As we moved into the second half of 2014, I was eager to learn if marijuana legalization in Colorado was succeeding. At first there was little being reported, but eventually reports started appearing in the news. Business Insider reported that “Legalizing Weed in Colorado Is A Huge Success,” although they did temper their report with a “Down Side” as well. Jacob Sullum reported that such things as underage consumption and traffic fatalities have fallen, although the declines were statistically insignificant and part of already declining trends in the statistics.
The important thing for me is that things did not get much worse according to these reports. When you open the door to a newly legal recreational drug via a very clunky regulatory circus, and where the government gives its seal of approval, there are bound to be growing pains and tragic cases. For example, one college student jumped to his death after ingesting six times the recommended number of pot-infused cookies.
The third report I came across was an editorial from the venerable Heritage Foundation. Given the previous reports, I was astonished to learn that in Colorado marijuana use was associated with an increase in highway fatalities, DUI arrests, underage consumption, drug-related student expulsions, college student use, and marijuana-related emergency room visits and hospitalizations.
The editorial concludes: “Drug policy should be based on hard science and reliable data. And the data coming out of Colorado points to one and only one conclusion: the legalization of marijuana in the state is terrible public policy.”
However, I began to get suspicious when I found out that the “hard science and reliable data” were not collected, produced, or analyzed by the Heritage Foundation, but by some outfit named the “Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area” program. They produced the report entitled “The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact,” which strongly calls into question the legalization of marijuana in Colorado.
There was no information about the “Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area” program (RMHIDRA) in the report other than it was produced by the “Investigative Support Center” in Denver, Colorado. It turns out the program is actually controlled by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, otherwise known as the Drug Czar.
Colorado has been in the process of legalizing marijuana since 2000. It initially started small with limited medical marijuana and as of January of 2014, it has legalized both medicinal and recreational marijuana with local option for commercial production and retail distribution. So we should expect, ceteris paribus, that the full price to consumers has fallen and that consumption for medical and recreational use has increased.
One of the most distressing empirical results in the RMHIDRA report was that while overall traffic fatalities decreased 14.8 percent between 2007 and 2012 in Colorado, traffic fatalities involving drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists that tested positive for marijuana increased by 100 percent. This data is exploited over several pages of the report using a variety of tables and charts.
If Coloradoans were consuming more marijuana and relatively less alcohol, we would expect the number of traffic fatalities to decrease because marijuana has been found to be relatively much safer than alcohol in terms of driving and motor skills. But the data indicating a 100 percent increase in fatalities involving marijuana is puzzling, disturbing, and at odds with “hard science.” If this was indeed “reliable data” it would indicate that marijuana consumption in Colorado had greatly increased beyond anyone’s estimation.
It turns out RMHIDRA’s data was anything but “reliable” and would be best characterized as misleading. If you examine the footnote section of the report you will find that the data from 2012 “represents 100 percent reporting” due to the efforts of RMHIDA to scour several data sources. However, a footnote reveals that in the data from 2006 through 2012 a very slight majority of cases, 50.13 percent were not tested! If 100 percent were tested in 2012, then the percent tested for 2006–2011 is far less than 50 percent.
What this means is that if you increased blood testing to 100 percent in 2012 when you were testing less than 50 percent of cases in prior years that you should expect to find at least a 100 percent increase involving traffic fatalities with some detection of marijuana. This result not only brings into question the reports “reliable data,” it brings into serious question RMHIDRA’s respect for “hard science.”
Another basic problem with their data is the meaning of “testing positive for marijuana.” Marijuana’s active ingredient THC can remain detectable days and weeks after it has been consumed. In contrast, marijuana impairment only lasts for several hours and is somewhat offset by safer driving behaviors, such as driving at slower speeds and avoiding high traffic areas. Given that marijuana consumption has increased significantly since 2000 we should indeed expect many more positive blood tests, but without making the leap that marijuana consumption is causing more highway fatalities.
The RMHIDRA report also offers up some dreary data on youth marijuana use. In particular, they conclude that marijuana use by young Coloradans is higher than the national average and increasing. Most importantly, they point out that between the 2008–09 and 2012–/13 school years there was a 32 percent increase in drug-related suspensions and expulsions in Colorado.
Other experts using different data sources believe that there has actually been a secular trend of decreasing marijuana use by the young people of Colorado throughout the entire legalization process. However, with respect to suspensions and expulsions, there has indeed been a 32 percent increase in the number of drug-related suspensions and expulsions.
However, weighted on a per pupil basis, there has been virtually no increase in the rate of drug-related suspensions and expulsions. The numerical increase in suspensions and expulsions is more than completely accounted for by the increased number of pupils and the relative increase of impoverished minority groups.
In addition, “drug related” suspensions and expulsions involves other drugs besides marijuana, such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. Marijuana-related suspensions and expulsions are overwhelmingly related to “possession” and “under the influence,” not things like violence, property destruction, and classroom disturbances.
The RMHIDRA report spans over 150 pages, but everything I had time to examine was either clearly wrong, misleading, or intentionally sensational.
Of course there are other sources of misinformation on the relative risks of cannabis. For example, there are academics who warn of the dangers of cannabis while they are receiving money from the pharmaceutical pain drug companies. This again suggests a deliberate attempt to mislead the public.
This is particularly disturbing and relevant information given recent reports which indicate that relatively fewer overdose painkiller deaths are occurring in states with medical marijuana laws.
There are clearly some things wrong with Colorado’s approach to legalizing marijuana and there are clearly going to be some bad results at the individual and state level, but this report is not the right way of determining and correcting those problems. As the Heritage Foundation editorial concluded: “Drug policy should be based on hard science and reliable data.”
Mark Thornton is a senior resident fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and is the book review editor for the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. He is the author of The Economics of Prohibition, coauthor of Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War, and the editor of The Quotable Mises, The Bastiat Collection, and An Essay on Economic Theory. Send him mail. See Mark Thornton’s article archives.
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