In November 2012, Coloradans voted on a ballot initiative to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol. Leading up to the election, opponents claimed that passage of the measure would cause more problems than it would solve. Voters were not fooled. They approved the initiative, marijuana became legal for adults on December 10, 2012, and licensed businesses began legally selling marijuana to adults on January 1, 2014. Since then, opponents’ dire predictions have proven to be unfounded, the state has experienced significant benefits, and polls show voters’ support for the law has not wavered.
Public Opinion and Good Government
- Amendment 64 was approved 55-45 in 2012. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted three years later found support for the law is just as strong as when it passed, but opposition has dropped to 41%.
- A Public Policy Polling survey conducted in September 2016 found voters are still upbeat about the state’s new marijuana law and few would support repealing it. More than half said they think the law has been good for the state (47%) or had no real impact (9%), and only about one-third said they would support a repeal measure if it were on the 2016 ballot.
- In July 2014, the Brookings Institution’s Center for Effective Public Management published a 35-page report titled, “Colorado’s Rollout of Legal Marijuana Is Succeeding.” According to the report, “[Colorado] has made intelligent decisions about regulatory needs, the structure of distribution, prevention of illegal diversion, and other vital aspects of its new market. It has made those decisions in concert with a wide variety of stakeholders in the state.”
Regulation, Local Control, and Criminal Justice Savings
- $1.3 billion in marijuana sales took place in legitimate, taxpaying businesses instead of in the underground market in 2016, according to a Denver Post analysis of Colorado Department of Revenue tax data. These state- and locally-licensed establishments are subject to strict testing, packaging, and labeling requirements, which are enforced through frequent compliance checks by state and local authorities. In early 2016, state officials told The Economist that 70% of the estimated demand for marijuana in Colorado is now being met by the legal market. “Over time, more than 90% of the market is expected to be supplied by regulated vendors,” according to an analysis released in October 2016 by the Marijuana Policy Group, an economic research and policy analysis firm that has done work for the Colorado Department of Revenue.
- Localities have the authority to prohibit marijuana stores and facilities or they can allow them and regulate them as they see fit. More than 60 cities and towns, as well as unincorporated areas of more than 20 counties, have opted to allow the establishment of retail marijuana businesses.
- Marijuana-related court filings dropped 81% from 10,340 in 2012 to 1,954 in 2015, according to the Colorado Department of Public Safety. Law enforcement officials no longer need to make arrests, write citations, or appear in court for cases involving low-level marijuana offenses, which means they can spend more time addressing serious crimes.
Tax Revenue and Job Creation
- Regulated marijuana sales generated nearly $200 million in state tax revenue and license fees in 2016, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue. This does not include tens of millions of dollars in local taxes and fees that were raised by cities and towns throughout the state. For example, the Denver city government reports that it received more than $29.5 million from local marijuana taxes and licensing fees in 2015. This was more than enough to cover the city’s costs of enforcement, regulation, and education, which were about $6.9 million that year and are estimated to be around $9.1 million in 2016.
- The Colorado Legislature distributed approximately $220.8 million in marijuana tax funds in FY 2015-16 and FY 2016-17, according to a July 2016 report from Legislative Council Staff. Less than 10% of those funds ($21.5 million) were needed to cover the costs associated with regulating marijuana. More than $138.3 million was distributed to the Colorado Department of Education to benefit Colorado schools, including $114.9 million for the Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) public school construction program.
- When Colorado voters adopted Amendment 64, they were promised a state tax on wholesale marijuana transfers would raise $40 million per year for the BEST program. That tax actually raised more than $40 million in the last fiscal year, resulting in $40 million for the BEST program in FY 2016-17, plus an additional $5.7 million for Colorado’s Public School Fund. In addition to those funds, more than $5.5 million was used to increase the presence of health professionals in schools, according to Legislative Council staff, and more than $4.3 million was used for health-related programs in schools. In addition, $2.9 million was used for drop-out prevention programs, and $2.9 million was used for school bullying prevention and education.
