2021 legalization of marijuana data released, Weld County drug experts discuss impacts – Greeley Tribune

A significant rise in marijuana use among adults is among the key findings of a recent report on the impacts of legalization in Colorado.

The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice’s 2021 Report on Impacts of Marijuana Legalization covers marijuana’s impacts on crime, traffic safety, youth, health and wellness.

In 2021, Colorado has seen decreases in marijuana-related arrests, but an increase of organized crime and drug trafficking organizations. Weld County has seen a similar pattern.

From 2012 to 2019, arrests have dropped from 13,225 to 4,290 in the state.

Nine large counties in Colorado showed a dwindle in marijuana arrests, including Weld, Jefferson and Larimer, with a -46% average decline across all counties. Scott Smith of the Weld County Drug Task Force reported 58 marijuana-related offenses in 2019, 27 in 2020 and 10 so far in 2021 within the Greeley Police Department.

Despite the decline in marijuana-related arrests for all races and ethnicities, Black people have experienced disproportionately high rates compared to white people since legalization. In the 2021 report, the arrest rate for Black people was more than double than white people.

However, Smith said he is not seeing a similar pattern in Weld County as far as that statistic goes.

In most cases, Smith said the county’s task force deals with criminal involvement in black market grows, where people grow marijuana with the purpose of selling it illegally, sometimes after moving it elsewhere.

“People are growing it for purposes to divert it out of the state of Colorado,” he said. “Not all of it goes out of Colorado. Some of it is staying within the state where people continue to want to purchase it from the illegal growers or the illegal suppliers, as opposed to going to the legal way of doing it.”

The number of organized crime court fillings linked to marijuana charges dropped to 34 in 2019 compared to 119 in 2017 in the state. But, Weld County is seeing a large black market of organized crime executed by a majority of asian groups growing illegal marijuana, according to Smith.

“There’s a lot of money involved in it, and they’re pretty good about setting up multiple grow locations,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of diversion from the marijuana that’s leaving the state going to the other states where it’s not legal.”

The key findings from the report also highlighted a program that targets drug trafficking organizations –– the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program –– for obtaining the highest number of arrests in 2018 and 2019 since marijuana was legalized.

As far as court cases go, Weld County has seen a 58.8% decline in marijuana possession cases from 2010-2014, according to a Marijuana Arrests in Colorado After the Passage of Amendment 64 report. 

Marijuana-related court case filings across the state experienced a corresponding decline. Between 2012 and 2019 court case filings decreased by 55% because petty offenses and misdemeanors declined. In 2020, there were 180 fewer marijuana felony cases than in 2012.

Over the past 10 years, marijuana-related DUIs and fatal crashes saw a spike in Colorado, and Smith said the reason behind this is the unknown factor of using marijuana.

He said marijuana is similar to alcohol when it comes to impairment levels. With so many different factors of marijuana –– edibles, concentrates and percentage of THC –– it makes it hard to know what will happen to one’s body when people use the drug.

“We already have enough distractions when we drive … phones and radios and the amount of traffic that is in Weld County and the Greeley area,” Smith said. It’s just another thing that can distract you and take away from your ability to be able to drive. And we’ve seen statistically that people under the influence of marijuana have the same limitations as those under the influence of alcohol.”

From 2014 to 2020, the number of DUIs where marijuana or marijuana-in-combination with alcohol or other drugs was the impairing substance identified by Colorado State Patrol officers surged from 12% to 31%.

Marijuana-alone citations increased from 6.3% to 8.7%, while marijuana-in-combination citations increased from 5.7% to 22.7%.

The number of traffic fatalities involving a driver who tested positive for any type of cannabis increased 140% from 2013 to 2019, as well.

Smith said because of the increase over the past 10 years, law enforcement agencies are adapting training for recognizing drug use. A total of 129 law enforcement officers trained in recognizing drug use in 2012 had jumped to 221 in 2020, according to the report.

The Greeley Police Department is one of the law enforcement agencies in Colorado with officers that are trained to become drug recognition experts.

“They go through specialized training and it gives them the ability to be able to detect drugs in a person’s system, and that includes marijuana,” Smith said. “It also includes like methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, basically any type of a controlled substance. And it goes beyond what they learn as far as detecting alcohol in the system.”

Along with the dangers of driving under the influence, marijuana causes health concerns among users, especially for youth.

Lesley Brooks, the Medical Director for North Colorado Health Alliance said there are great risks for juveniles who use marijuana. Brooks reported that Weld County even saw an outbreak of young people vaping THC products, which has been shown to lead severe lung injury.

“We had a big outbreak last year among people (15% young people) whose common characteristic was vaping, especially THC-containing products,” she said. “Cases have declined, which is fantastic, but this demonstrates the significant injury that can happen with THC.”

A rash of vaping-related respiratory illnesses prompted the marijuana industry to give a closer look at what chemicals are being used in THC vaping devices. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The report indicates there has been no significant change in past 30-day use of marijuana among middle and high schoolers in Colorado between 19.7% in 2013 to 20.6% in 2019.

Brooks said marijuana use among youth negatively affects users brains, lungs, mental health, gastrointestinal tract and heart rates. She reported anyone younger than 17 who uses marijuana daily will be associated with increased risks of dropping out of high school, depression, use of other drugs and attempted suicide.

