It has been six months since Colorado became the first of the United States to make cannabis (marijuana) legal for recreational use. The natural question at this time is whether the state is safer and better. Advocates for Colorado’s exploding recreational marijuana industry speak of the benefits acquired during this time while others are more critical.
On the plus side:
Predictions of a pot-driven crime explosion have not materialized. Compared to the same period one year ago, the general crime in Denver is down 10.1 percent and violent crimes are down 5.2 percent.
In the first four months of 2014 and of the law itself, legal cannabis sales were at more than $200 million. Approximately one-third of these sales were for recreational pot products, and the taxes collected from recreational sales amounted to almost $11 million. Of this amount, $1.9 million are earmarked for the improvement of schools in Colorado.
Industry employment estimates (new jobs) range anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000. Home values throughout the state are up a robust 8.7 percent, dampening projections from the opposition that marijuana legalization would damage the state’s overall brand.
On the down side:
Two tragic deaths were linked to cannabis during the six months it has been legal in Colorado. A Denver man, Richard Kirk, was charged with first-degree murder for the shooting death of his wife after he apparently ate marijuana-infused candy. Three hours after he purchased the product his wife, Kristine, was shot and killed. In another case, college student Levy Thamba fell to his death from a Denver Holiday Inn balcony after he ate six times the suggested maximum amount of marijuana cookies. Colorado regulations concerning edible cannabis products (brownies, lozenges, etc.) were toughened after these incidents.
Arapahoe House, which maintains 13 detox facilities in Denver, reported that admissions involving marijuana for Driving Under the Influence have doubled since legalization. Pot-related admissions have gone from 8 percent last year to the current 15 percent. Spokeswoman Kate Osmundson points out that although legalized recreational pot has only just begun, “it’s already having an impact on public safety.”
Eleven children have been treated this year at Children’s Hospital Colorado for having ingested marijuana edibles and six of those have become critically ill. The Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center reports it received 19 calls thus far in 2014 related to children younger than five years old having ingested pot. No comparison data from the previous period is available.
In neighboring Nebraska where pot remains illegal, sheriff deputies report that cannabis seizures near the border have increased 400 percent in the last three years. On the other hand, no significant increases in cannabis seizures have been reported from Colorado neighbors Wyoming and New Mexico.
Looking at just the first four months of revenue in Colorado, the financial opportunities there – compared to other states that have yet to allow recreational marijuana – are enormous. The state of Washington will initiate its own recreational cannabis market, the second in the United States, on Monday. Washington received 2,600 applications from growers, but has approved less than 80. A total of 20 cannabis stores are scheduled to receive the initial retail licenses.
Elsewhere in the United States, a citizen-driven initiative in Alaska will be voted on this fall. Also, legislative bills allowing legalization both look likely for success in the District of Columbia and Oregon.
A big concern in Colorado is that retail sales are never transacted with people under 21 years of age, the legal limit in that state’s law. Twenty or so sting operations in Denver failed to nab any retail stores attempting to sell to those under 21. Smart Colorado, a non-profit organization, aims to inform people “about the harmful effects of early marijuana” and Gina Carbone, a co-founder, is concerned that the process of rapid commercialization of cannabis puts business interests ahead of other concerns. She says the process of normalizing cannabis in Colorado has led to a dramatic reduction in the perception of harm amongst children. During and before the six months cannabis has been legal in Colorado, Carbone maintains that youngsters have been receiving a message that it “is medicine, that this is healthy.”
By Gregory Baskin