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Progress reports on marijuana legalization draw opposing conclusions

November 3, 2016
by Alison Knopf, Contributing Writer
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Two reports were released last month from the opposite poles of the marijuana legalization debate, with opposing conclusions. Mainly, this is because the reports looked at different data and had different perspectives.

From the pro-legalization side, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) reported that the results of legalization in a handful of states so far have been positive. And from the anti-legalization side, Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) concluded that legalization has created several harms.

Titled “So Far, So Good,” the DPA report, issued Oct. 13, focused on reduced arrests, little effect on youth use, improved tax revenues for the states that have legalized recreational use, and negligible effects on road safety. The Project SAM report, “Lessons Learned after 4 Years of Marijuana Legalization,” was released Oct. 27, and comes to the opposite conclusion. SAM states that the legalization experiment is “not succeeding.” It disagreed with the DPA’s conclusions, and went farther, focusing on problems caused by marijuana edibles and poisoning.

The reports offer compelling perspectives at a time when voters in five states (California, Nevada, Arizona, Massachusetts and Maine) get ready to go the polls next week to consider marijuana legalization initiatives. 

When the federal government allowed states to pursue marijuana legalization and commercialization, it did so with the proviso that various effects be monitored. According to SAM, there has been no monitoring, which was the responsibility of the federal Department of Justice, which made the decision not to enforce federal marijuana law.

But according to the DPA report, which covers developments in Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon, monitoring has shown good results. The first states to legalize and regulate marijuana production, distribution and sales were Colorado and Washington, in 2012. Two years later, Alaska and Oregon residents voted to regulate legal marijuana, and Washington, D.C., adopted a similar law that did not include taxation and sale, but did allow possession and home cultivation.

Fewer arrests?

According to the DPA, benefits of legalization include a sharp decrease in marijuana arrests. Its report states, however, that racial disparities in arrests have not gone away: A disproportionate number of African-Americans are arrested for marijuana crimes, it says. The jurisdictions no longer arresting people for possession, cultivation and distribution of marijuana are saving money while saving people from criminalization, according to the report.

In Colorado, marijuana arrests decreased by 46%, from 12,894 in 2012 to 7,004 in 2014, according to the DPA report. In Washington, the number of low-level marijuana court filings fell 98%, from 6,879 in 2011 to 120 in 2013. And in Washington, D.C., arrests for possession of marijuana fell 98%, from 1,840 in 2014 to 32 in 2015. In Alaska, even though retail sales have not yet begun, charges and arrests decreased by 59% between 2013 and 2015. In Oregon, marijuana arrests declined by 50%, from 4,223 in 2011 to 2,109 in 2014.

But SAM noted that marijuana arrest rates for minors are going up, adding that this is particularly true for African-American and Hispanic children. Post-legalization in both Washington and Colorado, the arrest rates for blacks was double the arrest rates for other races.

Youth impacts

Surveys conducted by the states themselves have also found little effect of legalization on marijuana use by youth, noted the DPA. In Colorado, youth marijuana use remained stable based on a survey of 17,000 middle and high school students by the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. In fact, the percentage of current users declined from 25% in 2009 to 21.2% in 2015, and lifetime use by youth remained stable, the DPA report states.

But SAM noted that Colorado now leads the country in current marijuana use by youth, followed by Vermont and Rhode Island (both of which have what SAM termed “lax” medical marijuana laws) and then the District of Columbia and Oregon, both of which legalized marijuana. And SAM said that rates of marijuana use among youth are rising.

Regular use of marijuana among 12- to 17-year-olds in Colorado and Washington has been both above the national average and rising faster than the national average, ever since the two states legalized the drug, SAM states. Colorado is first in the nation in three categories for this age group: past-year marijuana use, past-month marijuana use, and the percentage of first-time users, SAM points out.

In Colorado, SAM’s figures on youth use differ from the DPA’s because the DPA used the Colorado Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS), while SAM used the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), the nationally representative survey looking at drug use prevalence among households that is sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). According to the NSDUH, marijuana use in Colorado and Washington have increased over the past decade.

The CHKS is “unreliable,” according to SAM, which added that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn’t even allow use of the survey data in its Youth Behavior Risk Survey. The CHKS is unreliable because it is not a representative sample, excludes some counties and schools, and excludes young dropouts, SAM states.

Tax picture

Colorado, originally projected to collect $70 million a year in annual tax revenue, took in $78 million in the first year and $129 million in the second—and this excludes taxes on medical marijuana. According to the DPA, the money is used to fund school construction, marijuana enforcement, and “general state needs.”

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