“We know that the lifetime risk of developing a cannabis use disorder among adolescents who are heavy users is about 9%,” Brooks said.

A recent legislature bill, House Bill 1317, was passed aimed to reduce the risks of marijuana use among young people. The bill’s goal is to regulate the sale of marijuana by limiting how much concentrated cannabis medical marijuana people can buy each day and through tracking purchases to eliminate dispensary-hopping and enforce the limit.

Brooks said this bill, from a public health perspective, is crucial in preventing youth from developing the harmful side effects of the drug.

Prior to medical marijuana’s legalization, there were 963.5 hospitalizations in 2009. During the era of medical marijuana commercialization in the state, hospitalization rates saw a 100% jump to 1,780.9 per 100,000 hospitalizations. These rates have stayed persistent since then, according to the report.

Over the past 10 years, data shows the number of phone calls to poison control mentioning marijuana exposure rose from 41 calls in 2006 to 276 in 2019. The lack of knowledge concerning marijuana can be an indicator to why hospitalization rates have continued to stay steady over the years, and poison control calls have risen, according to Brooks.

Brooks said due to the increased level of potency and concentration of marijuana over the years, users need to consume or inhale a lot less of the drug to experience effects. And children’s exposure to high potency levels of marijuana can lead to severe side effects that require hospital or emergency care, according to Brooks.

“So the marijuana that my cohorts were using in, you know, the 70s and 80s is very different than the marijuana that is created today,” Brooks said. “We know that there is a toxicity of marijuana that you can get to, which may explain why people are presenting to our care centers.”

An employee at the Nature’s Herbs & Wellness Center trims the buds of marijuana plants before creating the final product in this 2013 file photo. (Tribune file photo)

As a healthcare worker in Weld County, Brooks has seen a serious side effect among people in hospitals who use marijuana. The side effect is called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, a cannabis-induced condition that leads to excessive vomiting among heavy users.

“We have to do whatever we can to prevent them from suffering the, what might be, long term memory and learning, and concentration issues that can come from habitual use of this substance,” she said.

Brooks said people praise the benefits of marijuana, but those users should know there is not enough research or studies surrounding the drug.

“We need to educate people around, you know, the very real risks that the substance has, and we know that there’s more research that needs to be done, there’s more investigation that needs to be done.”

Marijuana is not a FDA-approved drug. Most of the research out there centers around using the drug for chronic pain in illnesses, but not the actual drug itself.

“The FDA approval is around nausea related to chemotherapy, multiple Sclerosis and spasticity and epilepsy,” Brooks said. “And we don’t have approval to use that substance for other indications.”

As a practicing physician in Weld County since 2008, Brooks has seen a substance use problem related to marijuana use in the county, but it is hard to treat.

“There aren’t really strong treatments for cannabis use disorder like there are for opioid use disorder,” Brooks said.

Brooks said one of the most effective treatments that she has done in past work is called contingency management, a behavioral therapy to incentivize users to have substance free urine drug screens to taper use. If people have positive milestones, there are incentives like monetary rewards.

Many mental health centers in Weld County are using contingency management programs, according to Brooks.

Overall, the report saw a decrease in treatment admissions for marijuana from 2012 to 2019 in the state and treatment for those reporting marijuana as their primary substance of use went down by 40 admissions.

But while treatment admissions are decreasing among adults, juveniles are experiencing a different story. In total, 73.5% of youth between the ages of 10 to 17 who report marijuana as their primary substance of use are in treatment.

As far addiction to the drug goes, Brooks said it is difficult, especially with medical marijuana’s presence, to get people see that they have developed unhealthy relationship to substance when it is helping with chronic pain.

“We still are contending with this fallacy that cannabis is not habit forming, that people can form dependence and problematic relationships, meaning addiction to cannabis,” Brooks said. “And there’s absolutely a well described use disorder, a well described withdrawal pattern from the use of this drug, and much of that is related to the THC component.”

The report showed the perception of great risk from once-per-month marijuana use across the nation went down from 24.5% in 2005-2006 to 11.9% 2018-2019, while the perception of risk among Colorado residents has decreased significantly and been lower than the national average over the years. In 2018-2019, the perception of great risk was only 7.6%.

Adult marijuana usage rose to 19% in 2019 from 13.4% in 2014, according to the report. About 22.9% of men reported using in the past 30 days, compared to 15.1% of women.

Adults ages 26-34 reported the highest past 30-day usage rates, followed by 18- to 25-year-olds, 35- to 64-year-olds and then 65 years and older. Since 2014, usage rates have more than tripled among those who are 65 and older.

While edible marijuana use and vaping marijuana increased from 2016 to 2019, from 35.2% among users to 43% and from 22.9% to 32%, respectively, smoking marijuana flower has decreased by 11.1%, from 87.2% of users in 2016 to 76.1% in 2019.

(Tribune File)

Overall, Brooks looks forward to more studies on marijuana, like how to use the substance if it has medicinal properties and how to treat people who face a use disorder with the substance.

“I look forward to the research that will really characterize the potential benefits of this drug and really direct how we can deploy it to best serve people with a variety of health conditions,” she said. “Research and investigation are among the great strengths of the scientific community in this country.  Let’s bring the power of this to bear with marijuana.”