Marijuana Advocates and Opponents Argue Over Legal Pot's Impact on Crime and More

Has limited access to legal marijuana created societal benefits in Colorado? Or has it caused a series of problems that are only getting worse? Depends on whether you're talking to cannabis advocates or opponents of greater access to pot.

Case in point: The Drug Policy Alliance's upbeat status report about marijuana in Colorado a year after the launch of retails sales says that both crime and traffic fatalities have decreased over that period -- but the hard-line Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area disputes both claims and denounces so-called marijuana "spin doctors."

See also: Medical Marijuana Legalization May Lead to Lower Homicide Rates, Study Finds

"Marijuana Legalization in Colorado After One Year of Retail Sales and Two Years of Decriminalization," on view below in its entirety, assembles information under six headings, including "Arrests and Judicial Savings," "Tax Revenue," "Economic Benefits" and "Youth Prevention Efforts." However, the two assertions that stuck in the craw of RMHIDTA pertain to crime rates and traffic fatalities. Here's the DPA segment on the first topic....
Decrease in Crime Rates

According to data released by the city of Denver, violent crime and property crime in Denver decreased in 2014. Violent crime in Denver went down by 2.2% in the first 11 months of 2014, compared with the first 11 months of 2013. In the same period, burglaries in Denver decreased by 9.5% and overall property crime decreased by 8.9%.

...and the second:
Decrease in Traffic Fatalities

Traffic fatalities went down in 2014, according to data released by the Colorado Department of Transportation, challenging claims that the legalization of marijuana would lead to an increase in traffic fatalities.

In the first 11 months of 2014, the state had 436 traffic fatalities, a 3% drop from the 449 fatalities in the first 11 months of 2013. The decline in fatalities in 2014 marks a continuation of a 12- year long downward trend in traffic fatalities in the state of Colorado.
What's wrong with these claims? Almost everything according to an RMHIDTA release issued under the auspices of the organization's director, Tom Gorman. It's also on view below, with the DPA segments listed as "spin" and the responses labeled "truth." Here's the crime-rate response:
Truth: According to Denver Police Department's National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS), total reported crimes for all categories, not just the few selected by the Drug Policy Alliance, shows an overall increase of 8.6 percent from 2012 through 2013, the first year recreational marijuana was legalized. The increase continued through 2014 with a 2.5 percent increase from 2013.
In other words, the RMHIDTA believes the Drug Policy Alliance cherry-picked stats to prove its point. But the former also acknowledges that not all crime can be attributed to weed. A note reads, "There are a variety of reasons that reported crimes increase from year-to-year for which marijuana use may contribute; however, causation is difficult to substantiate."

Regarding the traffic-fatalities assertions, the RMTIDTA has this to say....

Truth: According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) with information provided by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT): The past 12 years have not shown a consecutive year to year decrease. In fact, the data shows four separate years where the number of fatalities increased including 2013, the first year recreational marijuana was legalized. The 2014 data is still in the process of being finalized by CDOT.
...and offers this graphic to support its point of view:

Does this prove the Drug Policy Alliance cooked the books? Not necessarily. There's undeniably been a downward trend in fatalities over the past decade-plus, with a leveling-off and slight boost in recent years. But preliminary CDOT totals for last year, also shared here, do indeed show an overall dip, from 481 to 478 -- and the percentage of decrease is larger excluding December 2014, as the Drug Policy Alliance did.

Besides, the RMHIDTA adds a note about the traffic fatalities, too. It reads:

There are several factors contributing to the number of fatalities that may or may not involve impaired drivers under the influence of marijuana. These factors include miles driven, weather, number of drivers under the influence, safety of vehicles, road conditions, etc.
The release concludes with a "bottom line" that declares, "The public has a right to accurate, factually presented information without the 'spin' used by some advocates." But definitively pinning down what has and hasn't changed as a result of pot law changes in Colorado isn't easy for folks on either side of the issue.

Look below to see the Drug Policy Alliance update, the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area response and preliminary Colorado Department of Transportation traffic-fatality figures for 2014.

DPA Marijuana in Colorado Status Report

Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Spin Doctor Release

Colorado Preliminary Traffic Fatalities 2014

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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

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