- As of September 2016, there were 28,847 individuals with valid occupational licenses to work directly in Colorado marijuana businesses, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue. Marijuana businesses also retain workers and utilize services from a wide variety of collateral sectors, such as construction, engineering, security, legal, insurance, real estate, and retail. In October 2016, the Marijuana Policy Group estimated Colorado’s regulated marijuana industry created more than 18,000 full-time equivalent jobs in 2015. A September 2016 Public Policy Polling survey found more than one out of four Colorado voters (28%) have a friend, family member, or acquaintance who has worked either directly for a marijuana business or for non-marijuana businesses that provides products or services to marijuana businesses.
Economy, Business Climate, Tourism, and Real Estate
- U.S. News & World Report ranked Colorado’s state economy as #1 in the nation in March 2017. The 2016 Forbes list of 190 “best places for business” included five Colorado cities in the top 50, including Denver at #1 and Fort Collins at #10.
- Colorado’s regulated marijuana market generated $2.4 billion in overall economic activity in 2015, according to the Marijuana Policy Group. A September 2016 poll conducted by Public Policy Polling found that three out of five Colorado voters (61%) think Amendment 64 has had a positive impact on the economy, whereas only 19% think it has had a negative impact.
- Opponents of the Colorado initiative said it would interfere with employers’ drug-testing policies and create hazardous workplaces, but employers have been able to maintain existing policies and create new ones as they see fit, and there have not been any new or increasing marijuana-related problems. Loss costs — the average cost of lost wages and medical expenses associated with on-the-job injuries — did not increase following the first year in which the initiative was fully implemented, then decreased in the second. There has been no increase in the rate of lost-time workers compensation claims, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, and the Department of Public Health and Environment reports there were fewer fatal occupational injuries in 2013 and 2014, the years following legalization, than in 2011, the year prior to legalization.
- Colorado tourism broke records for number of visitors and amount of dollars spent for the fifth year in a row in 2015, and recovery of the state’s tourism economy is nearly double that of the national rate, according to reports from the Colorado Tourism Office. Opponents of the 2012 initiative said legalization would damage the state’s skiing and resort industry, but the number of visitors and the amount of money spent reached all-time highs in each of the past three ski seasons, according to a July 2016 Denver Post report. Denver’s convention and tourism bureau reported that the city hosted a record-high number of conventions in 2014, and the number of people who came to Denver for conventions and business increased 9% from 2014 to 2015, whereas business travel remained flat nationally.
- Colorado home prices saw the largest increase of any state in 2014, according to housing trend tracker CoreLogic, and they increased at some of the fastest rates in the nation in 2015. In 2015, Denver’s retail vacancy rate dropped to the lowest it has been since 2006, and its retail lease rate increased to the highest it has been since 2009, according to the Denver Business Journal.
Quality of Life, Public Health, and Impact on Youth
- In March 2016, U.S. News & World Report named Denver the #1 best place to live in the United States. The only other Colorado metro area large enough to be considered, Colorado Springs, was ranked #5.
- In February 2017, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported that the rate of marijuana use among adults and adolescents “has not changed since legalization either in terms of the number of people using or the frequency of use among users.” Rates of daily or near-daily use among adults were much lower for marijuana than for alcohol or tobacco, and the rate of past-month marijuana use was lower than past-month alcohol use among adolescents. “Based on the most comprehensive data available, past-month marijuana use among Colorado adolescents is nearly identical to the national average,” the report concluded. In a December 2015 interview, the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Nora Volkow, acknowledged that marijuana usage rates have not risen despite changes in policy and public attitudes: “All of those factors have led many to predict that there would be an increase in the pattern of use of marijuana among teenagers and we are not seeing it.”
- The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released the results of its biannual Healthy Kids Colorado Survey (HKCS) in June 2016. It found 21.2% of high school students in Colorado reported using marijuana within the past 30 days in 2015 (compared to 21.7% nationwide). This was a slight drop from 22% in 2011, the year before the legalization initiative was approved. The HKCS found that the rate of lifetime use among Colorado high school students dropped from 42.6% in 2009 to 38% in 2015 (compared to 38.6% nationwide). Among Colorado middle school students, the rate of current marijuana use dropped from 5.1% in 2013 (the first year data was available) to 4.4% in 2015. There was also a decrease in the percentage of middle school students who reported it was easy to obtain marijuana, as well as increases in the percentage that believe using marijuana is “wrong” for people their age and who perceive the use of marijuana to pose moderate or great risk.
