Is Legal Marijuana Making the Streets Safer? It Appears So

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

During the debates over whether or not marijuana should be legalized in some states for retail and public consumption, the issue of safety was one of the biggest talking points for both sides. From a pro-legalization perspective, advocates noted that full legalization would bring transactions off the streets — often dangerous for many reasons — and into safe, responsibly run retail environments. From the perspective of those fighting against legalization, some of the major concerns regarding cannabis included the actual effect of the plant on people’s health, the prospect of people driving under the influence, and of course, what would happen to the children if legislation was allowed to pass.

Well, a year and a half after legalization was passed in two states, and now nearly nine months after Colorado initiated legal sales of cannabis to the general public, it appears that legalization has indeed made the streets safer. In fact, marijuana use among teenagers has actually dropped in Colorado, much to the surprise of everyone.

Survey results released by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment indicate that kids of high school age are less likely to view marijuana as risky than they were before, and that overall, the number of teens who have used it has dropped. One in five high school kids used cannabis within the past 30 days, the survey found. Thirty-day use rates took a drop from 22 percent in 2011 to to 20 percent last year, while over the same time lifetime use — which measures how many teens had actually tried marijuana at some point in their lives — dropped from 39 percent to 37 percent. While not a significant shift in numbers, it is surprising.

Of course, one of the major issues those opposing legalization had with the prospective change in policy was the effect it would have on children. The worry was that by decriminalizing pot and making it available for public purchase, it may have become more attractive to teenagers and kids.

While the normalization of cannabis into American society is in its infancy, there is a good chance that could happen. But experts are already planning on campaigns to convince the youth otherwise, much like they have with tobacco and alcohol. “If we want Colorado to be the healthiest state in the nation, then we need to make sure our youngest citizens understand the risks of using potentially harmful substances,” said Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical examiner for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“Later this month, we’ll launch a youth prevention campaign that encourages kids not to risk damaging their growing brains by experimenting with marijuana.”

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

One of the other chief concerns about legalization would be that it would encourage drivers to get behind the wheel while under the influence. A worthy concern, yet traffic data from Colorado has proven that traffic fatalities have actually declined since prohibition was ended in Colorado, according to Forbes.

Fatalities in Colorado peaked in 2002, one year after Colorado’s medical marijuana law went into effect, and has since dropped by more than a third. Also, since legal sales began in January, traffic fatalities for the year are down as compared to 2013. While there really can’t ever be anything directly linking legal cannabis to safer roads, the data does show marked improvement. Some experts believe that less fatalities and legal cannabis can be linked, as some people may decide to substitute the act of marijuana use in place of drinking.

One other important thing to note is that if people are willing to use cannabis and get behind the wheel, there’s a significant chance they’ve done it before. Especially in a state like Colorado that had a robust medical marijuana system in place prior to legalization, the question needs to be asked regarding how many more people in total are actually using cannabis than they were before.

For many people, making marijuana legal didn’t necessarily change their behavior. If they used it before, they probably still do. If they didn’t before, how many people are apt to become users just because of the law change? There’s sure to be some insight into that in coming years, but as far as driving under the influence, it’s hard to gauge if there are actually more people engaging in the act than there was before, as police may have not been actively looking for it at the level they are now.

There’s sure to be more insight into how legal cannabis has affected overall public safety as time passes, but for now it appears that the streets, at least in Colorado, are a bit safer. At the very least, people no longer need to be worried about engaging in sketchy black market drug deals in parking lots, and can instead engage in commerce like adults in retail stores.

When some solid numbers from Washington emerge, it will provide even more opportunity to examine cannabis legalization’s effect on public health.

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