Legalizing marijuana doesn’t appear to have created a Colorado crime wave, according to state report

Colorado's House has passed a bill allowing medical marijuana use to treat autism spectrum disorders.
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Read the report

“Impacts of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado” can be found online at

LAKEWOOD — Legal pot has not created a Colorado crime wave, but it’s still new, according to a state report released Friday, Oct. 26.

The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice Office of Research and Statistics released “Impacts of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado,” a report that analyzes data on marijuana-related topics including crime, impaired driving, hospitalizations and emergency room visits, usage rates, effects on youth and more.

State lawmakers ordered the study in 2013 after Colorado voters passed Amendment 64, which legalized the retail sale and possession of recreational marijuana for adults older than 21.

It’s a baseline

Jack K. Reed, statistical analyst with the Office of Research and Statistics, authored the study. He called the findings a “baseline” because legal marijuana is relatively new and so is the data.

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“It is difficult to draw conclusions about the potential effects of marijuana legalization and commercialization on public safety, public health or youth outcomes, and this may always be the case due to the lack of historical data,” Reed wrote in the report.

All kinds of things could affect future data, he said.

“The decreasing social stigma regarding marijuana use could lead individuals to be more likely to report use on surveys and also to health workers in emergency departments and poison control centers, making marijuana use appear to increase when perhaps it has not,” Reed wrote.

Not much data exists for the decades before legalization, Reed said.

“The lack of pre-commercialization data, the decreasing social stigma and challenges to law enforcement combine to make it difficult to translate these preliminary findings into definitive statements of outcomes,” Reed wrote.

Stan Hilkey, executive director of the Department of Public Safety, said the report is a “helpful tool … to understand the effects of legal marijuana in communities.”

Here are some of the data highlights from the report, provided by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice:


Data suggests that law enforcement and prosecutors are aggressively pursuing cases against black-market activity. The quantity of cases filed for serious marijuana-related crimes has remained consistent with pre-legalization levels; however, organized crime cases have generally increased since 2008.

Felony marijuana court case filings (conspiracy, manufacturing, distribution and possession with intent to sell) declined from 2008 to 2014 but increased from 2015 through 2017.

The most recent increase in filings might be, in part, because legislation changed the legal indoor plant count, providing law enforcement agencies with greater clarity and tools to increase their enforcement of black-market activity.

• Felony filings in 2017 (907) were still below 2008 filings (1,431).

• Filings in organized-crime cases followed a similar pattern, with a dip in 2012 and 2013 followed by a significant increase since 2014. There were 31 organized crime case filings in 2012 and 119 in 2017.

• Filings for juveniles younger than 18 remain at the same level as pre-legalization.

DUI and traffic fatalities

• The number of trained Drug Recognition Experts increased from 129 in 2012 to 214 in 2018, a 66 percent increase. Thousands of additional officers have been trained in Advanced Roadside Impairment Detection.

• Colorado State Patrol DUI cases overall were down 15 percent from 2014 to 2017.

• The percentage of Colorado State Patrol citations with marijuana-only impairment has stayed steady, at around 7 percent. The percentage of Colorado State Patrol citations with any marijuana nexus rose from 12 percent in 2012 to 17 percent in 2016 and then dropped to 15 percent in 2017.

• About 10 percent of people in treatment for a DUI self-reported marijuana as their primary drug of abuse, compared to 86 percent who report alcohol as their primary drug of abuse.

• The percent of drivers in fatal crashes who tested positive for Delta-9 THC at the 5ng/mL level decreased from 11.6 percent in 2016 to 7.5 percent in 2017.

• The number of fatalities where a driver tested positive for any cannabinoid (Delta 9 or any other metabolite) increased from 55 (11 percent of all fatalities) in 2013 to 139 (21 percent of all fatalities) in 2017.

Seizures on public lands

Seizures on public lands are an indicator of the size of the black market in Colorado. Data reported by the National Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Drug Enforcement Agency show that federal agencies have made significant seizures of marijuana on public lands and illegal indoor grows both prior to legalization and since 2012, with very large seizures in recent years.

• The Drug Enforcement Administration’s cannabis eradication of outdoor and indoor grows did not show a trend from 2006 to 2017. For example, eradication of outdoor plants ranged from as many as 29,655 in 2009 to as few as 2,059 in 2017.

• Similar to trends seen with other law enforcement activity, seizures on public lands dipped significantly in 2013 and 2014 compared to 2009 to 2012. Seizures then rose continuously from 2015 to 2017.

• In 2017 alone, more than 80,000 plants were seized on public lands.

Diversion out of state

Diversion out of state is another indicator of the size of the black market.

• The number of seizures reported via the El Paso Intelligence Center increased from 2012 (286) to 2015 (768) but decreased in 2016 (673) and 2017 (608).

• Marijuana seizures by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service have increased steadily since 2010, from 15 parcels seized containing 57 pounds of marijuana in 2010 to 1,009 parcels containing 2,001 pounds in 2017.

Hospitalizations and ER Visits

These data points track harmful exposure to children, inappropriate usage and other drivers of marijuana-related hospitalizations.

• Rates of hospitalization with possible marijuana exposures increased steadily from 2000 through 2015.

• Human marijuana exposures reported to the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center increased significantly from pre-legalization to 2014 and then flattened out from 2014-2017.

School discipline and achievement

• Colorado is not seeing an impact of recreational marijuana use on high school graduation and dropout rates. The total number of suspensions, expulsions and law enforcement referrals for any reason has remained consistent post-legalization.

• Marijuana was the most common single reason for school expulsions (22 percent) and law enforcement referrals (24 percent) in the 2016-17 school year, the first full year where marijuana was reported separately as a reason for disciplinary action.

• Graduation rates are up and dropout rates are down since 2012. The graduation rate rose steadily from a 10-year low point of 72 percent in the 2009-10 school year to 79 percent in the 2016-17 school year. Over that same time period, the dropout rate decreased from 3.1 percent to 2.3 percent.

Youth Usage and Attitudes

• Surveys show Colorado is not experiencing an increase in usage of marijuana by youth ages 12 to 17.

• The youth marijuana rate reported through the National Survey on Drug Use and Health for the 2015-16 school year (9.1 percent) was the lowest since 2007-08 (9.1 percent).

• According to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, the proportion of high school students reporting using marijuana ever in their lifetime or reporting past 30-day use remained statistically unchanged from 2005 to 2017.

• According to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, the proportion of students trying marijuana before age 13 went down from 9.2 percent in 2015 to 6.5 percent in 2017.

• Alcohol was the most common substance students reported using at any point in their lives (59 percent), followed by e-cigarettes (44 percent) and then marijuana (35 percent).

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and

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