The Impact of Legalized Marijuana on Crime & Teen Use

Research prompt:

What is the impact of legalized marijuana on crime and teen use? Look statewide and in towns like Milliken, Boulder, Fort Collins, Garden City, etc.

Short conclusion: 

Statewide, marijuana arrests decreased by 68% between 2012 and 2019. There is however, a significant disparity in arrests for black people and white people, with about a 2 to 1 ratio of black arrestees to white arrestees (an increase from 2012 to 2019). Teen use seems to be unchanged from 2005 to 2019 for both high school and middle school students. That said, teen arrests for marijuana have also decreased significantly, from decreased 42%, from 599 in 2012 to 349 in 2019.

Table of Marijuana arrests in Colorado from 2012 to 2019

The total number of marijuana arrests decreased by 68% between 2012 and 2019, from 13,225 to 4,290 (Table 2). Marijuana possession arrests, which make up the majority of all marijuana arrests, were cut by nearly three-quarters (-71%). Marijuana sales arrests decreased by 56%, while arrests for marijuana 21 Juvenile probation data is presented in Section Four: Impacts on Youth. 22 While offenses and arrests are related, they are not the same and may display different patterns. An offense is counted when a crime is reported to law enforcement, regardless of whether there is an arrest. 

For example, there may be a reported burglary with no related arrest. An arrest is a response to a crime, and there may be multiple arrests for a single offense. For example, one robbery committed by two suspects can result in two arrests. 21 production increased slightly (+3%). Marijuana arrests that were unspecified, meaning the specific reason for the arrest was not provided by law enforcement, went down by 459. The arrest rates per 100,000 adult population between 2012 and 2019 followed similar trends, with the possession rate down 75%, sales down 61%, and production down 9%.

Between 2012 and 2019, an 84% reduction in arrests occurred for those ages 21 and older for whom marijuana possession of one ounce or less is now legal (Table 2). This compares with a 65% reduction in the 18- to 20-year-old group who may legally possess only when they have a medical marijuana card. Juveniles between the ages of 10 and 17 showed a 37% decrease in the number of marijuana arrests. In 2019, juveniles accounted for nearly half (48%) of all marijuana arrests compared to 25% in 2012. The age group with the highest arrest rate in 2019 was 18- to 20-year-olds, at 498 per 100,000 18- to 20- year-olds in the population (Table 3). This was higher than the juvenile rate (349) and 20 times higher than the rate for those 21 or older (24).

Table 3 of data showing marijuana arrests in Colorado from 2012 to 2019

Crime highlights

  • The total number of marijuana arrests decreased by 68% between 2012 and 2019, from 13,225 to 4,290. This was driven by large decreases in possession and sales charges, with a very small (3%) increase in arrests for marijuana production.
    • Although arrest rates declined for all races and ethnicities, the marijuana arrest rate for Blacks (160 per 100,000) was more than double that of Whites (76 per 100,000) in 2019, which was an increase from the previous report when the ratio was 1.85:1.
  • The total number of marijuana-related court case filings declined 55% between 2012 and 2019, driven primarily by decreases in misdemeanors and petty offenses. The number of cases with a marijuana felony as the top marijuana charge has varied;  in 2020 there were 180 fewer felony cases filed than in 2012.
  • In terms of organized crime, the number of court filings charged with the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act (C.R.S.18-17.104) that were linked to some marijuana charge increased from 31 in 2012 to 119 in 2017, but then dropped back down to 34 in 2019.
  • The number of plants seized on public lands has fluctuated significantly over time, from 46,662 plants in 2012, to a high of 80,826 in 2017, down to a low of 1,502 in 2018.
  • Similarly, the number of out-of-state seizures reported for Colorado-sourced marijuana increased from 286 in 2012 to 673 in 2017, but then went back down to 266 in 2019.
  • The federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program, which targets drug trafficking organizations involved in cannabis cultivation, made the highest number of arrests in 2018 and 2019 since legalization and seized the highest number of indoor plants (57,711) in the past 14 years. The number of outdoor plants the DEA eradicated has varied over that time period, ranging from a high of 29,655 plants in 2009 to a low of 2,059 plants in 2017; they eradicated 4,247 outdoor plants in 2019.

Teen use

The proportion of Colorado high school students reporting using marijuana ever in their lifetime remained statistically unchanged between 2005 and 2019 (Figure 56). Further, Figure 56 shows there was no statistically significant difference between Colorado student responses compared to national data.

Figure 56 overview of high school marijuana lifetime use

The percentage of high school students reporting past 30-day use also remained stable, with no significant changes between 2005 and 2019 (Figure 57).

Figure 57 shows 30 day usage of marijuana in high school students

The proportion of students trying marijuana before the age of 13 went down significantly in Colorado, from 9.2% in 2015 to 6.7% in 2019 (Figure 58). These findings were not statistically different from the national data.

Figure presenting data on marijuana usage in teens before 13 years old

Prevalence trends for the three most commonly used substances by high school students are presented in Figure 59. The prevalence of marijuana use has not changed significantly in the past six survey administrations. Alcohol and cigarette use trended downward, with the largest reduction linked to current alcohol use, down from 47.4% in 2005 to 29.6% in 2019.

High school student 30-day substance use

Although youth’s cigarette smoking was at an all-time low, 25.9% of youth report using nicotine through vapor products including e-cigarettes. Data on e-cigarettes was added to the 2015 administration of HKCS.

Alcohol was the most common substance high school students reported using at any point in their lives at 55%, followed by e-cigarettes at 46%, and marijuana at 36% (Figure 63).

bar chart showing teen lifetime usage of various substances

Youth impact highlights

  • Healthy Kids Colorado Survey (HKCS) results indicate no significant change in the past 30-day use of marijuana by middle and high school-aged youth between 2013 (19.7%) and 2019 (20.6%).
  • The rate of juvenile marijuana arrests per 100,000 decreased 42%, from 599 in 2012 to 349 in 2019.
  • School suspensions related to drugs increased prior to legalization to a rate of 551 per 100,000 students in 2010-11, then fluctuated over time. The suspension rate was 426 in the 2019-20 school year.
  • The drug expulsion rate was 65 per 100,000 registered students in the 2008-09 school year; 10 years later, it was 23 per 100,000 students in the 2019-20 school year.
  • School discipline data for 2019-20 indicated that marijuana infractions accounted for 30% of all expulsions and 34% of all law enforcement referrals in Colorado public schools. These infractions are almost uniformly for simple marijuana possession.