figures are being twisted by anti-pot zealots — and Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project and a prime proponent of Amendment 64, which legalized limited recreational marijuana sales in Colorado, is frustrated that tax dollars are going toward these efforts.

"This is a small task force that's supposed to be spending its time coordinating interdiction efforts in an entire region," Tvert says. "But it seems to be awfully consumed with trying to fight marijuana policy reform."

We've included the RMHIDTA document below, along with the SAMHSA report from which it's largely drawn. But here are the main bullet points cited by the group:
• Colorado is No. 1 in the nation for current marijuana use among youth (12-17 years old), college age adults (18-25 years old), and adults (26+ years old)

• Current marijuana use in Colorado increased 20% among youth (ages 12-17 years old),  17% among college age adults (18 – 25 years old), and 63% among adults (26+ years

old) compared to national figures during the same timeframe of -4%, 2% and 21% respectively.

• Current marijuana use in Colorado is higher than the national average by 74% among youth (ages 12 – 17 years old), 62% among college age adults (18 – 25 years old) and

104% among adults (26+ years old).
Sounds damning — but perspective is offered by remarks made to The Cannabist in December, when the SAMHSA survey was first released.

SAMHSA statistician Arthur Hughes told the publication that Colorado's rates of youth consumption between 2013 and 2014 were essentially unchanged, since the differences between the number of young people who said they'd used marijuana in the previous month (11.2 percent in 2013, 12.6 percent in 2014) were statistically insignificant in the sample. As such, the rates were deemed to be the same.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment head Dr. Larry Wolk — hardly a cannabis booster — said the same thing. 

“Colorado was within the range of being number one even prior to legalization,” he's quoted as saying. “We’ve always had a high use rate among youth and adults.... It’s something we’ve had to contend with, whether or not marijuana is legal. So that’s not news. It’s easy to get misled by numbers if you don’t understand what’s behind those numbers.”

Understanding doesn't appear to be the goal of either Project SAM, a national anti-pot group that's ballyhooed Colorado's number-one status, or the RMHIDTA, whose latest release strikes Tvert as undeserving of recognition as anything other than propaganda.

"It's not a report," he says. "It's taking a government survey and re-releasing it and saying something different than what the survey actually found. The original report found that there's been no change and it came out weeks ago. So it's just kind of absurd what this group is doing, quite frankly.

"The federal government already spent money to research use by people in Colorado, and SAMHSA has the national survey, and it showed teen use in Colorado hasn't changed in the last several years. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has a survey that showed teen use hasn't changed, the Centers for Disease Control shows the same thing, and Colorado has the Healthy Kids survey done by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in conjunction with the departments of human services and education — and that shows teen marijuana use hasn't gone up, either. But this little group of narcotics officers has decided to put out something that says the opposite of what all these surveys show. And even though it's not news, it's being treated that way."

Does Tvert give the folks at the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area any credit for persistence, at least?

"They get no credit for anything other than making the world a less safe place by focusing on this rather than actual problems," he replies. "They're more worried about fighting marijuana regulation than they are about keeping people safe."

Here's a Fox21 item from this week, followed by the RMHIDTA and SAMHSA documents.

RMHIDTA: Youth and Adult Marijuana Use

SAMHSA: Behavioral Health Trends in the United States

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts