On January 1st, 2014, 40 shops in Colorado opened their doors to a new type of consumer: legal marijuana users. On July 8th, 2014, a handful of shops in Washington joined them. These two states have made a social experiment out of a pressing question: What will happen if we legalize marijuana?
Nearly two dozen states have legalized medical marijuana, and according to Gallup, as of 2013, some 58 percent of Americans felt that marijuana should be legalized. It’s easy to see why. With almost 14 percent of the country’s massive prison population in jail for marijuana-related offenses, the country is fed up with the War on Drugs.
But is legalizing marijuana for everyone over age 21 the right solution? New data from Colorado shed some light on their current situation.
High Times in Colorado
Although the data isn’t yet in for crime in Colorado on a state level, Denver has released its report for the first half of the year. Since marijuana went up for public sale on January 1st, rates of violent crime have dropped five percent, a 10 percent decrease from last year. Theft from cars has dropped approximately 35 percent.
However, overall crime rates in Denver have gone up 10 percent compared to last year, including non-aggravated assault, drug violations, criminal mischief, and disturbing the peace.
The Colorado State Patrol only began tracking DUIs specific to marijuana use in 2014, since the first legal shops opened. However, in the first five months since January, they found that about 10 to 15 percent of all DUIs involved marijuana intoxication. Nearly half of those had also used alcohol or some other drug as well.
In theory this could suggest that Colorado might soon be seeing increases in marijuana-related traffic fatalities. When Colorado legalized medical marijuana, its rate of such fatalities doubled while the national average was falling.
It is worth noting however that there are likely many other variables in play when it comes to the increased crime rate in Colorado and only comparing one year to the next is not enough to call this a trend. A collection and analysis of data in the following years will be needed in order to truly know the effects legalized marijuana plays on crime rates.
Fewer People in Jail Means Lower Costs
Although the overall number of drug offenses is up, fewer people will be going to jail for drug crimes. Between 2001 and 2010, about 108,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in Colorado at levels that are now legal.
According to the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, the state of Colorado could save as much as $12 million to $40 million of its current $60 million costs spent fighting marijuana usage and trafficking.
Profits from Taxes to Fund Schools
Part of Colorado’s motivation in legalizing marijuana was not just to empty out overcrowded prisons, but also to raise money. Not including local taxes, Colorado has imposed a 2.9 percent sales tax, a 10 percent state tax on retail marijuana sales, and a 15 percent excise tax on wholesale marijuana, bringing the total to a nearly 30 percent tax rate.
The first $40 million to be raised has been earmarked to fund public schools. Other proposed initiatives would use the tax funds to provide youth education programs about substance abuse.
“While the rest of the country’s economy is slowly picking back up, we’re thriving here in Colorado.” – Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper
More Weed, More Jobs
Between the growing new marijuana industry and the funding for schools, legalization of marijuana might also create new jobs.
The Marijuana Industry Group estimates that about 10,000 people are employed in the legal marijuana industry, with 1,000 to 2,000 new jobs created in the last few months alone. These jobs range from agricultural specialists supplying greenhouse materials, fertilizer, and piping to more consumer-facing positions like vaporizer sellers.
The funding for schools is also going to create new jobs – an estimated 372 jobs, of which 217 will be in construction through the Building Excellent Schools Today program.
Selling Weed to Kids?
Children might benefit from the taxes going to fund their schools, but are they getting ahold of this new wealth of legal marijuana?
Exposure to weed, like any drug, poses risks to a child or teen’s developing brain. During development, the brain is forming and pruning connections between nerve cells. This requires a fragile and highly intricate interplay between environment, genetics, and signals given off by the cells themselves. Marijuana’s primary component, THC, mimics the body’s own signaling molecule, endocannabinoid. By washing the brain with THC, these signals can get thrown awry, and give the brain the wrong messages about which nerve connections to keep and which to destroy.
The good news is that kids aren’t buying weed from the new legal shops. The Colorado Department of Revenue, Marijuana Enforcement Division announced in late June that 100 percent of marijuana businesses checked were complying with laws requiring them to ID their customers to ensure that buyers are over 21.
However, just like with beer, people over 21 can buy marijuana and resell it to kids under 21. Colorado law enforcement has not yet released statistics on how prevalent this might be.
In the Hands of Children
Even if no one intentionally shares their cannabis products with children, it’s still easy for children to accidentally eat something containing THC. The drug can be extracted as an oil and used to make any number of foods, including chocolate bars, lollipops, pastries, cookies, and other child-tempting foods. A child’s small body weight means the high dose of THC in one of these foods could make him or her very sick. Pets, especially dogs, are also at risk.
According to ABC 7 News Denver, the Rocky Mountain Poison Control Center said it has had 19 calls from people reporting that children younger than five years old have eaten cannabis products.  Some get sick enough that they have to go to the hospital. The emergency room at the Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora only saw eight cases of children ingesting edible marijuana in all of 2013, but as of July 2014 it’s seen 12 cases.  Seven of the children were placed into intensive care, two of whom needed breathing tubes. Fortunately, all recovered after a day or two.
High Potency, Higher ER Admissions
Children aren’t the only ones showing up in the emergency room sick from too much marijuana. Many adults are having a hard time adjusting to the increased potency of some of the products available, especially foods (called edibles). Colorado law limits the THC content in an edible to 100 mg – which is to say, the equivalent to roughly 20 hits of marijuana when it’s smoked. A heavy user might be able to handle that much, but it’s over twice what a casual user might use at one time.
Unlike the effects of smoking marijuana, which usually act quite quickly, the effects of edibles can often take an hour or more to manifest. In that time, a user might think that the drug isn’t working and use more. When the full effects cumulate, he or she could be much, much too high.
The effects of excess marijuana can include:
- Elevated heart rate and blood pressure
- Restlessness, agitation, anxiety or paranoia
- Grogginess or sleepiness
According to Colorado Public Radio, the emergency room at the University of Colorado Hospital is admitting about a person a day for cannabis-related problems, most of which are caused by edibles.
Regulators are currently considering how to tackle these problems. Proposed options including lowering the limits on how much THC can be in each edible and specially marking foods containing THC as not safe for children. The market is also responding, with manufacturers coming out with more low-dose options that provide the recreational high that many non-medical buyers are seeking.
What About Washington?
On July 7, 2014 Washington State issued 24 licenses for retail marijuana shops to open, allowing them to open on July 8.  The Washington State Liquor Control Board has allotted a total of 334 licenses to eventually be issued.
This may be a problem on the supply end of the sales chain. Although over 2,600 people have applied for a license to grow recreational marijuana, fewer than 100 of them have been approved, and fewer still had their product ready to sell in time.  This lack of supply is expected to drive up prices until the market can stabilize.
A Look to the Future
Although only time can tell how recreational marijuana will affect Washington, a report from the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington has made some predictions.
The new law allows possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, which was formerly a misdemeanor. In no longer processing those crimes, the state should save around $23.7 million annually. However
these savings will be offset by a predicted increase in emergency room visits, which may cost the state about $12.4 million each year.
As for accidents caused while driving under the influence of marijuana, the report estimates the damages to cost $9.1 million annually. However, this assumes that only 4.2 percent of the population will drive while impaired, which makes a crash two to three times more likely. For reference, alcohol makes a crash six to 15 times more likely. If Colorado’s data are any indication, that number might be much higher.
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