5 Months Since Legalizing Marijuana, Here's What Colorado Looks Like


Not so bad, actually: We're now five months into Colorado's marijuana legalization experiment, and pressure is building to see whether it's a success story or a major flop. So far, there's only limited evidence, but nothing pointing to the weed-fueled hell some critics warned of. 

The money has been good: During the first three months of legalized marijuana sales, Colorado collected $12.6 million in licensing and fees, including $7.3 million in recreational taxes alone. Medical marijuana continues to outsell recreational weed, with $34 million in total sales in March (however, taxes on medical marijuana are very low). At this pace, Colorado is well on target to hit a $33 million spending plan that will fund new school nurses and public education on marijuana safety, as well as child drug use prevention and outreach.

But not everyone is happy: The New York Times wrote the scathingly-titled "After 5 Months of Sales, Colorado Sees the Downside of a Legal High," leading with anecdotes around a man who purchased a bag of marijuana-laden Karma Kandy and then shot his wife. It's heavy on the gloom and doom (complete with quotes from out-of-state sheriffs and drug warrior Kevin A. Sabet), but the only hard data it presents is that crime is still trending downward in Colorado... 

Marijuana supporters note that violent crimes in Denver — where the bulk of Colorado's pot retailers are — are down so far this year. The number of robberies from January through April fell by 4.8% from the same time in 2013, and assaults were down by 3.7%. Over all, crime in Denver is down by about 10%, though it is impossible to say whether changes to marijuana laws played any role in that decline.

...and claims of trafficking in Kansas appear to be overblown:

Few agree on how much legally purchased marijuana is being secreted out of Colorado. Michele Leonhart, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told a Senate panel in April that officials in Kansas had tallied a 61% increase in seizures of marijuana that could be traced to Colorado. But according to the Kansas Highway Patrol, total marijuana seizures fell to 1,090 pounds from 2,790 pounds during the first four months of the year, a 61% decline.

It's possible that legal marijuana will never be cheaper than the black market stuff, which might render the issue of diversion somewhat less critical. But as of yet, nothing solid indicates a major surge in interstate trafficking, and Colorado may have already been a source of marijuana shipments.

The New York Times quotes Colby, Kansas, police chief Ron Alexander (who oversees an interstate highway leaving Colorado) as experiencing a three-fold increase in the number of charges for the sale, distribution or possession of marijuana. But it's not clear if the charges were minor or whether the increased number of arrests is due to higher scrutiny. Deuel County, Neb., sheriff Adam Hayward called it a "free-for-all" in his state after legalization, but the New York Times didn't offer statistics. An article in the Los Angeles Times found no shortage of local authorities saying that Colorado has become a major source of drugs.

Other law enforcement officials told the New York Times nothing has changed: A March report in USA Today found no evidence that smuggling marijuana out of Colorado had become a major problem. A Wyoming state trooper said that they haven't seen any problems since legalization. Officials in Utah, New Mexico and Nebraska told the publication the same thing. Meanwhile, criminal cases for marijuana were down across the board in Colorado in 2013.

In reality, things look pretty much the same as they did before in Colorado. And while it would certainly be premature to credit weed for Denver's falling crime rate, the sky's not falling, either. In fact, a recent study suggested that not only is there no evidence medical marijuana increases crime, in fact it's associated with slightly lower rates of violent crime.

Image Credits: Liberty Crier

"Marijuana has been widely trafficked throughout the country for decades," says Marijuana Policy Project Director Mason Tvert. "Colorado is actually taking a step to actually control marijuana and reduce that type of illicit activity. Law enforcement officials fighting to maintain prohibition are in effect fighting to keep cartels and traffickers in business."

But there are some concerns: Edibles have proven to be somewhat of a wild card, but Colorado authorities are investigating related incidents and taking action to limit future harm. The Karma Kandy shooting may have involved a dangerous interaction with prescription pain medication. Another death tied to marijuana sold legally in Colorado involved a 19-year-old Wyoming college student who jumped off a balcony after eating an entire THC-laden cookie. But legalization advocates are quick to point out that they support greater regulation of marijuana edibles, including tighter labeling and packaging rules already in place and setting lower limits on the amount of THC allowed in the products.

There has also been a rise in home explosions thanks to idiots attempting to home-brew hash oil, a process which uses butane as a solvent. In unventilated homes, the process can be very dangerous. But since it remains in a legal grey area, the state legislature has a chance to ban the practice, restrict bulk sales of butane, spread information about its dangers or advise consumers on safer ways to make oil.

Approval is ticking up: Some of the problems are because Colorado doesn't yet have the hard data to tell what's truly a problem and what isn't. Gov. John Hickenlooper, who opposed reform, conceded that the state didn't have "buyer's remorse. The approval rating, as I understand it, has gone up. So slightly more people support it now than when the vote passed, 55-45 [percent]. But I do think we don't know what the unintended consequences are. … There are no long-term studies, and we're not screaming and crying alarm, but what I've told people is: You ought to wait a year or two. … Let's see whether we can keep it out of the hands of kids. Let's see that people aren't driving while high. Make sure there aren't unintended consequences."

Or as Rolling Stone's Bruce Barcott writes, "It doesn't much matter which [marijuana regulation] system works, as long as one does. Then we'll be able to mark 2014 as the year control of marijuana passed from drug cartels and weed dealers to government inspectors and shopkeepers."