Five years after Colorado legalized marijuana, young people are not smoking more pot than they used to, organized crime is on the rise and it’s a mixed bag as to whether legal weed has led to more dangerous driving conditions.

Those are some of the highlights from a much-anticipated baseline report on the impacts of marijuana legalization released Friday by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. The data provide glimpses for the first time into how legalization has impacted several highly charged subjects, including usage among young people, crime, health and driving impairment.

For the most part, industry participants saw the report as favorable for the state’s legalization efforts because it did not identify any glaring issues or unearth major surprises.

Andrew Freedman, who served as Colorado’s first “marijuana czar” and now is a consultant for other governments considering legalization, called the five-year study “the most even-handed report out there.”

The most troubling trend, Freedman said, is the driving while high.

“I think more than anything we need to combat that perception about driving while high,” he said. “Just because you’re driving slowly on the highway doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

Pot advocates found the report encouraging.

Kristi Kelly, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, found public safety trends going in the right direction, saying the statistics show pot is not proving to cause more crime as many feared. She acknowledged that bad actors are a problem, but said as a whole the legal industry wants to follow state law and cooperate with enforcement.

“It really stood out to me how marijuana legalization can have a positive effect on public safety,” Kelly said.

Still, the report drew criticism from groups concerned about some of the impacts of legal marijuana.

While the report did not find an increase in pot-use among young people, Diane Carlson of Smart Colorado, a group that battles commercialization because of the drug’s effects on youth, warned that the high THC levels in recreational marijuana still present a danger to children.

“Official state data raises concerns that Colorado youth are being exposed to much more potent marijuana products, which can harm their developing brains,” Carlson said in an emailed statement.

This report — which also includes data on marijuana-related topics such as crime, hospitalizations and ER visits, usage rates and more — is the end product of a 2013 bill passed by the state legislature to study the impacts of marijuana legalization. Analysts gathered data from a range of sources, including the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the Colorado Hospital Association and the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center.

“This is exactly the kind of data collection we need to inform our regulatory and law enforcement framework,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said in a news release. “We now have that ever-critical baseline from which we can spot trends so Colorado’s leaders understand where our efforts are succeeding and identify areas where we need to focus additional research, resources or even new policy.”


  • Colorado has not experienced an increase in marijuana use among young people, although it was the single most common reason for school expulsions in the 2016-17 school year, the first year it was broken out as its own category.
  • Marijuana also has not impacted graduation rates or dropout rates in Colorado. Graduation rates have increased while dropout rates have decreased since 2012.


  • The number of drivers in fatal crashes who tested above the legal limit of THC, marijuana’s active ingredient, decreased to 35 in 2017, down from 52 in 2016.
  • The number of citations for marijuana-only impairment stayed steady between 2014 to 2017 at around 7 percent of all DUI arrests. That’s roughly 350 citations out of nearly 5,000 DUI arrests each year, the report said.


  • Total marijuana arrests dropped by half during a five-year period, decreasing to 6,153 in 2017 from 12,709 in 2012.
  • Marijuana possession arrests — the majority of all marijuana-related arrests — were cut by more than half during the same period, dropping to 5,154 from 11,361.


  • Pot grown illegally on public lands — an indicator for the size of the black market — also is on the rise with 80,926 plants seized in 2017, a 73 percent increase in five years.
  • Organized crime cases almost tripled in five years, increasing to 119 in 2017 from 31 in 2012.


  • Rates of hospitalization with possible marijuana exposures increased steadily from 2000 through 2015.
  • The number of adults who use marijuana increased between 2014 and 2017, with men getting high more often than women and young adults ages 18 to 25 the most frequent users.

The full study can be found online.

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Photo: Seth McConnell, The Denver Post