How is legalized pot doing in Colorado?

So far, so good. Was it a good idea? Ask me in 10 years.

Vox tries to cut through the clutter of conflicting claims about the outcomes, so far, of commrcial cannabis availability in Colorado.

So far, the only thing I see that counts as a downside surprise is the problem of misuse of edibles: little children getting into Mommy’s cannabis-laced candies and winding up in the emergency room, older kids bringing those same candies to school, and grown-ups (plus, of course, aging juveniles like Maureen Dowd) getting way, way too stoned and experiencing a very unpleasant few hours.

The problem wasn’t unexpected, in that it’s obvious that sweets are attractive to children and it’s been known for years that the “overdose” risk is higher when the latency between ingestion and feeling the effects is very long. The surprise is that edibles seem to be grabbing a very large market share, and that – for reasons unknown to me – the promised rules about dosage labeling (which could make edibles actually safer than inhaled versions once consumers learn to manage their intoxication levels) weren’t in place when the stores opened.

There has been one undoubted disaster: Levy Thomba, a 19-year-old Congolese student at a college in Wyoming, came to Denver on spring break, bought a high-dose cookie, and (apparently despite a warning issued by the retail clerk) ate the whole thing. He then jumped or fell from a balcony to his death.

That ought to – but of course won’t – silence the pot advocates who argue that “No one has ever died from taking cannabis.” Accidents are a statistically predictable consequence of any sort of intoxication, and inevitably some of those accidents will be fatal. So one identified death doesn’t count as a surprise.

In response to a reporter’s query, I looked up the comparable statistics for our primary legal intoxicant, alcohol. CDCR reports 7500 deaths per year due to alcohol-related falls (out of a total of almost 50,000 acute alcohol deaths per year, in addition to another 40,000 alcohol-related deaths from chronic disease).

Now, Colorado has 1.6% of the population of the U.S. So, assuming the rate of alcohol-induced fatal falls in Colorado is typical, in the five months since Colorado legalized commercial cannabis sales something like .016 x 7500 x 5/12 = 50 Coloradans have died from falling while drunk. So if Levy Thomba is the worst the advocates of legal availability have to show, I’d advise them to pack up their traps and go home.

On the other hand, very few of the likely bad results from cannabis legalization – all of which come down to an increasing number of adolescent and adult problem users – were ever likely to show up immediately after commercial availability began, especially in a state such as Colorado which has had virtual legalization under the “medical marijuana” mask for years. The problems to look out for will show up – if they show up – slowly, not quickly. We’ll get some indications within the first couple of years on the key question whether cannabis substitutes for alcohol or instead complements it, but even that result might not be the same in the long run as it is in the short run.

So while I laugh at the drug warriors’ desperate attempts to portray Colorado as a disaster area, the pot advocates’ blithe assurances that everything is fine remind me of the guy who jumped off the observation deck of Empire State Building. As he passed the 42nd floor on his way down, someone yelled out to him, “How’s it going?” to which he replied, “So far, so good.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

6 thoughts on “How is legalized pot doing in Colorado?”

  1. As for whether marijuana substitutes for or adds to alcohol consumption, I'd think the hospitalization rates for acute alcohol intoxication would be relevant information and readily available. Maybe not dispositive, but it shouldn't take years to get that kind of information.

  2. I’d guess that, while advocates decry these issues as one-offs, they will be working to get labeling and dosing a bit more refined. The nice benefit of nascience is that learning curves are steep. It’s also a detriment, providing fodder for prohibitionsts, but at bottom the labeling is now going to improve, lest profits be taken away by an angry public pressing for more regulations. Much like in financial services, self-regulation relies on self-interest and self-preservation, weeding out bad players and shifting long run profits to responsible ones. But it is and always will be messy business. No way around it. Adam Smith got it right on that front.

    There is some complemtary nature to alcohol and cannabis together: both are social, and both are enjoyed by the same people often times, so you are probably right. But, I will also submit that combing the two, and in particular cannabis after getting a buzz on alcohol, is a recipe for the yacks. Most will smoke first, then drink less or not smoke at all if they plan to drink much. Why that is the case, I’m not sure – studies are needed. But it is, and there are surely many professionals and the like who will shift to cannabis over alcohol in a legal environment, at least some of the time. Will be interesting to play out.

    Sensationalism in media notwithstanding, the people who will eventually decide this whole thing, the folks with the money and the kids, will be persuaded one way or the other by the response of the industry insiders. Hopefully they have enough sophistication to make some adjustments – and acknowledge it still will not produce a panacea. Like you say there will be negatives. It’s only a matter of degrees, and time.

  3. One benefit not to overlook is that Denver is a finalist for the Republican national convention in 2016. Some of the top brass in that organization are said to be concerned about cannabis availability and the problems this could create for them; if this means that they select a different city, that will have to be counted on the upside of the ledger.

  4. The argument “No one has ever died from taking cannabis” should be " No one has ever died from a fatal overdose from taking cannabis,” because, for all intents and purposes, it is physically impossible to fatally overdose on cannabis. When someone makes this argument, that is what they mean.

    The "no one has ever died" argument is made by those fairly characterized as "pot advocates" as well as those who merely believe that cannabis should be legally regulated. Personally, I'm of the opinion that the more dangerous the drug, the less abdicating control of it to the black market makes sense.

    Of course, people have met accidental deaths while under the influence, and perhaps in some cases they should have zigged when instead they zagged as a consequence of being under the influence. In other cases, the cannabis may not play a role in the accident. It is also safe to assume that sometimes cannabis causes people to avoid accidents that they might have otherwise had. Maureen Dowd was unlikely to have a fatal accident while curled up in a fetal position on a bed in a hotel room. We have no idea how many accidents have been avoided as a consequence of people smoking a joint, getting "couch lock" and electing to order in a pizza and play video games rather than go out bar hopping or hockey playing as they had originally intended.

    Edibles are also consumed where cannabis remains illegal, although I don't dispute that edibles are becoming more prevalent and popular in Colorado as a consequence of legalization. Maureen Dowd was not the first person to overdose on edibles, nor was Levy Thomba the first person to have an accident while under the influence of edibles.

    The question of whether or not legalization leads to a net increase in people overdosing and/or having accidents while under the influence remains to be answered. The question of whether or not being under the influence makes people more prone to accidents also remains to be answered, setting aside my opinion that the "substitute or complement" question has been answered.

  5. When alcohol and cannabis are mixed there is severe intoxication. The kid that fell to his death had alcohol in his system. Blame the booze.

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