Marijuana Episodes Are on the Rise in Colorado, but Not for the Reason You Think

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A new report provides the most comprehensive look at the impact of the Centennial State’s legislation yet.

By Jared Keller


An array of marijuana samples on display at the 2010 Cannabis Crown expo in Aspen, Colorado. (Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

A few days ahead of April 20, the unofficial Christmas of marijuana culture, local Denver Fox newscaster Jeremy Hubbard filmed an impassioned plea for his stoner viewers at home: Please, for the love of God, don’t make us look bad. “We have to start putting on pants when we go to buy marijuana,” he said in a short video posted to YouTube on Monday. The inspiration behind the video: Hubbard had observed a pantless woman scampering from her car to her local dispensary to get her fix.

“I know it’s legal, the people have spoken, no judgment from me, do your thing, knock yourself out,” he continued. “The eyes of the world are upon us … and the last thing thing we want to do is add to the perception that we’re a bunch of stoners who can’t get out of bed.”

Hubbard’s not wrong. There exists a long-standing stigma attached to marijuana consumption by opponents of legalization—one as old the 1936 precautionary tale Reefer Madness—that smoking weed makes you lazy, or crazy, or insane, or inane, or all of the above. Despite a thorough debunking from researchers, opponents continue to contend that marijuana legalization will result in an uptick in consumption and a resulting spiral of socially undesirable behaviors: petty crime, car accidents, lethargic loutishness, and the like.

Now, Colorado citizens are putting this stereotype to the test. On Monday, the state’s Department of Public Safety released a sprawling 143-page report detailing the consequences of marijuana legalization on the welfare of taxpayers, the first comprehensive analysis conducted since commercial sale of cannabis products began in January 2014.

Either weed tourists can’t handle their reefer, or marijuana is having exactly the detrimental effect that opponents warned of.

On its face, the DPS report doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the post-legalization public safety landscape in the Centennial State. While researchers found that arrests for the possession and sale of marijuana plummeted, as well as marijuana-related court filings for felonies, the state also saw a spike in petty offenses and fatalities involving THC-positive drivers, the latter of which jumped some 44 percent between 2013 and 2014, from 55 to 79 incidents. Even more concerning, marijuana-related hospitalizations increased from 803 per 100,000 to a whopping 2,413 per 100,000 after commercialization. Either weed tourists can’t handle their reefer, or marijuana is having exactly the detrimental effect that opponents warned of.

But a sudden jump in marijuana incidents among survey participants may not actually indicate a spike in use, in the same way a decline in felonies and petty arrests is the logical result of legally re-categorizing an entire subset of activities. According to the authors of the DPS report, “the decreasing social stigma regarding marijuana use could lead individuals to be more likely to report use on surveys and to health workers in emergency departments and poison control centers, making marijuana use appear to increase when perhaps it has not.” The shift in consumer habits, they contend, is likely the result of decreased stigma around marijuana use enabled by legalization.

A series of recent studies confirms the link between social stigma and legal status. A 2013 study in Harm Reduction Journal found that Canadian patients who took part in the government’s medical marijuana program overwhelmingly experienced social exclusion from friends and family due to the perception of cannabis as a purely recreational drug; participants were “labelled as ‘potheads’ by their families, healthcare providers and society at large,” while others “were falsely accused of using CTP not for medicinal purposes but ‘just to have some fun.’” This is partially because of the way marijuana is consumed: A 2014 Journal of Drug Issues study observed high levels of stigma and low acceptability ratings for marijuana consumed in “recreational” forms (read: joints), regardless of purpose, while “medical” consumption methods (read: pills or edibles) were seen as more acceptable.

This stigma is a public policy issue. A 2015 Journal of Psychoactive Drugs study of California medical marijuana patients found that prevailing stigmas around cannabis had “a profound effect on how patients seek treatment, and whether they seek medical marijuana treatment at all.” Even policy analysts see this as a likely consequence of decriminalization: A 2010 review by the RAND Drug Policy Research Center concluded that the magnitude of a post-legalization marijuana consumption increase is hard to predict almost exclusively because the resulting reduction in stigma is difficult to quantify.

In this sense, the resulting uptick in marijuana-related incidents by Colorado’s schools, hospitals, and other institutions is actually reconcilable with the prevailing research that suggests smoking marijuana doesn’t make us sex-crazed and violent, or that, one year after legalization, the state saw a decrease in crime rates and traffic fatalities alongside an increase in tax revenue, according to an analysis by the Drug Policy Alliance.

Perhaps the woman at the center of Jeremy Hubbard’s tongue-in-cheek anecdote is simply an unsightly symptom of a larger gain: the reduction of a stigma that keeps a relatively harmless drug from reaching people it could actually help. Or, at least, people who just want to smoke in peace.