Before NJ lights up, a look at longest case study in legal weed

When Coloradans voted to legalize recreational cannabis use five and a half years ago, the rest of the country had its first opportunity to study what a regulated marijuana market looked like.

The state set up organizations and surveys to study the correlation between recreational use, adolescent access, car accidents, economic impacts and more. What officials there learned is that, by and large, the shifts have not been monumental.

“What’s amazing about going to Denver is how normal everything feels,” said New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association President Hugh O’Beirne of the atmosphere in the city and its dispensaries.

According to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a telephone survey applied by the U.S. Center for Disease Control, 13 percent of adults in Colorado said they used marijuana in the past month. Numbers from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health put the number nationally at 8 percent in all states, and according to the survey, Colorado had consistently been among the states with the highest use even before legalization.

“The NSDUH had a gradual rise in adult use in Colorado over the last decade, but there was no shift in that gradually increasing line around legalization,” said Dr. Daniel Vigil, manager of the Marijuana Health Monitoring and Research Program.

What the MHMRP hasn’t seen, said Vigil, is an increase in adolescent consumption. Nationally, 22 percent of high school kids have used marijuana within the last month. In Colorado, the number is 21 percent, he said.

“Youth consumption has been stable since 2005, based on our Healthy Kids Colorado survey. “We ask, ‘Why wouldn’t we see an increase in youth?’ and I don’t have a good answer. It’s very reassuring to us,” Vigil said.

Still, Vigil considers youth consumption one of the MHMRP’s top concerns, given what he calls “solid evidence of health risk for adolescents, such as negative effects on cognitive achievement and a link with developmental psychosis in early adulthood.”

Adolescents still are much more likely to consume alcohol than cannabis, and Vigil chalks it up to history and tradition.

“Alcohol use is much more common among adults [than cannabis], and the atmosphere of acceptability has been present for a long time,” he said.

The economic factors

Revenue from cannabis sales in states where it already is legal is projected to grow from $6.6 billion in 2016 to over $24 billion by 2025, according to analytics firm New Frontier.

As of March, about $5 billion in legal marijuana sales had been transacted in Colorado since 2014, generating over $658 million in revenue for the state. Tax numbers released in November by the Colorado Department of Revenue show cannabis sales continue to grow three years after recreational sales began.

New Frontier also found the legal marijuana market has led to the creation of 18,000 new jobs in Colorado, a state with 80 percent fewer residents than New Jersey.

As with New Jersey, several municipalities in Colorado weighed in with ordinances prohibiting the sale of marijuana in anticipation of legalization.

Promise of a windfall in new tax revenue still isn’t enough to push the municipality of Littleton to invite recreational cannabusiness to town. Located in the southern part of the Denver metro, Littleton is part of a community of towns with a population of about 46,000 and no retail marijuana dispensaries.

While Mayor Debbie Brinkman knows full well other towns are making money off cannabis, there are other considerations she and her fellow residents feel are more important.

“The city of Littleton decided that the money wasn’t that important to us. The character of the community and the type of community we wanted to be was more important,” she said. “I don’t really know of a lot of decisions you make about quality of life based on profit.”

Besides, when Littleton crunched the numbers, she said, retail marijuana was going to bring in under $100,000 a year in sales tax.

“You add to that the additional work you have to put in when you have that industry, and I don’t know if it’s a big huge landslide that they want you to think,” Brinkman said.

“The money wasn’t that important to us. The character of the community and the type of community we wanted to be was more important.”

Mayor Debbie Brinkman, Littleton, Colo.

Littleton has four medical dispensaries, but the council has determined twice not to open up the market to retailers – the only ones who really wanted it there in the first place, she said.

“The citizens aren’t bringing the issue; it’s only come from the industry, and the industry is quite aggressive,” she said.

Of course, it’s not hard for people to get recreational cannabis. The nearest dispensary is only a 20-minute drive. For citizens who would like to partake, the opportunity is there. But according to Brinkman, until the community tells her in-town access is important to them, that drive doesn’t need to get any shorter.

“It would need to be community-driven, and at the moment it’s not. The minute this starts to percolate up and ends up on our agendas, we’re getting 30 to 40 emails a day from citizens saying ‘don’t you dare,’” Brinkman said. “It’s a representative government. They have every opportunity [to express that they want it]. My cell phone number is on the website. They call me, I pick up this phone. If the people wanted it, we would have it.”

When recreational marijuana sales started in Colorado in 2014, Commerce City also was not on board. But after revenue in towns where it was legal started to roll in, it changed its tune the following year.

“To put it simply, the city council voted and decided to lift the moratorium and it was from then on legalized. Obviously, when it’s legalized everywhere else and not here, we’re going to see the effects of it without seeing the benefits,” said Tiffany McGraw, licensing coordinator for Commerce City.

Though the Commerce City tax department does not publish information regarding tax revenue derived from marijuana sales, “it made sense for council to legalize,” McGraw said.

In 2014, 25 Colorado municipalities allowed the sale of marijuana. Today, Commerce City is among the 70 that do.

Watching the roads

A common concern among New Jerseyans looking ahead at the possibility of marijuana legalization is an increase in the number of drivers under the influence.

The American Journal of Public Health found fatal crash rates in Colorado were comparable to states where it is not legal.

Nevertheless, the Colorado Department of Transportation reported fatalities from marijuana DUI-related accidents increased to 51 in 2016 from 19 the previous two years. But there is a caveat: Prior to 2016, data collection of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in blood samples was incomplete. THC is the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis.

Sam Cole, safety communications manager at CDOT, said he didn’t view the statistics as surprising and cautioned people not to jump to conclusions.

“Driving high has been around for a long time, and we know drugs play a role in impaired driving fatalities in Colorado,” he said.

What has changed since marijuana legalization is the education law enforcement officers receive regarding drivers who are under the influence.

“Since ending marijuana prohibition in Colorado, Colorado’s traffic safety community has trained more law enforcement in impaired driving detection training, improved its data collection and partnered with recreational cannabis to get the message out,” said Glenn Davis, highway safety manager at the Colorado Department of Transportation.

CDOT recently launched a program called The Cannabis Conversation, a statewide initiative comprised of 18 partners representing the marijuana industry, community nonprofits, universities and others that invites Coloradans to share their opinions, behaviors and habits related to marijuana and driving. 

While some of its messages are being heard, others are falling on deaf ears. According to Cole, more than 90 percent of marijuana users know about the legal consequences of driving high, which can include $13,500 in fines, potential jail time and loss of license.

A study by CDOT in February found 50 percent of those who identified themselves as marijuana users had reported driving high in the 30 days prior to being surveyed.

“Our audience has not been as responsive to our messages about the dangers of driving high,” Cole said.

Gabrielle Saulsbery
Albany, N.Y. native Gabrielle Saulsbery is a staff writer for NJBIZ and the newest thing in New Jersey. You can contact her at gsaulsbery@njbiz.com.

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