On Legalization’s 5th Anniversary, Here’s What We’ve Learned

Published on November 5, 2017 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Monday, November 6, 2017, marks the five-year anniversary of the glorious day in 2012 when Colorado and Washington voted to become the first two US states to legalize recreational cannabis.

'We have not experienced any significant issues as a result of legalization.'

Since then, the data generated by those two states have refuted pretty much every dire fear that the nation’s drug warriors predicted would come to pass. Legalizing and regulating cannabis has made for a safer and more just society, while ushering in the beginning of the end of a costly, massively corrupt, and wholly counterproductive war on a largely beneficial plant.

Perhaps the most definitive conclusion to the great “legalization experiment” was given recently by Dr. Larry Wolk, head of Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment. When asked by CBC Radio what he’s seen in the five years adult-use cannabis has been legal, Wolk said:

“The short answer is we have not seen much. We have not experienced any significant issues as a result of legalization. I think a lot of people think when you legalize you are going from zero to some high-use number, but they forget that even when marijuana is not legal, one in four adults and one in five kids are probably using on a somewhat regular basis. What we’ve found since legalization is that those numbers haven’t really changed.”

So as we celebrate the five-year mark, let’s address the most important sets of evidence that Colorado and Washington have given us.

No rise in underage use

According to figures from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, in 2015, 21 percent of Colorado youths reported having used marijuana in the past 30 days.

Teen use in Colorado has fallen 4% since 2009. Nationally, it's at a 20-year low.

That’s less than the national average and less than the 25 percent reported in 2009.

Meanwhile, a 2016 study from the Washington State Healthy Youth Survey found that rates of cannabis use among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders haven’t changed significantly in the last ten years.

Even nationally, according to the federal National Survey on Drug Use and Health, teen marijuana use is at a 20 year low.

Arrests Are Way Down*

According to an analysis by the Drug Policy Alliance, arrests in Colorado for cannabis possession, cultivation and distribution of marijuana plummeted 95 percent after the state legalized recreational sales.

Arrests in both states fell by 95% to 98%. But troubling racial disparities remain.

The asterisk comes into play when you dig into the numbers and see that marijuana arrest rates for black citizens in Colorado remain 2.4 times higher than for whites (despite using cannabis at roughly the same rate). Even more alarmingly, according to NPR, in the first two years after legalization in Colorado “the marijuana arrest rate for white 10- to-17-year-olds fell by nearly 10 percent… while arrest rates for Latino and black youths respectively rose more than 20 percent and more than 50 percent.”

According to the ACLU, marijuana possession cases in Washington fell 98% the year after legalization, but racial disparities remain strong there as well.

Traffic Fatalities Did Not Increase

Opponents of legalization often point to misleading statistics showing a rise in “marijuana-related” traffic accidents, but as I noted in a comprehensive primer on drugged driving for Leafly, the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Task Force—a federally funded law enforcement organization dedicated to suppressing illegal drugs—admitted in a 2015 report that the term “marijuana-related” does not “necessarily prove that marijuana was the cause of the incident,” and applies “any time marijuana shows up in the toxicology report [of drivers]. It could be marijuana only or marijuana with other drugs and/or alcohol.” It also could mean cannabis use that took place days or weeks before the accident.

Meanwhile, a comprehensive study published this June in the American Journal of Public Health found that “three years after recreational marijuana legalization, changes in motor vehicle crash fatality rates for Washington and Colorado were not statistically different from those in similar states without recreational marijuana legalization.”

Violent Crime Didn’t Rise

Just this past February, US Attorney General and longtime cannabis-foe Jeff Sessions tried to claim there’s a link between legalizing cannabis and increased crime.

Violent crime fell in both states after cannabis legalization.

We’re seeing real violence around [marijuana legalization].” Sessions said in a meeting with reporters. “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved.”

Well, if unnamed “experts” are telling you, that’s pretty solid, right? Seems strange though, that taking cannabis sales out of the criminal black market and moving them into a legal regulated industry would create crime. Fortunately, the Drug Policy Alliance ran the numbers, and found that in the year after recreational cannabis sales started, Denver saw a 2.2 percent drop in violent crime, and overall property crime dropped by 8.9 percent. Meanwhile in Washington, violent crime fell 10 percent from 2011 to 2014.

