It was all high fives on New Year’s Day in Denver’s marijuana shops. That was the day sales began under Colorado’s voter-approved measure to make legal “recreational” use of marijuana.
More than a few state bureaucrats, on the lookout for new revenue sources, must have looked on with warm smiles. After all, proponents had said often that legalization would give a boost in tax receipts to the state’s treasury.
Not to be left behind, the Colorado Symphony announced it would play a series of “cannabis-friendly” concerts to be called “Classically Cannabis: The High Note Series.” With dwindling audiences and a deficit, the orchestra’s CEO, Jerome Kern, told the Associated Press, “The cannabis industry obviously opens the door to a younger, more diverse audience.”
Pot-happy visitors flocked to the state. Some took a supply home. The head of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration testified before a Senate committee in April that Kansas officials reported a 60 percent increase in marijuana seizures traced to Colorado. The police chief of Colby, Kansas, which is on an Interstate highway leading to Colorado, reported his department had made 20 marijuana-related charges through late May, more than three times the number two years earlier.
Many pot enthusiasts bought their favorite drug in edible form–candy and cookies–from now-legal retail stores. Some had fatal results.
In March, Levy Thomba Pongi, a Wyoming college student, and three fellow students drove to Denver to sample the wares. Mr. Pongi ate some marijuana cookies (some reports said six, but the label cautioned buyers to eat only one). He began acting wildly and jumped from a hotel balcony to his death. The Medical Examiner’s office said that marijuana intoxication was a “significant” contribution to his death.
In April, Richard Kirk purchased a pre-rolled marijuana cigarette and Karma Kandy at a shop in Denver. Having consumed his purchases, he began acting crazily, so his wife called 911. Minutes later he shot her. She died.
Children’s Hospital of Colorado reported that through May it had nine children admitted after consuming marijuana. Six were critically ill. In the entire previous year, the hospital had only eight cases.
After these incidences, state regulators set out to write new rules governing packaging and labeling edible marijuana. The danger of such stuff lying around where children could find it should have been obvious before legalization took place. Instead, deaths and hospital cases had to occur before the authorities took action.
In August a report titled “The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact” was released by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. Using data from 2006 through mid-2013, it examined traffic fatalities, youth usage, adult usage, emergency room admissions, marijuana-related exposure cases and “diversion” (i.e. seizure) of Colorado marijuana. The picture it paints is not a pretty one. The data compiled are all from pre-legalization years. That is, before this January 1.
• Driving fatalities for 2006-2011 decreased by 16 percent, but those involving drivers testing positive for marijuana increased by 114 percent.
• Youth use: The national average of 12-to-17-year-old “current’ users in 2011 was 7.64 percent. In Colorado it was 10.72 percent.
• Adult use: The national average of young adults (18-25) who were “current’ users was 18.7 percent. The Colorado average was 27.26 percent.
• Emergency room: In the four years 2005-2008, the annual average of emergency room visits for marijuana-related incidents was 741. In the three years 2009-2011 it increased to an 800-a-year average.
• Marijuana-related exposure cases: From 2005-2008, the annual average exposures for children from under one to five years of age was only four. Between 2009 and 2011 it had grown to a yearly average of 12.
• Diversion (seizure) of Colorado marijuana: The annual average in 2009-2011 quadrupled from 52 to 242. During the same time spans the amount of pounds of marijuana seized increased by 77 percent, from an average of 2,200 to 3,957 pounds. And, in 2012, authorities seized 7,008 pounds.
• The mails weren’t immune. In 2010, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service seized 15 packages of Colorado marijuana addressed to people in other states. In 2012 the number was 158 parcels.
Did Colorado voters know all of this when they voted in 2012 to legalize marijuana sales? If they didn’t, they should have been informed.
While comparable data for 2014 won’t be available until next year, there is no evidence yet that the legalization program is producing benefits to outweigh the dangers.
Marijuana promoters routinely say that legalization of the sale of “recreational” marijuana will put an end to illicit activities. Don’t bet on it. And, especially, don’t bet on adult users being careful to put tempting pot cookies and candies well out of the reach of children.
Mr. Hannaford writes from California, the first of 22 states to legalize the sale of medical-use marijuana.
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