Is Colorado less safe since legalizing pot? Some cops and prosecutors say yes

Denver, CO (WXYZ) - It’s been six years since Colorado voters approved what many call the greatest social experiment in America.

Whether the state’s better off because of it depends on who you ask.

Marijuana users and dispensary owners say it’s kept thousands out of jail for a low-level drug offense while generating valuable tax dollars for the state.

“I would rather go build schools from the tax revenue that’s generated from this than building prison and jails,” said Bruce Nassau, owner of Lit Cannabis, a chain of marijuana dispensaries.

But many in law enforcement say more people are dying on Colorado’s roads, the marijuana black market is thriving and the state is less safe as a result.

“People get so excited with the revenue,” said then-Greenwood Village Police Chief John Jackson at a recent forum on policing marijuana, "that they lose sight of the social costs.”

Talk to any opponent to legalization and they’ll point out the same statistics: since legalization, the number of people dying on Colorado roads has steadily climbed—up 35% since 2012.

After years of falling, the rate of violent crime has risen, too—faster than the crime rate nationwide.

And that the number of marijuana-related hospitalizations is soaring, up 148% between 2012 and 2016.  

Bob Troyer, Colorado’s U.S. Attorney, says he has “no doubt” that the state is less safe as a result of marijuana legalization and commercialization.

“We see the violent crime cases, we see the black market cases,” Troyer said. "And we see what’s happened in the black market industry that views commercialization as cover for their activities.”

Back in 2012, voters were told that legalization would effectively kill the black market for weed, replacing it with a safer, regulated product.

“Has that happened?” asked Channel 7’s Ross Jones.

“No,” Troyer said. “Not at all.”

For years since legalization, police have been busy raiding scores of illegal home grows and seized millions of dollars in black market weed. Much of it is meant for out-of-state customers, but some has also been sold in Colorado. Even industry advocates admit that the black market is tough to get their arms around.

“We have been and are well aware of the fact that the black market is alive and well.,” Nassau said. “They’re not going to go away…law enforcement is trying to focus more and more on it. “

Statistically, Colorado’s roads are less safe today than they were before marijuana was legalized, with traffic deaths up 35% since 2012.  No one can say with certainty that marijuana is the cause—but they also can’t say that it isn’t.

Ed Wood’s son Brian was killed by a driver that was high in Washington state. Since then, he’s made spreading the dangers of drugged driving his life’s work.

Part of the problem, he says, is that unlike with alcohol, impairment from marijuana has no legal definition.

“Since marijuana is even less dangerous than alcohol, many people think they can drive safely under marijuana,” Wood said. “And they cannot.”

According to a survey by the Colorado Department of Transportation, plenty of drivers are smoking marijuana and driving. 69 percent reported driving under the influence of marijuana at least once in the past year---with 27 percent admitting they drive high almost daily.

The U.S. attorney says they’re all red flags that should have Colorado and Michigan’s attention, and why last month, he wrote an op-ed in the Denver Post saying that the state’s marijuana movement needs to catch its breath.

“If they’re going to choose that $1.2 billion or whatever the dollar figure is worth some brain development impairment among our youth, some greater degree of highway fatalities, some impact overall on livability in communities, fine,” Troyer said.

“Let’s look at the pros and cons instead of buying into the gold rush frenzy that has been commercialization in Colorado.”

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at ross.jones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466

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