Opioid Use Went Down

Just last week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (more on him here), in his role as chair of President Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, actually tried to blame the opioid epidemic’s staggering toll of death and addiction on cannabis.

Opioid-related deaths fell 6% in the two years after Colorado legalization.

Marijuana legalization will lead to more drug use, not less drug use,” Christie said. “[Legalization] will lead to more death not less death, and the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) has proven it.”

That is not true.

In fact, this May, NIDA added language to its website affirming that access to legal cannabis is associated with “lower levels of opioid prescribing, lower self-report of nonmedical prescription opioid use, lower treatment admissions for prescription opioid use disorders, and reduction in prescription opioid overdose deaths.”

Aseparate study that looked into Colorado showed that legalization led to a “reversal” of fatal opioid overdoses, with 2014—the first year of legal adult use cannabis sales—marking the first time overdose deaths decreased since at least 2000, when they began to rapidly rise.

After Colorado’s legalization of recreational cannabis sale and use, opioid-related deaths decreased more than 6% in the following 2 years,” concluded the study, which was published earlier this month in the American Journal of Public Health.

Cannabis Tax Revenue Improved Society

Colorado voted to legalize recreational cannabis in November 2012, but the state’s first legal sales didn’t take place until New Year’s Day 2014. Since then, according to data analyzed by Denver-based VS Strategies, the state has collected more than $500 million in cannabis revenue (a figure that includes taxes on both medical and recreational cannabis, though the vast majority is recreational). In Washington, where the retail tax rate is 37%, the state’s total tax obligation for fiscal year 2016 is $185 million and according to a new report from New Frontier Datais expected to increase 25% to $233 million for fiscal year 2017.

More than $1 billion has been taken off the illicit market and used to build schools and bolster drug education programs.

Taxes get a bad rap, because we tend to think of paying them rather than what they pay for, but already in two relatively small states we’ve seen well over $1 billion that previously went into the illicit market now going towards public education and other popular programs.

Recent research by Leafly found that more than 149,000 full-time jobs are currently supported by cannabis legalization. New Frontier estimates that by 2020 cannabis will create more jobs than manufacturing in the United States. And the industry’s unprecedented growth shows no signs of slowing down.

2017 cannabis jobs count: Legal marijuana supports 149,304 Americans

“About a year into this job, I’ve finally accepted how explosive growth is in this industry,” Tom Adams, Editor-in-Chief of Arcview Market Research, tells me. “And the detonator on that explosion has been adult use legalization, which takes an often very limited medical marijuana market in a state and opens the doors of the stores to everybody. When that happens, the legal operators really start gobbling up market share that used to belong to the illicit trade, which makes for growth rates not to be found anywhere else that I’m aware of—including the internet boom at its height.”

Specifically, Adams points to a “compound annual growth rate” in Colorado and Washington in the three years immediately following adult use legalization of over 50%—a rate of expansion he says, that “just does not happen” in other industries.

Those Arcview numbers don’t include the economic benefits of a sustained boom in ancillary businesses like real estate, legal services, accounting, and security, or the government’s vast savings on enforcement, prosecution and incarceration. Not to mention all the people who didn’t lose their jobs, get kicked out of school, or otherwise have their lives and finances disrupted over a cannabis arrest.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

On the retail end, one of the most pronounced changes seen since the onset of legal adult use sales has been a marked shift away from sales of dried cannabis bud (flower) and into products like edibles, tinctures, concentrates, and topicals. It takes time for consumers to discover and adopt these products, but they have each steadily created their own thriving market segments while eating into the overall percentage of sales that goes to flower.

Flower purchases have slowed as consumers discover a vast array of new products and choices.

In its annual report, The State of Legal Marijuana Markets – 5th Edition, Arcview Market Research reports that “on average, while the whole market in [Colorado, Washington, and Oregon] grew 47% in 2016, the pre-roll category grew by 121%. Growing more slowly, although notably more rapidly than flower, were the concentrates and edibles categories, which increased by 75% and 53% respectively… compared with growth of just 31% for dried flowers.”

