Colorado Division of Criminal Justice Publishes Report on Impacts of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado

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(July 19, 2021) - The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice’s Office of Research and Statistics has published the latest “Impacts on Marijuana Legalization in Colorado” report, which presents data on marijuana-related topics including crime, impaired driving, hospitalizations, ER visits, usage rates, effects on youth, and more.

In 2013, the Colorado General Assembly passed SB 13-283 directing the Division of Criminal Justice (DCJ) within the Colorado Department of Public Safety to conduct a study of the impacts of Amendment 64, which legalized the retail sale and possession of recreational marijuana for adults over age 21. This is the third report pursuant to the legislation; DCJ publishes its findings every other year. 

“This report provides a wealth of valuable information to help policymakers, law enforcement, schools, the marijuana industry, and the public understand the effects of legal recreational marijuana in our communities,” said Stan Hilkey, Executive Director of the Department of Public Safety. “The information is presented in a comprehensive and unbiased manner, and I am proud of the detailed and extensive work our DCJ researchers have done to collect and analyze this vast compilation of data.” 

Total revenue from taxes, licenses, and fees from about 2,700 licensed marijuana businesses totaled more than $387 million in 2020 in Colorado. 

As expected, the total number of marijuana arrests in Colorado has dropped since legalization, although the arrest rate for Black people remained disproportionately high compared to white people. The use of marijuana products among adults has increased since legalization, however youth use did not experience a significant change. Over the past 10 years, Colorado has seen increases in marijuana-related hospitalizations, Emergency Room visits, poison control calls, DUIs, and fatal crashes where drivers tested positive for cannabinoids.

In terms of crime, law enforcement agencies continue to combat illicit market activity. Because of the nature of this type of activity being inherently hidden from regulation and oversight, it remains challenging to quantify the size of the illicit market in Colorado; the state can only track and report the indicators of illegal activity, such as arrests and seizures. The number of plants seized on public lands and the number of out-of-state seizures of marijuana sourced from Colorado has fluctuated significantly over time. The number of court filings for marijuana-related felonies or charges related to the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act has also fluctuated -- in 2019, the number of charges was close to or slightly below 2012 numbers.

Resource:  Impacts on Marijuana Legalization in Colorado - July 2021 Report

DATA HIGHLIGHTS*:
Crime
  • The total number of marijuana arrests decreased by 68% between 2012 and 2019, from 13,225 to 4,290. This was driven by large decreases in possession and sales charges, with a very small (3%) increase in arrests for marijuana production.
    • Although arrest rates declined for all races and ethnicities, the marijuana arrest rate for Blacks (160 per 100,000) was more than double that of Whites (76 per 100,000) in 2019, which was an increase from the previous report when the ratio was 1.85:1.
  • The total number of marijuana-related court case filings declined 55% between 2012 and 2019, driven primarily by decreases in misdemeanors and petty offenses. The number of cases with a marijuana felony as the top marijuana charge has varied;  in 2020 there were 180 fewer felony cases filed than in 2012.  
  • In terms of organized crime, the number of court filings charged with the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act (C.R.S.18-17.104) that were linked to some marijuana charge increased from 31 in 2012 to 119 in 2017, but then dropped back down to 34 in 2019.
  • The number of plants seized on public lands has fluctuated significantly over time, from 46,662 plants in 2012, to a high of 80,826 in 2017, down to a low of 1,502 in 2018.
  • Similarly, the number of out-of-state seizures reported for Colorado-sourced marijuana increased from 286 in 2012 to 673 in 2017, but then went back down to 266 in 2019.
  • The federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program, which targets drug trafficking organizations involved in cannabis cultivation, made the highest number of arrests in 2018 and 2019 since legalization and seized the highest number of indoor plants (57,711) in the past 14 years. The number of outdoor plants the DEA eradicated has varied over that time period, ranging from a high of 29,655 plants in 2009 to a low of 2,059 plants in 2017; they eradicated 4,247 outdoor plants in 2019.
Traffic Safety
  • The increase in law enforcement officers who are trained in recognizing drug use, from 129 in 2012 to 221 in 2020, can increase drug detection rates apart from any changes in driver behavior.
  • The prevalence of marijuana or marijuana-in-combination identified by Colorado State Patrol officers as the impairing substance in a DUI increased from 12% of all DUIs in 2014 to 31% in 2020. The prevalence of citations reported as marijuana-alone increased from 6.3% in 2014 to 8.7% in 2020, while marijuana-in-combination with alcohol or other drugs increased from 5.7% of citations in 2014 to 22.7% in 2020. 
  • The number of traffic fatalities where a driver tested positive** for any cannabinoid (Delta 9 or any other metabolite) increased 140%, from 55 in 2013 to 132 in 2019.
    **Note that the detection of any cannabinoid in the blood is not an indicator of impairment but only indicates the presence in the system. Detection of Delta-9 THC, one of the primary psychoactive metabolites of marijuana, may be an indicator of impairment.
Health & Wellness
  • Rates of hospitalization with marijuana-related billing codes rose prior to legalization and experienced a 100% increase during the era of medical marijuana legalization (2010-2013). Recent years have not seen a significant change in hospitalization rates.
  • There was a significant rate increase of marijuana-related emergency department visits during the era of medical commercialization. The increase in visits continued after 2014 but that increase was reversed in 2019.
  • The number of calls to poison control mentioning human marijuana exposure increased over the past 10 years. There were 41 calls in 2006 and 276 in 2019.
  • The overall rate of treatment admissions for those reporting marijuana as their primary substance of use has decreased from 222 admissions per 100,000 population in 2012 to 182 in 2019. 
Youth Impacts
  • Healthy Kids Colorado Survey (HKCS) results indicate no significant change in the past 30-day use of marijuana by middle and high school-aged youth between 2013 (19.7%) and 2019 (20.6%).
  • The rate of juvenile marijuana arrests per 100,000 decreased 42%, from 599 in 2012 to 349 in 2019.
  • School suspensions related to drugs increased prior to legalization to a rate of 551 per 100,000 students in 2010-11, then fluctuated over time. The suspension rate was 426 in the 2019-20 school year. 
  • The drug expulsion rate was 65 per 100,000 registered students in the 2008-09 school year; 10 years later, it was 23 per 100,000 students in the 2019-20 school year.
  • School discipline data for 2019-20 indicated that marijuana infractions accounted for 30% of all expulsions and 34% of all law enforcement referrals in Colorado public schools. These infractions are almost uniformly for simple marijuana possession.

*It is important to note that data sources vary considerably in terms of what exists historically. 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.