Five years in: The effects of legalization in Colorado and Washington state

A comparison of expectations versus results

In 2012, the states of Colorado and Washington became the first in the US to legalize cannabis for recreational use. Critics feared it would attract criminal elements, and that it would lead to increases in impaired driving incidents and youths being exposed to the drug, while advocates hoped it would lead to an economic boom, and an end to the criminalization of cannabis users.

This November marks the five year anniversary of legalization in both states. In that time a number of studies, surveys, and statistics have been published that provide a view into the range of effects that have been observed since the new regime was implemented. Here are some highlights:

Criminal elements

Prediction: Criminal elements would be attracted.

Observation: Mixed results, but overall that myth was busted.

A report published in 2016 found that cannabis-related crime had increased in Washington state post legalization. The report was based on data from both Spokane Valley and Seattle police departments, and it showed a rise in unlicensed distribution and possession of illegal cannabis following legalization, most of which was destined for states where prohibition was still in force.

However those statistics represent only a small portion, geographically speaking, of just one state. On the whole, crime statistics for Washington state reached a 40-year low in 2014, with violent crime down 10 percent and a 13 percent drop in the state’s murder rate. Colorado also saw decreases in overall crime rates, violent crimes, and property crimes.

Impaired driving

Prediction: Accidents and impaired driving incidents would increase.

Observation: Confirmed (mostly).

A study produced by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which has received criticisms from legalization advocates, found that in 2014 (the year in which the first legal recreational cannabis shops actually opened for business) overall claims for traffic incidents rose by 14 percent in Colorado, and 4.6 percent in Washington.

While a certain amount of annual increase was expected regardless of legalization, even after researchers accounted for controls including rates of increase in nearby states where cannabis remained illegal, a rise of 2.7 percent was attributed to the legalization of cannabis.

But reports emphasize that while more drivers who had been involved in insurance claims in Washington and Colorado admitted to consuming cannabis before operating their vehicle, that may not reflect actual changes in usage, due to extremely limited data prior to legalization.

Nevertheless a correlation has been observed, showing a disproportionate increase in traffic-related insurance claims in states where cannabis has been legalized.

Youth exposure

Prediction: Minors would start using cannabis (more than they were already).

Observation: Myth busted.

Earlier this year a think tank working for Washington’s state legislature produced a report showing overall decreases in youth cannabis usage rates.

The report was based on survey data from the state’s Department of Health, which polled for usage among students in grades six, eight, ten, and twelve. The results of the survey showed decreased usage by students in all four grade levels. For example, students in the tenth grade responded at a 17 percent usage rate in 2016, compared to rates of 18 percent in 2006, and 20 percent in 2010.

Similar decreases in teen usage were observed in Colorado, with 21.2 percent reporting usage in 2015, down from 22 percent in 2011.

Big business

Prediction: The new legal market would lead to an economic boom.

Observation: Confirmed.

Both Colorado and Washington have experienced tremendous growth in the cannabis business ecosystem in the years since each state increased access from limited medical marijuana programs to fully legalized recreational markets.

Even setting aside financial gains by the myriad private businesses now operating in each state, and focusing instead on state revenues such as excise taxes and licensing fees, the case is clear. In 2014, Colorado received over $76 million in revenues, $35 million of which went directly toward funding the state’s education system. In 2015, total tax revenues from cannabis increased to over $135 million.

In Washington, $83 million was received in excise taxes alone during the first year of recreational cannabis shops operating in the state. In 2016 the state’s tax obligation was projected at $185 million, with the expectation of 2017 reaching over $230 million.

The lion’s share of tax revenues in Washington are slated for public health programs including Medicaid, substance abuse prevention, and community health centers.

An end to criminalization

Prediction: Arrests would stop, amnesty would be offered to those already incarcerated

Result: Myth busted (mostly).

While overall crime rates dropped in both states, significant increases in cannabis-related arrests were reported in a number of jurisdictions within each state.

Conversely, a noteworthy observation comes from Stanford University, whose Open Policing Project reported that based on data from over 130 million roadside traffic stops throughout the US, the rates of traffic stops leading to drug searches dropped dramatically in both Colorado and Washington following legalization.

While those traffic stops that did lead to drug searches still show a disproportionate rate of enforcement towards drivers depending on race, the stop-and-search rate decreased 34 percent between 2011 and 2015 for black drivers, and 25 percent for hispanic drivers.

But for the thousands of cannabis users who have already incurred criminal records, or are still serving prison sentences for cannabis offenses committed prior to legalization, both Colorado and Washington fall short of the examples set by their more recently legalized counterparts, Oregon and California.

California’s cannabis legislation includes a system that provides for existing cannabis offenses to be reclassified and/or expunged from criminal records, and for those currently serving sentences to have the opportunity for re-sentencing under the new regime.

Meanwhile in Oregon, a resolution passed in 2015 allows anyone with a cannabis-related conviction to apply for their record to be expunged if the act for which they were convicted is no longer classified as a crime.

Unfortunately for Washington and Colorado residents, the same can’t yet be said for their states.

Instead of moving toward an atmosphere of non-criminality, 2015 saw the ratification of Washington state’s Senate Bill 5052, which allows minors under the age of 21 to be charged with a felony for cannabis possession, carrying sentences up to five years in prison.

Unexpected results

Here are a few interesting tidbits and data points that didn’t fit into the above categories.

Harm reduction: A study published in this month’s issue of the American Journal of Public Health found that 2014 saw a 6.5 percent reduction in deaths resulting from opioid abuse in Colorado, indicating a reversal of the previous 14-year increasing trend.

Workplace safety: Explosions occurred seventeen times at THC extraction labs in Washington state during 2014.

Unanticipated growth: A 2015 report from Matt Ferner of the Huffington Post found that legal cannabis had become the fastest-growing industry in the US, with the national market expanding from $1.5 billion in 2013 to $2.7 billion in 2014.

Featured image by Anupam_ts.

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  1. Brandon Strong Reply

    "But reports emphasize that while more drivers who had been involved in insurance claims in Washington and Colorado admitted to consuming cannabis before operating their vehicle, that may not reflect actual changes in usage, due to extremely limited data prior to legalization."

    Was their admission to consuming cannabis before operating their vehicle a positive urine test or a box they checked on a form? Either way, was impairment established in any of these cases?