- The Colorado Department of Education reports high school graduation rates have significantly increased and dropout rates have significantly decreased since 2010.
- The Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center (RMPDC) received 151 calls regarding marijuana exposure in 2014 — up from 88 in 2013 — including 45 that involved children 8 years of age and under. By comparison, according to its 2014 annual report, it received 49,701 total calls that year, including 2,057 regarding children 5 and under who were exposed to cosmetics and personal care products, 1,422 regarding children exposed to household cleaning products, and 703 regarding children exposed to vitamins. Marijuana exposure calls to the poison center, including those for unintentional exposures in children, appear to be decreasing since 2015, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. It also found that the overall rate of emergency department visits with marijuana-related billing codes dropped 27 percent from 2014 to 2015.
In a February 2017 report, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported the percentage of women in Colorado who used marijuana during pregnancy is “not statistically different” from the national average. It highlighted a survey of pregnant women in 2014 that found 6% of new mothers consumed marijuana during pregnancy, whereas 13% consumed alcohol.
- Colorado government and law enforcement officials have repeatedly stated that there is not enough data to draw any conclusions about what impact, if any, the state’s marijuana laws are having on crime rates. There is no evidence of marijuana use contributing to increases in crime, and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation reports the rates of homicides, robberies, and burglaries were approximately the same in 2015 as they were in 2009, the year hundreds of medical marijuana businesses began opening across the state. Several law enforcement officials have acknowledged that legalization is not proving to be a threat to public safety. In February 2017, Summit County District Attorney Bruce Brown told the Summit Daily, “It’s a tough equation to know with certainty, but I feel like legalization did not at all significantly increase threats to public safety.” In an August 2015 report from The Mountain Mail, Chaffee County Sheriff John Spezze said, “There hasn’t been anything remarkable in terms of pot being a law enforcement issue that I’ve seen.” Buena Vista Police Chief Jimmy Tidwell added, “With marijuana, you don’t see issues of violent behavior or domestic abuse like you see with alcohol or hard drugs.”
- Police have reported that crimes against marijuana businesses make up a small fraction of overall crime, and the vast majority of them are non-violent. For example, they account for only 0.03% of all crime in Denver and 80% of them are burglaries or larceny, according to a January 2016 presentation from the Denver Police Department to members of the City Council. “Violent crime (including robbery and assault) against licensed facilities is still very uncommon,” read a slide in the presentation, which noted Denver’s 400+ unique marijuana business locations experienced only 18 total violent crimes (including just seven robberies) during the first two years of regulated adult sales.
- Like the nation as a whole, Colorado experienced an uptick in traffic fatalities in 2015 and 2016. In both years, state officials made no mention of marijuana and instead attributed it to other factors, such as a record-high number of motorcycle accidents, an “epidemic of distracted driving,” and people not wearing seat belts. The National Safety Council largely attributed the nationwide increase in traffic fatalities to improvements in the economy and lower gas prices, which have led to more miles being driven by more people. Several states that have not legalized marijuana experienced larger increases in traffic deaths than Colorado, whereas Washington, which legalized marijuana the same year as Colorado, experienced a slight decrease. The Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, an agency known for engaging in political campaigning and lobbying against marijuana policy reform efforts, frequently makes claims about increases in “marijuana-related” traffic fatalities, but its annual report — which has been criticized by journalists for being highly misleading — concedes that marijuana may not have been in any way responsible for accidents they included in their count (e.g. they include accidents involving alcohol and/or other drugs, as well as accidents in which the driver who tested positive for marijuana might not have been at fault; they also include accidents involving unimpaired drivers who used marijuana days or even weeks before the accident, but tested positive because it remains detectable in the body for days or weeks after use). According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, there were roughly the same number of traffic fatalities in 2016 (605) as there were in 2005 (606). Of the 605 fatalities in 2016, only 59 involved drivers who tested positive for marijuana only. The statistics do not indicate whether those drivers were at fault in the accidents or whether they were impaired (i.e. whether they had used marijuana immediately before driving or hours, days, or weeks before driving).