The Vaporizer Buyer’s Guide: 4 Things to Consider

Some of this disparity can be attributed to reductions in the price of flower, but the data also reflect a distinct change in preference towards other means of consumption. By the end of 2016, sales of dried flower made up just 55% of the product mix by dollar sales in Colorado and 59% in Washington.

Arcview attributes this in part to the fact that while high quality cannabis flower remains readily available on the illicit market, concentrates, edibles, topicals, tinctures and other alternatives can’t easily be found outside the regulated market.

“Legalization has ushered in the age of the tested, packaged, and branded cannabis product,” the report concludes. “Customers buying a given product know what they’re getting, know what it contains, and are assured of a mostly consistent experience. That’s causing long-time cannabis smokers to try out and even embrace other forms of consumption, from vaping and edibles to topicals and pills.”

For those of you (and me!) who still love flower, Leafly’s cannabis experts recently compiled this list of 100 Strains to Try Before You Die

Leafly’s 100 best weed strains of all time

From Dispensary Founder to Mayor?

To get past the numbers, and delve into the human impact of adult use legalization, I’ll give the last word to Kayvan Khalatbari, co-founder of Denver Relief Consulting, 2019 candidate for mayor of Denver, and an industry veteran who started up the state’s second oldest cannabis dispensary in 2009 “with a $4,000 investment and a quarter-pound of cannabis.”

'The biggest thing I’ve learned in the last five years is that people just aren’t as hard to convince on this topic as I thought they would be.'

That was quite an accomplishment. But I’ll always admire him most for his dedicated grassroots cannabis activism, including way back in 2007 when he used to dress in a chicken costume and follow around then Denver mayor (now Colorado governor) John Hickenlooper with a sign that said, ““Hey, Mayor Chickenlooper, What’s So Scary About Marijuana?”

“The biggest thing I’ve learned in the last five years, and even going back further, is that people just aren’t as hard to convince on this topic as I thought they would be.” Khalatbari tells me. “It turns out the opposition to legalization was wide but not deep, and once we started to get data on adult use, and could show politicians and the public that the sky didn’t fall, and revenue went way up, we really started to build momentum, not just in Colorado but nationally as well.”

One interesting byproduct of that has been rapid acceptance of the industry in rural and more traditionally conservative areas that now increasingly see cannabis as an opportunity to bring in jobs and tax revenue. Those regions have begun steadily wooing businesses out of more urban areas, where some residents and regulators have grown wary of the industry’s relentless growth.

Khalatbari worries, however, that as this process of mainstreaming and expansion takes hold, the cannabis industry will move further and further away from its roots as a social justice movement, and become “just about doing business and making a profit.”

Specific areas of concern include boosting Colorado’s notoriously low rates of minority ownership and employment; increasing the industry’s focus on environmental stewardship; and ensuring a more positive impact on communities where cannabis businesses operate, especially those that were disproportionately targeted by the War on Marijuana. “As we consolidate as an industry, and the size of these businesses get bigger, a lot of that tends to fall by the wayside,” Khalatbari says. “At which point we risk becoming just another industry, and not a better industry.”

To that end, he’s a founding member of the Minority Cannabis Business Alliance, and was a driving force behind the Initiative 300 campaign, which allowed Denver to create a pilot social use program. Now he’s planning to sue the city for stalling the Initiative 300 system, and throwing up roadblocks to its success. He’s also concerned that rapid consolidation of the industry has pushed out the original mom & pop style operators.

“I think it’s fair to say we’ve seen our ‘unique operators’ in Colorado cut in half in the last two years,” Khalatbari says. “The number of chains have expanded and taken up that market share, which has led to a drop in the price [of cannabis]. We have $100 ounces in Colorado, and obviously that’s good for consumers, but it makes it even harder for those mom & pops to stay afloat and keep up with the economy of scale enjoyed by the bigger operators.”

These are all issues (among many other progressive causes) Khalatbari will be raising in his upcoming campaign for mayor of Denver. And if that sounds like a pipe dream, keep in mind that long before he became the state’s most powerful politician, John “Chickenlooper” started out as a pioneering brewpub owner.

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David Bienenstock
David Bienenstock
Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.
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