budding Marijuana plants in seed starter box

The Impact Of Marijuana Laws In America In The Post Colorado Amendment 64 Era

by Richard Cameron

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), earlier this week submitted a bill that would legalize marijuana on the federal level and not only that,  but allow states to form their own policies on Cannabis, plus target states that have arrests and incarceration rates that are disproportionately affecting the poor and minorities.

In a statement introducing the legislation, Booker said:

“For decades, the failed War on Drugs has locked up millions of nonviolent drug offenders — especially for marijuana-related offenses — at an incredible cost of lost human potential, torn-apart families and communities, and taxpayer dollars.”

While that is taking place, embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions is advocating a return to a crackdown on various substances including marijuana – a return to the “War On Drugs” approach that has notoriously been a failure on so many fronts.

This sets the stage for a pitched battle on the marijuana issue. Whenever decriminalization or legalization is proposed, as it was in 2016, when such laws passed in 4 states – critics drag out a handful of misleading and outright false talking points to bolster opposition to liberalization measures.  A lot of these have centered around the change in the law in Colorado in 2012.  The backdrop to the debate is Amendment 64 (which California’s Prop 64, seems to have been named in honor of). 

In Colorado the law, Amendment 64 allowed individuals 21 and older to possess a single ounce of pot and / or grow up to six plants for their own use. It also prohibited providing marijuana to minors (anyone under 21) and maintains restrictions on public smoking and driving under the influence.

To hear the antagonists of that law, you would gather the impression that the entire state has been overrun with pot crazed zombies inflicting wholesale mayhem at every turn. The reality is a bit different however.

Among the claims of anti-marijuana propagandists is that all of a sudden, vehicle crashes are skyrocketing. The evidence from actual scientifically conducted studies and statistics does not bear that out. Unlike the Highway Loss Data Institute report, which did not incorporate actual data from police reports on collisions and had no information which established a direct correlation between the law and statistics beyond, 2012 – the American Journal of Public Health study “Crash Fatality Rates After Recreational Marijuana Legalization in Washington and Colorado,” actually did. Their findings established that:

“Pre–recreational marijuana legalization annual changes in motor vehicle crash fatality rates for Washington and Colorado were similar to those for the control states. Post–recreational marijuana legalization changes in motor vehicle crash fatality rates for Washington and Colorado also did not significantly differ from those for the control states.”

Emily Wilfong, a Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman said that as of Aug. 22, 2014, 295 people had died in motor vehicle crashes in the state. That compared with the 313 deaths reported as of the same time a year ago.  It makes sense though, to caution that no one has concluded that a correlation can be made between the numbers and the new law, up or down.

But aren’t a lot more people using pot now that it is legal?  Actually not. Official surveys indicate that use has increased on the average, 5 percent.  Alcohol is still king when it comes to people looking for a buzz. While 22% of adults consume alcohol, just 6% of adults reported using marijuana daily or near-daily.

Are more kids getting a hold of pot now? Actually, according to the Department of Public Health and Environment’s 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, Colorado’s high school students’ marijuana habits haven’t changed much since 2009.  In 2009, 25 percent of high school students said they had used marijuana in the past month, compared with 21 percent in 2015. Likewise, in 2009, 43 percent said they had tried marijuana once in their lifetime, compared with 38 percent in 2015. Some credit this to the lure of the “forbidden fruit” having lost its potency.

Crime is up though, right? No. The Denver Police Department offers its assessment that, Marijuana-related crime makes up less than 1% of overall crime in Denver and fell from 0.58% in 2012 to 0.42% in 2015.  The State Department of Public Safety also reported that the number of marijuana arrests nearly halved, down by 46% between 2012 and 2014.    

Despite the fact that the actual picture in Colorado is not the post-legalization dystopia that marijuana
detractors would have you think it is, some perspective is in order here.  Is cannabis an entirely benign substance? Of course not.  Do some people abuse it and risk their health? Yes.  Will everyone using it act more responsibly now that it is legal for adults? Absolutely not.  

Will legal pot completely fire a silver bullet into the coffin of the black (and gray) markets and of drug traffickers?  No, although as the number of states legalizing marijuana increases, the Mexican drug cartels are taking a serious hit (no pun intended).

A marijuana grower in Mexico told NPR three years ago that, “If the U.S. continues to legalize pot, they’ll run us into the ground.” His worst fears are being realized, because the Washington Post recently cited DEA officials as reporting drug seizures at the border are down to their lowest levels in a decade and that “Agents snagged roughly 1.5 million pounds of marijuana at the border, down from a peak of nearly 4 million pounds in 2009.”

President Trump seems to have abandoned the common sense of Citizen Trump from 27 years ago, when he told reporters from the Miami Herald in 1990 that, “You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars.”

When we sum it up, is there a greater upside to legalization (or at least, de-criminalization) than maintaining the status quo that has been a failure for over 8 decades? The answer to that is clearly yes.  

Certainly just as with any number of other goods that are taxed, voters will have to keep an eye on their state legislators, whose tendency is to divert tax revenue to spending other than what citizens agreed to when approving these laws.

Map showing the status of marijuana legality in various states in the US

As more states follow the lead of Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada and California, some of the lingering issues with cross state borders importation of illegal pot will be alleviated. Technology is coming on line in the months ahead, which will aid law enforcement to correctly identify whether someone is driving under the influence of marijuana at the time of a traffic stop.  Additionally, if Senator Booker’s bill passes, owners of shops and dispensaries will no longer be the target of robberies by cash seeking criminals, because FDIC insured banks will accept deposits they are reluctant to accept at present.

Foes of ongoing efforts in this direction are swimming against the tide as public opinion supports the lifting of criminal sanctions against consumers of cannabis. Polls (CBS News / April 2017) have indicated that 61 percent of Americans believe that more freedom for adults in the area of marijuana is a net positive.

And despite the appeal to Sessions, Trump and others who relish using police authority to enforce their disapproval of the choices of others, the federal government needs to butt out on the prerogatives of the individual states – marijuana being no exception.

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