SAM Releases Fourth Annual Report on Harms of Marijuana Legalization

Ahead of the first presidential debate, Smart Approaches to Marijuana — the nation’s largest non-profit dedicated to opposing marijuana commercialization — released its fourth annual report on the impact of marijuana legalization today, as well as a companion guide designed to educate candidates for office on marijuana policy.

“In pot legal states, stoned driving is up. Youth use is up. Emergency room admissions are up. We won’t know the full impact of commercialization for years, but these current indicators are discouraging. It’s important the public and candidates for elected office know this,” said Dr. Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and a former senior drug policy advisor to the Obama Administration. “This report, and our comprehensive candidate guide — which we will be working to distribute to each elected official and candidate for federal office nationwide — aims to break through the narrative being perpetuated by Big Marijuana that legalization is an innocuous policy change.”

According to the report, there has been a 25% increase in Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD) among 12-17-year-olds in “legal” states since the implementation of legalization.

The state of Colorado, which was the first state to institute a commercial marijuana market, paints a stark contrast on many data metrics when compared to national averages. For example, past-month marijuana use among young adults in 2019 was 23% nationally. For Colorado, it was 37%. The rate of substance abuse disorder, SUD among those 18 or older nationally was 7.7%. For Colorado, it was 10.9%

Commercialization has led to the creation of new forms of marijuana use. Notably the use of marijuana vapes – which were at the root of a public health crisis in 2019. EVALI (e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury) has left nearly 70 dead and resulted in the hospitalizations of 2,739 as of the publishing of this report. Many of these victims suffered lung damage that their bodies will never recover from.

Furthermore, as commercialization has led to dramatic increases in the potency of marijuana products and increases in their availability, calls made to poison control centers in Colorado, Massachusetts, and Washington for marijuana exposures have risen 112.8%, 140%, and 103.2%, respectively, since legalization.

Youth marijuana use has drastically increased over the last few years, with past-month use among teenagers increasing over 72% from 2018 to 2019. An average of 10% of teens reported past-month marijuana vaping in 2019. In 2019, 2.4% of teenagers reported vaping marijuana almost daily, exceeding near-daily cigarette and near-daily alcohol use among this group.

Additionally, near-daily marijuana use—as reported by the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey—increased dramatically from 2018 to 2019 with 6.4% of 12th graders, 4.8% of 10th graders, and 1.3% of 8th graders reporting near-daily marijuana use in 2019. The increase in near-daily marijuana use among 8th graders is particularly concerning: 2019 near-daily use rates jumped 85.7% from 2018 to 2019 (Miech et al., 2019).

Past-year as well as past-month marijuana use among 12- to 17-year-olds in “legal” states increased from 2016/2017 to 2017/2018 (SAMHSA, 2019b). An average of 16.4% of 12- to 17-year-olds in “legal” states reported past-year use in 2017/2018, and an average of 9.4% reported past-month use. These increases far exceed marijuana use rates among youth aged 12 to 17 in states where marijuana remains illegal (SAMHSA, 2019b).

Though regularly touted by industry advocates and lobbyists as a crucial component of social justice efforts, marijuana legalization and commercialization continue to fail to achieve any tangible measure of social justice or equity.

People of color are about six times more likely to be arrested for drug use than white people. Marijuana decriminalization and record expungement are necessary social justice reforms, but commercialization enables a multi-billion-dollar addiction industry to target vulnerable communities.

Some of Denver’s low-income neighborhoods have one marijuana business license for every 47 residents. Disadvantaged communities, already affected by liquor stores on every corner, could face the added strain of weed shops on every block due to legalization. These issues are compounded considering the industry nationally is less than 2% minority-owned.

Marijuana-impaired driving continues to be a major threat to public safety as a result of legalization and commercialization.

In Colorado, traffic fatalities increased by over 31% since 2013. The rise in statewide traffic fatalities has coincided with a rise in instances of traffic fatalities where the driver tested positive for marijuana (active THC in the bloodstream). The number of traffic fatalities involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana in Colorado rose from 55 deaths in 2013 to 115 deaths in 2018. In 2018, 18.2% of all traffic fatalities in Colorado involved a driver who tested positive for marijuana.

In the five years prior to legalization in the state, marijuana-impaired drivers comprised around 8.8% of all drivers implicated in traffic fatalities. In the years following, the rate jumped to around 18%.

A survey conducted by AAA found that only 70% of drivers perceived driving within an hour of using marijuana as extremely dangerous or very dangerous, compared with 95.1% who felt that driving under the influence of alcohol above the legal limit was extremely or very dangerous.

Many of the marijuana “legal” states failed to establish laws or guidance prior to legalizing marijuana, leaving law enforcement officers in the dark as legislators played catch-up to dangerous trends. As a result, road safety is compromised.

Commercialization advocates have long argued that legalization will reduce black-market marijuana activity in “legal” states. However, the legalization and commercialization of marijuana has led to greater black-market activity than ever before.

According to the report, illicit marijuana originating from “legal” states is uncovered at increasingly high rates. Between July 2015 and January 2018, 14,550 pounds of illegally trafficked Oregon marijuana, worth approximately $48 million, was seized en route to 37 different states (ORIDHIDTA, 2018). In 2018, Colorado law enforcement seized 12,150 pounds (6.1 tons) of bulk marijuana. Officials recorded 25 different states to which marijuana was destined (RMHIDTA, 2019).

In its 2019 National Drug Threat Assessment report, the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA], 2020a) found that states with the highest marijuana removals came from states with major border crossings or states with medical or recreational marijuana markets.

Furthermore, “legal” marijuana markets have been magnets for foreign cartels and drug traffickers. In California, authorities suspect—based on phone records and wire transfer activity that illegal marijuana activity is tied to the Sinaloa and La Familia Michoacana cartels (Magdaleno, 2018). In 2018, the Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking task force identified 58 drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) with foreign as well as domestic connections.

Finally, while states may have legalized marijuana, the overwhelming majority of localities in California, Colorado, Michigan, and Oregon have opted out of allowing marijuana sales, showing that there is significant pushback against marijuana commercialization at the local level.