Marijuana Study: Legalization Hasn't Hurt or Helped Colorado as Much as Predicted

A photo from a slide show of images from day one of recreational marijuana sales in Colorado.
A photo from a slide show of images from day one of recreational marijuana sales in Colorado.
Photo by Brandon Marshall

An unexpected result of Colorado's legalization of limited marijuana sales for recreational purposes has been a rise in the number of academic studies about whether the change has been good or bad for the state. A few months ago, a paper released by the Brookings Institution found that the rollout was succeeding. But a new analysis by a Harvard economist, released under the auspices of the Cato Institute, offers a more mixed view: It suggests that the nightmares predicted by critics haven't come to pass, but neither have many of the benefits foreseen by advocates of reform.

See also: Marijuana: Colorado's Legal Pot Sales Rollout Is Succeeding, New Report Says

The author of "Marijuana Policy in Colorado" is Jeffrey Miron, the Cato Institute's director of economic studies. The document is classified as a working paper, meaning that it's in-process research being circulated to spark comment and debate.

Jeffrey Miron.
Jeffrey Miron.

Prior to legalization taking effect on January 1 of this year, Miron was among those who thought the move could have numerous positive economic effects. As seen in an April 2013 video shared by Cato and on view below, he mentions among several examples the possibility of law enforcement resources previously used for marijuana interdiction being freed up for other purposes.

In the paper, however, Miron stops well short of boosterism. Here's an excerpt from the piece's summary section:

Supporters and opponents of such initiatives make numerous claims about state-level marijuana legalization. Advocates believe legalization reduces crime, raises revenue, lowers criminal justice expenditure, improves public health, improves traffic safety, and stimulates the economy. Critics believe legalization spurs marijuana use, increases crime, diminishes traffic safety, harms public health, and lowers teen educational achievement. Systematic evaluation of these claims, however, has been absent....

The conclusion from this initial evaluation is that changes in Colorado's marijuana policy have had minimal impact on marijuana use and the outcomes sometimes associated with use. Colorado has collected non-trivial tax revenue from legal marijuana, but so far less than anticipated by legalization advocates.

The paper includes numerous graphics illustrating Miron's points. Here's a look at data concerning marijuana use by high schoolers:

Marijuana Study: Legalization Hasn't Hurt or Helped Colorado as Much as Predicted

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Miron's analysis: "The trend exhibits mild but temporary upward bumps in the years when medical marijuana is introduced and expanded, but the overall trend is downward and not materially affected by the changes in marijuana policy."

Continue for more about the latest study of marijuana legalization in Colorado, including additional graphics, a video and a document.   Miron sees a similar absence of major upswings or downturns related to crime rates in Denver:

Marijuana Study: Legalization Hasn't Hurt or Helped Colorado as Much as Predicted

"No measure indicates a significant change in crime after medical marijuana commercialization, legalization adoption or full legalization implementation," Miron writes.

He sees a similar trend, or lack thereof, when it comes to fatal car crashes:

Marijuana Study: Legalization Hasn't Hurt or Helped Colorado as Much as Predicted

In his words, "No measure exhibits a substantial change at the time of marijuana policy changes."

Such conclusions will undoubtedly cheer those in favor of legalization. But Miron offers less upbeat news in regard to "reduced expenditure on criminal justice activities. Here are two graphics....

Marijuana Study: Legalization Hasn't Hurt or Helped Colorado as Much as Predicted

...that Miron analyzes like so:

Figure 14 shows state expenditure for police protection and incarceration. Police protection grows over time but shows no variation around the dates of marijuana policy changes. Incarceration also grows, but if anything more slowly after adoption and expansion of medical marijuana. Figure 15 shows employment in the three main components of criminal justice activity; police employment increases substantially between 2009 and 2010, but returns to trend within two years. Neither judicial and legal employment nor corrections employment shows any meaningful change after a marijuana policy change.

Of course, marijuana advocates might argue that such changes for the good aren't happening because of entrenched behaviors and a refusal by many politicians and officials to accept a new reality. And fortunately, such discussions are precisely what the working paper is attempting to spur.

Continue to see the aforementioned 2013 video, followed by "Marijuana Policy in Colorado."

Cato Working Paper: Marijuana Policy in Colorado

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.


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