New York Times reporter Jack Healy comes up empty-handed in his search for widespread disaster following Colorado’s legalization of marijuana, but he still manages to get an article out of it.
“Law enforcement officers in Colorado and neighboring states, emergency room doctors and legalization opponents increasingly are highlighting a series of recent problems as cautionary lessons for other states flirting with loosening marijuana laws,” the Grey Lady reports in an article entitled “After 5 Months of Sales, Colorado Sees the Downside of a Legal High.”
Healy opens with a hat trick of anecdotes and uncorks a live quote from Kevin Sabet, former Senior Adviser for Policy to Drug Czar (Tsar?) Gil Kerlikowske. As a result, the lede doesn’t come until the fifth paragraph:
“Despite such anecdotes, there is scant hard data.”
This claim is not quite true, however. There are data from which to draw early conclusions about how severely Centennial State residents are suffering from the expected uptick in social ills related to hassle-free availability of marijuana. It’s just that the statistics contradict the article’s headline and opening grafs.
Marijuana supporters note that violent crimes in Denver — where the bulk of Colorado’s pot retailers are — are down so far this year. The number of robberies from January through April fell by 4.8 percent from the same time in 2013, and assaults were down by 3.7 percent. Over all, crime in Denver is down by about 10 percent, though it is impossible to say whether changes to marijuana laws played any role in that decline.
Other parts of Healy’s opening argument fall apart on closer inspection. The complaints from “law enforcement” sources seem to consist of unquantified claims about increased marijuana arrests from one police officer in Nebraska and one in Kansas. But those are outweighed by the Kansas Highway Patrol’s admission that pot busts are down 61 percent year-over-year. The story of Richard Kirk, who shot and killed his wife after purchasing a pack of “Karma Kandy Orange Ginger” pot treats, is not probative. Toxicology results have not been made public, and Kirk was reportedly also taking prescription pain medication. Only the death of Levi Thamba Pongi, an exchange student who died in a four-story fall from a hotel balcony after consuming “six servings” of a marijuana edible cookie from Sweet Grass Kitchen, can confidently be called a marijuana-related fatality — presuming the claim that he ate enough cookie to equal “six high-quality joints” is true.
The lesson to draw from that tragedy (Pongi, a 19-year-old native of the Republic of Congo, was visiting from Wyoming with friends in order to sample pot, apparently for the first time) is less about public policy than about drug indications for individuals. “The thing to realize is the THC that is present in edibles is a drug like any drug, and there’s a spectrum of ways in which people respond,” University of Colorado School of Medicine toxicologist Michael Kosnett told the Associated Press in April. In both of Healy’s anecdotes, the reefer freakouts followed consumption of marijuana edibles, and Pongi in particular seems not to have exercised caution in trying a brand-new intoxicant.
A headline reading “Colorado Experience Shows Eating Pot Still Lamest Way to Get High” might not have been as sexy, but the thing the non-Colorado portion of America is trying to measure here is how much cost an increase in individual freedom will impose on society. Studies of Prohibition give little attention to the Eighteenth Amendment’s success in curtailing overall alcohol consumption, but here’s a claim that puts “annual absolute alcohol consumption rates at between 50 and 33 percent less than those of the preprohibition years.” On the principle that you get less of what you punish, it makes sense that overall consumption of alcohol increased following repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, and that Colorado’s overall consumption of marijuana will increase following legalization.
The question is how much pain that increase will cause, beyond what already existed under a regime of prohibition. So far, the answer seems to be “remarkably little.”