Pot Report From Public Safety Dept.: Horror Tales v. Success Stories

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has never been a fan of marijuana legalization in the state.

The CDPHE has consistently adopted a downbeat philosophy when it comes to the impact of legal pot, with a February 2015 report standing as a perfect example.

That document focused on pot-is-awful stats, such as the claim that the risk of automobile crashes doubles after a driver's recent marijuana use, to the almost complete exclusion of any positive material.

By this standard, a new marijuana report by another state agency — the Department of Public Safety — represents a more evenhanded approach.

The study — titled "Marijuana Legalization in Colorado: Early Findings" and on view below in its entirety — contains plenty of data the department clearly considers troubling, including numbers showing increased marijuana usage by those eighteen and older and a considerable bump in emergency-room visits.

But there are also a handful of items showing that some of the promises made by advocates prior to the November 2012 passage of Amendment 64, which legalized limited recreational marijuana sales in the state, are coming true.

For instance, high-school marijuana use is down, and so are marijuana-related arrests in Denver.

Here's a rundown of some of the items that worry the folks at the public safety department:
• Among those 18-25 years old, marijuana usage has increased from 21 percent in 2006 to 31 percent in 2014.

• Among those 26 or older, marijuana usage has increased from 5 percent in 2006 to 12 percent in 2014.

• 33% of marijuana users who have reported marijuana use in the past 30 days have used daily. 

• Marijuana-related hospitalizations have increased from a rate of 803 per 100,000 pre-commercialization to 2,413 per 100,000 post-commercialization. 

• The period of retail commercialization showed a significant increase in emergency department visits, from 739 per 100,000 (2010–2013) to 956 per 100,000 emergency department visits (2014–June 2015).
Another factoid that fits in this category reads: "In the 2014-15 school year, school-based discipline for drugs accounted for 41% of all expulsions, 31% of all law enforcement referrals, and 6% of all suspensions in Colorado."

However, it doesn't tell the whole story.

First of all, the numbers deal with drugs in general rather than being marijuana-specific. Moreover, the report notes that "the drug suspension rate began to increase in 2009-2010, up 29 percent from 2008-2009. Since that increase, the drug suspension rate has remained relatively stable." Moreover, the expulsion rate for 2014-2015 was fifty per 100,000 registered students, which is actually lower than it was during two school years prior to A64's enactment. In 2008-2009, the rate was 65 per 100,000 registered students, and in 2009-2010, the number was 90 per 100,000 registered students.

This trend is acknowledged in another safety-department item, which points out that "high school students ever using marijuana has declined from 42.4 percent in 2005 to 36.9 percent in 2013. The percentage of high school students currently using marijuana has decreased from 22.7 percent to 19.7 percent over the same period," even though "youth use in Colorado remains above the national average."

Here's a graphic that shows declining high-school marijuana use, as well as dips for alcohol and tobacco usage.

Another mixed stat: While marijuana as an impairing substance in DUIs went up from 12 percent in 2014 to 15 percent last year, the total number of marijuana-related DUIDs actually went down slightly.

And then there are the arrest stats.

Pot-related busts in Denver went down by 46 percent between 2012 and 2014, the department acknowledges, "while possession arrests were cut in half and sales arrests have decreased by 24 percent. "

This graphic depicts some even more dramatic decreases.

In all, the Department of Public Safety's analysis is more objective than the ones we've come to expect from the CDPHE.

Maybe the folks there should crunch all of the cannabis numbers from here on out.

Continue to check out the complete report.

Marijuana Legalization in Colorado: Early Findings

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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