What’s Happened In Colorado Since Marijuana Was Legalized?

A look at criminal charges, youth and adult use, traffic safety, and crime since marijuana legalization in Colorado

Colorado Marijuana Use Header
Use went up most for the age group that can't buy weed from fellow students.

Every so often, some prohibitionist shill will erupt onto the internet some blather about how Colorado has gone to hell in a handbasket since the legalization of marijuana for adult use in 2012. Whether it is Kevin Sabet trying ensure pot smokers are forced by drug courts to become clients of Big Rehab or some elected official spouting reefer madness nonsense that was debunked decades ago, I can always count on somebody typing something stupid enough to goad me into dropping some science in response.

This time, however, it was one of our own on Facebook, complaining that “legalization” has ruined everything in Colorado. The post lamented that before “legalization”, there were all manner of marijuana-smoking events, but now, most have been shut down. It complained that before “legalization,” nobody ever got busted for public consumption, but now that happens all the time. It also alleged that “legalization” had created all these new crimes that tokers could be busted for, which still happens disproportionately to minorities.

There are kernels of truth in that mountain of bullshit. Public consumption tickets in Colorado courts have skyrocketed. Where we used to be able to hold Cannabis Cups in Denver, now they are no more. Indeed, prosecutions for what marijuana crimes remain does skew against racial minorities.

However, to put scare quotes around the word legalization is to deny the vastly improved world for cannabis consumers after 2012 in Colorado than before.

One Legal Ounce Protected Thousands From Court

Colorado Marijuana Cases 2006-2015
Thousands of marijuana consumers never had to set foot in a courtroom after 2012.

Prior to marijuana legalization in the state of Colorado, there were between 6 and 7.5 thousand marijuana charges filed in Colorado courts for possession of marijuana. In the last two years, there have been fewer than 250 possession cases filed in court.

There used to be around 300 cultivation cases filed annually before Colorado legalized home grows of three mature plants for all adults. There have been less than 100 cases filed since legalization passed.

That’s not all. Since most busts of greater marijuana offenses begin when the police officer or his K-9 claims to smell marijuana, eliminating the contraband status of marijuana has also reduced charges filed for greater amounts of marijuana of cannabis plant counts.

Colorado Marijuana Cases (no Possession) 2006-2015
Non-Possession cases declined from over 1,000 a year to over 600 a year.

Yes, it is true that public consumption cases in Colorado courts increased, averaging about 67 in the three years prior to legalization, rising to an average of 128 since. But those are cases that are challenged in court, a tiny sliver of the total number of tickets that have been issued annually.

But in every other category, the three year average is down: 30 percent fewer possession with intent cases, 22 percent fewer distribution cases, 74 percent fewer manufacture cases, 28 percent fewer conspiracy cases, and 88 percent fewer other cases.

Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children?!

A major concern of the prohibitionists has been that legalization would open the floodgates of marijuana to the youth. Kevin Sabet is fond of pointing out that Colorado has led the nation in the rate of marijuana use by youth aged 12-17 since legalization.

What he won’t tell you is that in the second full year of legalization, Colorado’s youth use rate declined over 11 percent from the previous year. That was the fourth-greatest decline measured that year.

He also won’t tell you that Colorado’s youth use rate has remained fairly steady since 2009, while the use rates by people of legal age to use cannabis, especially those over 50, have skyrocketed.

Colorado Monthly Marijuana Use 2009 v 2015
Statistics concerning the use of marijuana by youth won’t change much under legalization because they’ve already got their access.

The other panic about the children is that legalizing marijuana has caused it to infiltrate the schools, leading to suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to juvenile law enforcement. While that did seem to be the case around 2009 when the medical marijuana dispensary program got underway, since 2011, suspensions have remained steady while expulsions and criminal charges have declined.

Colorado Student Drug Cases 2005-2015
Since 2011, suspensions have remained steady, but expulsions and referrals to law enforcement have been halved

Now it is important to note that these are all drug-related suspensions, expulsions, and referrals. The report this data is based on did not break down the incidents by which drug was involved. It is also possible for one kid to have multiple incidents per year.

There’ll Be Stoned Mayhem on the Freeways!

Another worry was that legalizing marijuana would lead people to drive stoned on the roadways, leading to increases in DUIs and highway fatalities.

But information from the Colorado Judicial Branch’s annual reports shows that on a per-capita basis, there have been fewer charges of DUI since 1992 every single year except 1999.

Colorado DUI Charge Rate 1992-2015
Except for one year, Colorado has charged fewer people with Driving Under the Influence of alcohol or drugs every year since 1992 and a statistically insignificant increase of 1 point in 2011)

However, since legalization in 2012, there has been a disturbing annual increase in traffic fatalities: 447 in 2011, 474 in 2012, 481 in 2013, 488 in 2014, and 546 in 2015. Preliminary figures from CDOT show that number to be above 600 in 2016, a fatality level the state hasn’t seen since 2005.

Colorado Traffic Fatalities 1994-2015
Total traffic fatalities have increased every year since legalization, but that’s just a coincidence.

That increase in fatalities is mirroring a larger trend throughout the nation as a whole, though. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “job growth and low fuel prices” led to more driving. They add that “increased leisure driving and driving by young people” meant total driving “increased 3.5% over 2014, the largest increase in nearly 25 years.” More driving leads to more fatalities, marijuana legalization just happened at the same time.

Legalized Pot Is Not Leading To A Crime Wave

Some prohibitionists even believe that marijuana itself causes people to behave in a criminal manner, not the prohibition on marijuana. But across the board, when it comes to serious crimes, all but rape are in serious decline.

Colorado Homicide, Robbery, Rape Rates 2001-2014
Is rape actually increasing or are more rape victims reporting it?

Colorado’s decreasing robbery and homicide statistics come as the rest of the country is generally seeing increases. The significant spike in rape cases reported is startling enough to make me question if there has been a change in statistical methodology (e.g., changing from a definition of “forcible rape” to a more inclusive definition) or an increase in reporting of rape by victims.

Colorado Assault, Burglary, Auto Theft Rates 2005-2014
Legalization of marijuana hasn’t seemed to affect these other crime statistics much.

Assault is up slightly, burglary is down slightly, and auto theft hasn’t changed much. But all these statistics are lower than prior to the widespread access to medical marijuana dispensaries that began in 2009.

The idea that legalizing marijuana would somehow lead to terrible outcomes is based on the faulty idea that legalization somehow invents marijuana. It doesn’t; marijuana has been around for quite some time and is very popular. If it causes serious issues with traffic safety, student performance, and crime, we would have already seen these problems increase and decrease in correlation to greater and lesser use of marijuana.

Russ Belville
About Russ Belville 191 Articles
Russ Belville - or "Radical" Russ, as he is known on-air - hosts The Russ Belville Show - The Voice of the Marijuana Nation, a two-hour live news and talk radio program for the cannabis community, weekdays at 3pm Pacific on RadicalRuss.com (learn more on our Podcast page).  The show is based in Portland, Oregon, but "Radical" Russ has traveled over 300,000 air miles in the past five years, bringing his show to report live from hundreds of cannabis conferences, marijuana expos, hemp festivals, and legalization events in over 50 North American cities.