Report detailed

Diane Raver | The Herald-Tribune Chelsey Clarke told attendees about the data her agency has collected regarding legalization of marijuana in Colorado.

BATESVILLE -- Several states have legalized marijuana, and legislators in others are considering it. But what effect has this had on the citizens and cities where the drug is readily available for purchase?

Chelsey Clarke, Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area strategic intelligence analyst, shared information on this topic when she was in Batesville in the fall.

She explained, "The RMHIDTA is a federally-funded grant program that covers four states (Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming). We receive funding from Congress each year .... (and) we bring down the biggest, baddest drug runners."

"The term war on drugs is a terrible term because we're never going to completely eliminate it .... The purpose of our nation's drug policy is to limit the number of people using drugs." The group documented the impact of marijuana for medical and recreational use in Colorado in "The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact - Volume 4," which was published in September 2016.

"Why do we care about drug use? Because it's not a victimless crime. It not only affects the user, but also family and friends, victims of crimes (that the user may commit while under the influence) and taxpayers."

She revealed three drug-related deaths: "College student Levy Thamba Pongi, 19, ate some marijuana-infused cookies and then ate some more. Then he jumped off a six-story building. Kristine Kirk, 44, was shot and killed by her husband after he ate some marijuana candy with prescription medicine. He started hallucinating and killed his wife. Luke Goodman, 23, tried edibles. He had no suicidal tendencies prior to this, but he started hallucinating and shot and killed himself .... These were all the result of the marijuana industry."

Prior to the drug being legalized in the Centennial State, supporters said it would eliminate arrests for possession and sale; free up law enforcement resources; reduce traffic fatalities; there would be no increase in use, even among youth; there would be added revenue generated through taxation; and it would reduce profits for the drug cartels trafficking marijuana.

Those who argued against legalization said there would be increases in marijuana-related traffic fatalities, use among youth and adults, people in drug treatment, diversion for unintended purposes and impacts and costs for public health and safety, Clarke revealed.

To put the legalization impact into perspective, she said as of January 2016, Colorado had 202 McDonald's, 322 Starbucks, 424 recreational marijuana shops (it has since grown to 500) and 516 medical marijuana dispensaries. "In just two years, look how quickly it (places to purchase the drug) has exploded all over our state."

To make it legal, "voters supported an amendment to our (state) constitution, saying we have a constitutional right to use marijuana and grow it in our houses. If it ever changes, it has to go to popular vote .... City (officials) can decide whether the recreation shops can operate within their borders. Not all cities are on board. About 75 percent of cities and towns have banned them. It's cities like Denver and Boulder that support them.

Impaired driving

The speaker noted that the number of statewide traffic deaths "was decreasing (from a high of 554 in 2007 to a low of 447 in 2011) ... now with the legalization, the numbers are increasing again." In addition, traffic deaths related to marijuana have increased from 71 in 2013 to 115 in 2015. Not all of these are caused by those operating vehicles. "We've had some cases where bicyclists or pedestrians have walked into the path of a car."

In 2015, of those vehicle operators who tested positive for marijuana, 33 percent only had this drug in their system. Data also showed that 30 percent had both marijuana and alcohol; 24 percent, marijuana and other drugs (no alcohol); and 13 percent, marijuana, other drugs and alcohol, she reported.

Youth marijuana use

"We were told use among youth would not increase because it was such a restrictive environment .... While media headlines said 'Marijuana use remains flat among Colorado teens, survey finds' and 'Colorado's good news on teen pot use,' indicated one result, the data showed something else.

"According to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, there was an 8 percent increase in all high school grades from 2013-15 with a 14 percent increase in seniors and a 19 percent increase in juniors; one out of three Denver junior and seniors are marijuana users; and in Colorado mountain towns, there was a 90 percent increase in seniors using the drug ....

"Colorado was ranked first in the nation for current marijuana use among youth (according to the 2013 and 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health), which is 74 percent higher than the national average. Colorado youth use increased 20 percent (2013-14 compared to 2011-12), where nationally, youth use declined 4 percent."

According to data from the Colorado Department of Education for the 2015-16 school year, of the 337 expulsions, 58 percent were marijuana violations; of the 1,143 referrals to law enforcement, 73 percent were due to this drug; and of the 4,236 suspensions, 63 percent involved marijuana, Clarke said.

The predominant marijuana violations included student under the influence during school hours, 45 percent; student in possession of the drug, 43 percent; student in possession of marijuana infused edibles, 7 percent; student selling marijuana to other students and student sharing the drug with other students, 2 percent each. "There were some cases of elementary school students bringing marijuana-infused brownies or cookies to sell."

How was the drug obtained? Sources included: friend who obtained it legally, 45 percent; black market, 24 percent; parents, 22 percent; medical marijuana dispensaries, 6 percent; retail marijuana stores, 2 percent; and medical marijuana card holders, 1 percent.

"If kids see their parents using marijuana every day, it becomes second nature, and they'll do it too.

Other challenges

"One of the biggest problems in Colorado is edible products. These come in gummy bears, Swedish fish ... They're made to look exactly like candy. This is a huge problem, especially for our young population," Clarke pointed out.

"Another problem is for our pets. Prior to legalization, there were one or two cases of animals presenting with marijuana issues every several months. Now it's about seven every day due to edible products."

The complete report can be found online at www.rmhidta.org.

More Colorado info

2000-08 -- Early Medical Marijuana Era, 1,000-4,800 card holders and zero known dispensaries

2009-12 -- Medical Marijuana Commercialization and Expansion Era, 108,000 card holders and 532 licensed dispensaries

2013-present -- Medical Marijuana Commercialization and Recreational Marijuana Era

Other statistics

• 2013-14 current marijuana use for college-age adults ages 18-25: Colorado average, 31.24 percent; national average, 19.32 percent; the state was ranked first in the nation for current use among this group, 62 percent higher than the national average

• 2013-14 current marijuana use for adults ages 26 and older: Colorado was ranked first the nation for this group. It was 104 percent higher than the national average. Adult use increased 63 percent compared to prelegalization years 2011-12.

• The number of hospitalizations related to this drug increased from 6,715 in 2012 to 8,272 in 2013 when it was legalized. In rose again to 11,439 in 2014.

• The number of adolescents ages 6-17 who had marijuana-related exposures increased by 112 percent from 2009-12 to 2013-15 from 25 to 53. The number of children ages 5 and below who had marijuana-related exposures increased by 169 percent from that same set of years from 13 to 35.

Diane Raver can be contacted at diane.raver@batesvilleheraldtribune.com or 812-934-4343, Ext. 114.

This Week's Circulars