By legalizing “recreational” marijuana in 2012, Colorado challenged marijuana policy, not just for the United States but for the world. Even earlier, Colorado legalized “medical marijuana,” with a full blown commercial industry beginning in 2009. Today, three years into fully legal marijuana, it is time to ask, “How’s that working out?”
While there is dispute over just about everything related to marijuana in Colorado, three facts stand out.
First the advent of legal marijuana did not eliminate the illegal market for marijuana. Illegal marijuana is cheaper than legal marijuana because of the taxes paid and the regulations required for the legal product. A common, half-joking, observation is that the legal marijuana sales are mostly to people from out of state and senior citizens. Among the many users the illegal market serves are those underage. But the illegal market doesn’t impact only Colorado. Marijuana from Colorado is trafficked to 40 other states. As the problems created by marijuana multiply, the increasing regulation of legal marijuana products will further empower the illegal suppliers who face none of the costs or restrictions placed on legal marijuana.
Second, legal marijuana has unleashed a new gold rush with big money pouring into the marijuana industry fuelling shameless and dishonest commercialization that makes the sellers of tobacco and alcohol look downright timid. Big money is pushing out the hippie entrepreneurs who used to characterize local marijuana growers. This new money has powerful political consequences that are increasingly shaping the public reactions to marijuana and making any restrictions on the industry more difficult.
Third, any hope that more marijuana use would decrease alcohol use is now being dispelled. Data from the Colorado Department of Revenue Alcohol use confirms that alcohol consumption has not declined since marijuana legalization. The use of alcohol – and other drugs – is positively correlated with marijuana use. Alcohol and marijuana are economic complements. National survey data confirms that people who use marijuana are more likely to use alcohol than those who do not use marijuana, instead of less.
The hopes that marijuana legalization would end the black market, that legal marijuana would escape the worst abuses of the sale of alcohol and tobacco and that more marijuana would translate into declines in alcohol have been dashed by Colorado’s dramatic three year experiment.
The disputes over marijuana policy go on. There is abundant data showing increases in underage marijuana use, increases in marijuana-related poison control calls, emergency room visits and hospital admissions, and increases in the prevalence of marijuana-related traffic deaths in Colorado. These outcomes will not dim the widely promoted claims about the benefits from marijuana legalization.
The citizens of Colorado are left with the disturbing consequences of their dangerous experiment.