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Did marijuana use in Colorado spike after legalization?
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democratic candidate for president, got some laughs during a CNN town hall when he discussed the experience of overseeing the legalization of recreational marijuana in his state.
Marijuana officially became legal in Colorado in December 2012, but legal adult sales did not begin until Jan. 1, 2014. At that point, it took the better part of a year for localities around the state to fully come online and get businesses licensed.
Hickenlooper, who initially opposed legal weed, grew to accept it. During the town hall, a participant asked him for his reflections on this evolution. Here’s what Hickenlooper said:
"As my mother would say, you couldn't control what things would come in your path, what bad things life might throw at you. And in the end, we were very concerned about this. And I was opposed to it originally. No other government had ever legalized marijuana. Even Amsterdam just decriminalized it. We were worried about teenage consumption going up, when kids' brains are rapidly growing, what it could do. We were worried about the risks of, you know, more people driving while high. And partly, it's no fun to be in conflict with the federal government.
"But I believe that states are the laboratories of democracy, as Justice Brandeis said so famously, and that we would give it our best shot. And I have to say, at this point, most of our fears haven't come true. We haven't seen a spike in consumption. A significant increase among senior citizens, but I leave that to your own imagination."
The mention of seniors getting baked sparked laughter in the audience, but we wondered whether Hickenlooper was correct that after legalizing marijuana in Colorado, "we haven't seen a spike in consumption."
We found there hasn’t been a spike, per se. However, marijuana use by adults has gone up consistently for a decade, before and after legalization.
Experts told us that the most comprehensive source for data on marijuana use is the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual survey put together by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. We found two relevant measurements, each broken down by state, each of which showed similar patterns for Colorado.
Here’s the data for reported marijuana use in the past month, broken down by a variety of age groups in Colorado:
And here’s the data for reported marijuana use in the past year, again broken down by age groups:
Each of the blue lines shows the trend for an adult group — 18 and older, 26 and older, or 18 to 25.
All of these blue lines show the same general pattern: The usage rates rose, slowly and steadily, between 2008-2009 and 2016-2017.
Hickenlooper has a point that usage rates didn’t "spike." However, it’s easy to hear his comment and assume that reported use of marijuana flatlined or even declined. And that’s not the case.
For the 30-day rates — the more common metric that policymakers use, experts say — the increase in adult marijuana use ranged between a one-third jump and a doubling over eight years, depending on the age range.
Other data backs this up. A state government report from 2018 summarized data from the Colorado Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a statewide telephone survey conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. This study’s data on marijuana use goes back to 2014.
The past-month figures for adults rose from 13.6 percent in 2014 to 15.5 percent in 2017, a jump the report called "a significant increase." The responses for daily or near-daily use grew from 6 percent in 2014 to 7.6 percent in 2017, which it also deemed "a significant increase."
The patterns in Colorado did not surprise Jonathan P. Caulkins, a public policy professor at Carnegie-Mellon University and the former co-director of RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center. An upward trend is to be expected.
Between 1992 to 2017, Caulkins said, the nationwide number of past-year users more than doubled, and past-month use tripled. The number of days of use went up several fold, and the number of daily or near-daily users increased tenfold, from 0.9 million to 9 million, he said.
Oh, and about those toking seniors? Their numbers have gone up, as Hickenlooper said, according to Colorado data — from 3 percent in 2014 to 5.6 percent. Younger age groups showed increases between 2014 and 2017 as well. But use by seniors wouldn’t have been large enough to drive the trends. One likely reason for the rise among seniors: Every year sees more and more Baby Boomers turning 65, and they are used to using marijuana from their younger years.
The one age group that bucked the pattern — and an important one from a policy perspective — is teenagers. They’re marked with the red line in the charts above.
Strikingly, the use of marijuana by teens has, at most, stayed much the same, and perhaps even dropped a little.
Experts cautioned that for teen use, the sample sizes of the SAMHSA study we used above are not very large. Other studies with larger sample sizes bear out the general pattern, however.
Colorado has been tracking 30-day marijuana use among high-school students every two years since 2013 in its Healthy Kids Colorado survey. In 2013, 19.7 percent of respondents said they’d used marijuana in the past 30 days. That number rose slightly in 2015 to 21.2 percent, but then fell back to a new low in 2017, at 19.4 percent.
So, if Hickenlooper had specified youth usage, he would have had a stronger argument. In fact, Hickenlooper’s own state government issued a news release in July 2018 that summed up the results this way: "Marijuana use in Colorado rises for adults, stays the same for kids."
And when we reached out to Hickenlooper's campaign, they confirmed that he had meant to refer to usage by youths.
"He did mean to specify youth," said Lauren Hitt, a spokesman for Hickenlooper. "He tells that story a lot."
For instance, he said in February 2017 on NBC's Meet the Press that "we didn't see a spike in teenage use" after legalization.
He also said in July 2018, "Preventing young people from using marijuana is a statewide priority. While youth use hasn’t gone up, we are working hard to educate Colorado parents and their children about the health and legal risks of underage marijuana use."
We should mention one notable caveat to all the studies cited above.
"These surveys are all based on self-reporting, and people are probably more likely to admit to using cannabis when it is legal compared to when it is illegal," said Mason Tvert, the former director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project who is now with Vicente Sederberg, a marijuana-focused law firm. This could account for some of the increase over time, he said.
Hickenlooper said that after legalizing marijuana in Colorado, "we haven't seen a spike in consumption."
He has a point that legalization didn’t produce a rapid, sudden increase in marijuana use. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a continued increase. In Colorado, reported marijuana use climbed, slowly and steadily, for adults between 2008 and 2017. The one exception was teenagers, for whom usage rates largely remained steady.
We rate the statement Half True.
John Hickenlooper, remarks at a CNN town hall, March 20, 2019
National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2008-2009, 2009-2010, 2010-2011, 2011-2012, 2012-2013, 2013-2014, 2014-2015, 2015-2016, 2016-2017
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, "Marijuana use in Colorado rises for adults, stays the same for kids," July 19, 2018
Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, "Impacts of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado A Report Pursuant to Senate Bill 13‐283," October 2018
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Healthy Kids Colorado Survey Data, accessed March 22, 2019
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS): Monitoring trends in marijuana use, accessed March 22, 2019
Email interview with Jonathan P. Caulkins, public policy professor at Carnegie-Mellon University and the former co-director of RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center, March 22, 2019
Email interview with Mason Tvert, former director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project and now a communications adviser with Vicente Sederberg, a marijuana-focused law firm, March 22, 2019
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