The commercial marijuana industry has boomed since Colorado voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2012 legalizing marijuana. In that time, marijuana-related arrests and court cases plummeted.
These are among findings of a report released this week by Colorado’s Division of Criminal Justice studying the state’s rollout of marijuana legalization.
Amendment 64 went into effect in 2013 legalizing recreational pot and setting up a regulatory scheme for the industry in Colorado. Colorado’s legislature then passed a law requiring the state Division of Criminal Justice to study the impacts of legalization, particularly related to law enforcement activities.
The Division of Criminal Justice studied statistics related public safety, youth and public health, including more specific areas such as marijuana-related contacts with law enforcement, organized crime, children’s access to marijuana and health effects.
Marijuana arrests decreased 68% between 2012 and 2019, from 13,225 to 4,290. the study found. The report also examined more specific changes in arrests for possession, sales and production.
But racial disparities in marijuana arrests that existed before Amendment 64 became law did not significantly change in the years since it took effect, according the study. Arrests decreased 72% for white people, 55% for Hispanic people and 63% for Black people. In 2019, the arrest rate for Black people, 160 per 100,000, was more than twice the rate for white people, at 76.
In court filings, the number of marijuana-related misdemeanors and petty offenses decreased most noticeably between 2012 and 2019, with 47% and 71% drops respectively.
On the commercial front, Colorado had 2,709 marijuana businesses registered in Colorado, with nearly 60% concentrated in Denver, El Paso and Pueblo Counties. Revenue from taxes, licenses and fees increased more than five times over to $387 million between 2014 and 2020.
The study says the most common conditions reported for medical marijuana use included severe pain, muscle spasms and severe nausea. The frequently reported uses seem to stand in contrast to marijuana’s federal status as a Schedule I controlled substance, considered the most dangerous class of drugs with no currently accepted medical use and high potential for abuse.
The percentage of Colorado high school students who reported ever using marijuana remained between 35% and 43% from 2005 to 2019, says the study. The percentage of high school students who reported using marijuana before age 13 decreased from 9.2% and 6.7% between 2015 and 2019.
The study notes the context of marijuana legalization can influence data on marijuana use, since for example, decreasing social stigma could lead to more likelihood of people reporting their use in surveys and in health contexts.
As another caveat, the report cautions against drawing conclusions from the study’s findings because of a lack of reliable historical data about marijuana and a scarcity of federal data that make it difficult to compare Colorado to other jurisdictions that have not legalized marijuana. The report also notes that other societal and legal changes in Colorado may have impacts on metrics included in the study that aren’t possible to separate from the change in marijuana law.