Cannabis linked to 66% rise in traffic deaths in Colorado

The legalization of cannabis in Colorado has been followed by an explosion in numbers of road traffic deaths, hospital emergencies and crime, a US drugs agency report said.

It also said that the state – viewed as a testbed for the drug’s decriminalization – has become a base for illegal shipments of it to the rest of the United States.

And despite the claims of lobbyists that strict regulations would prevent any increase in cannabis users, the numbers of young people who were regular users went up by 12 percent.

The findings, set out by officials working for the US National Drug Control Strategy, follow a similar setback for drug decriminalization in the other country which has carried out a closely-watched experiment, Portugal. 

It also comes in the wake of a major research study which found that using cannabis increases the likelihood that someone will commit violent crimes.

The findings, set out by officials working for the US National Drug Control Strategy, follow a similar setback for drug decriminalization, Portugal (file image)

Colorado made recreational use of marijuana legal for the over-21s on 1 January 2014, and the new report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area said there are now 491 legal stores selling the drug. This compares, the report said, with 392 Starbucks and 208 McDonald’s stores in the state.

It found that road traffic deaths where cannabis was a factor increased by 66 percent in the four years between 2013 and 2016 compared to the previous four years. Over the same period, the overall increase in traffic deaths was 16 percent.

In 2013 there were 55 fatal traffic accidents in Colorado in which a driver tested positive for cannabis. Last year there were more than twice as many such deaths – 123, more than one in five of all road traffic deaths. They included the deaths of 100 drivers, 19 passengers, two pedestrians and two cyclists.

Surveys found that marijuana use by young people in the month before they were questioned increased by 12 percent during the years 2013 to 2015 compared to the previous three years. Colorado had the highest youth cannabis consumption rate in the US, and these rates were 55 percent higher than the American national average.

Similar rates for college students showed a 16 percent increase between the periods, and for all adults the increase was 71 percent. Adult use was well over double the national average.

The report said that hospital emergency visits related to marijuana were counted at 6,305 in 2011, a period officials said was one when commercial sales of cannabis said to be for medical purposes meant the drug was effectively legal.

In 2014, however, this more than doubled to 11,439 emergency hospital visits.

Overall crime, the report said, went up by 11 percent in Colorado between 2013 and 2016, and in the state’s biggest city, Denver, crime rose by 17 percent. Despite promises that marijuana sales would generate major tax revenue, only 0.8 percent of the state’s budget was paid for by drug taxes.

Legalization produced a thriving illegal export trade, the report found. Seizures of the drug in the mail rose more than eight-fold between the four years up to 2013 and the four subsequent years, and in 2016 there were 346 seizures of vehicles carrying cannabis illegally out of state. Colorado dealers were dispatching marijuana to 36 other states, officials found.

The report said: ‘Colorado serves as an experimental lab for the nation to determine the impact of legalizing marijuana. This is an important opportunity to gather and examine meaningful data and identify trends. Citizens and policymakers may want to delay any decisions on this issue until there is sufficient and accurate data to make informed decisions.’

It noted the those in favour of legalising cannabis have argued that this would free police officers to target serious criminals; would reduce traffic fatalities; would prevent increases in cannabis use; would generate added revenue; and would eliminate the black market in the drug.

In Portugal, new figures last month showed, the number of people using cannabis has gone up by more than 40 per cent in the years since Portugal made using drugs a health problem rather than a crime in 2001.

Some 15 years after the Portuguese drug law reforms, almost 15 percent of the country’s young people have used cannabis, according to the figures collected by the SICAD agency, a level that is up from 12.4 percent.

A number of influential figures have backed the campaign for the criminal laws that ban the drug in Britain to be relaxed. Financier George Soros has poured large sums into legalization efforts, and those who have supported liberalization include tycoon Richard Branson, rock star Sting, and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

Even Prince William gave a boost to the liberalization lobby last month, when he asked a group of recovering addicts at a drugs charity about legalizing illegal drugs. The Prince observed: ‘There’s obviously a lot of pressure growing on areas about legalizing drugs.’

Mary Brett, chair of Cannabis Skunk Sense, said: ‘So much for all the vehement denials from the pro-legalise fanatics and their organisations that any harms have resulted from the legalisation of cannabis in Colorado. How wrong have they been proved to be.

‘How much longer will they be able to retain any shred of credibility?’

David Raynes of the UK National Drug Prevention Alliance said: ‘The report from Colorado gives the lie to the claim that cannabis legalisation in any society can be benign. The effects are profound, the social and personal damage extensive. The UK can learn from this experience.

‘Fortunately, despite the antics of a few, most MPs from the two major parties are wholeheartedly against any move to legalization in the UK.’