ATLANTA — Channel 2 Action News investigates the real story of legal marijuana.
Channel 2 Investigative reporter Mark Winne traveled to Colorado to find out what impact legalization is having there.
In 2015, Governor Nathan Deal asked a group of Georgians to study the impact of legalizing recreational use of marijuana. That group included Vernon Keenan, the head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who visited Colorado to learn more.
While many point to the increased tax revenues and jobs that legalization has brought to the state, there are some downsides as well.
One study shows there was an initial increase in emergency room visits, traffic deaths and youth marijuana use.
When Winne asked Mark Bolton, marijuana adviser to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, asked if the legalized pot has been a good thing or bad thing for society, the official said, “I think it's too early to know.”
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When the same question was asked to a Colorado commercial marijuana seller, Brandon Burnham, he said, "I definitely believe marijuana is good for society."
Data cited in a 2017 report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, also known as HIDTA, indicated emergency department visits related to pot went up more than 4,000 from the year before recreational legalization to 2014. Those numbers declined again in the first nine months of 2015.
Denver emergency room doctor Aaron Wolfe said edibles are the main problem.
“People are not familiar with the dosing of edibles,” Wolfe said. "I definitely think the we have seen a large increase in traffic."
Colorado led the nation for youth marijuana use in 2014 and 2015, according to the HIDTA report.
“And then it kind of leveled off and this last year, for some reason, it dropped. We’re not sure why that is,” said Tom Gorman, Director of Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. "It’s still high.”
"The youth use is among our primary concern,” said Colorado’s former marijuana czar, Andrew Freedman. “The latest numbers suggest, this is from a number of different surveys, those numbers suggest that really youth rates have remained flat here in Colorado."
GBI Director Vernon Keenan said he visited Colorado as part of the Georgia marijuana commission in 2015 and met with law enforcement
"They were in absolute shock of what was happening in their state, as it related to public safety,” Keenan said.
Data cited in the HIDTA report indicates the percentage of traffic deaths when the operator tested positive for pot rose from less than 7 percent in 2006 to more than 24 percent in 2016.
This fact is not lost on Deckert. She said she'll always be haunted, wondering if marijuana legalization played a role in Edwards' death.
“It was devastating,” she said.
But Burnham, who owns a marijuana grow operation and retail store, cites several positives to legalization.
"It has many medical uses,” Burnham said. “It helps people with anxiety and depression. It’s a safe alternative to alcohol and other harmful drugs. It’s good for the economy. It’s just good for a lot of reasons."
His advice for Georgia is for leaders to study accurate, credible information.
"Make sure that you’re dealing with accurate information and the make an informed decision,” Burnham said. “Legalize cannabis because it’s good for your citizens.”
Deckert suggested giving the issue more time before making a decision.
"Give it time. I could see why it would be a benefit but wait until they have more control over the situation,” Deckert said.
Keenan said he does not have a position on weed legalization, other than states should wait until it is legal under federal law.
The group released a report looking at the three different eras in Colorado's legalization history:
• 2006 – 2008: Medical marijuana pre-commercialization era
• 2009 – Present: Medical marijuana commercialization and expansion era
• 2013 – Present: Recreational marijuana era
According to RMHIDTA’s report, marijuana-related traffic deaths when a driver was positive for marijuana more than doubled from 55 deaths in 2013 to 125 deaths in 2016.
Marijuana-related traffic deaths increased 66 percent in the four-year average (2013-2016) since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana compared with the four-year average (2009-2012) prior to legalization.
During the same time period, all traffic deaths increased 16 percent.
In 2009, Colorado marijuana-related traffic deaths involving drivers testing positive for marijuana represented 9 percent of all traffic deaths. By 2016, that number had more than doubled to 21 percent.
Youth marijuana use
Youth past month marijuana use increased 12 percent in the three-year average (2013-2015) since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana compared to the three-year average prior to legalization (2010-2012).
The latest 2014/2015 results show Colorado youth ranked #1 in the nation for past month marijuana use, up from #4 in 2011/2012 and #14 in 2005/2006.
Colorado youth past month marijuana use for 2014/2015 was 55 percent higher than the national average compared to 39 percent higher in 2011/2012.
Adult marijuana use
College age past month marijuana use increased 16 percent in the three-year average (2013-2015) since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana compared to the three-year average prior to legalization (2010-2012).
The latest 2014/2015 results show Colorado college-age adults ranked #2 in the nation for past-month marijuana use, up from #3 in 2011/2012 and #8 in 2005/2006.
Colorado college age past month marijuana use for 2014/2015 was 61 percent higher than the national average compared to 42 percent higher in 2011/2012.
Adult past-month marijuana use increased 71 percent in the three-year average (2013-2015) since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana compared to the three-year average prior to legalization (2010-2012).
The latest 2014/2015 results show Colorado adults ranked #1 in the nation for past month marijuana use, up from #7 in 2011/2012 and #8 in 2005/2006.
Colorado adult past month marijuana use for 2014/2015 was 124 percent higher than the national average compared to 51 percent higher in 2011/2012.
Emergency department and hospital marijuana-related admissions
The yearly rate of emergency department visits related to marijuana increased 35 percent after the legalization of recreational marijuana (2011-2012 vs. 2013-2015).
Number of hospitalizations related to marijuana:
• 2011 – 6,305
• 2012 – 6,715
• 2013 – 8,272
• 2014 – 11,439
• Jan. - Sept. 2015 – 10,901
The yearly number of marijuana-related hospitalizations increased 72 percent after the legalization of recreational marijuana (2009-2012 vs. 2013-2015).
Diversion of Colorado marijuana
In 2016, RMHIDTA Colorado drug task forces completed 163 investigations of individuals or organizations involved in illegally selling Colorado marijuana both in and out of state.
These cases led to:
• 252 felony arrests
• 7,116 (3.5 tons) pounds of marijuana seized
• 47,108 marijuana plants seized
• 2,111 marijuana edibles seized
• 232 pounds of concentrate seized
• 29 different states to which marijuana was destined
Highway interdiction seizures of Colorado marijuana increased 43 percent in the four-year average (2013-2016) since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana compared with the four-year average (2009-2012) prior to legalization.
Of the 346 highway interdiction seizures in 2016, there were 36 states destined to receive marijuana from Colorado.
The most common destinations identified were Illinois, Missouri, Texas, Kansas and Florida.
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