With five states set to vote on recreational marijuana legalization in November, many Americans are looking to the biggest experiment in legal weed in the US: Colorado, which legalized pot in early 2014 and now has more than two years of data showing various impacts of the policy.
Reviews of Colorado's pot policy have been mixed and the public is still somewhat divided: 53 percent of state voters say it's been good, 39 percent say it's been bad. But a regional law enforcement group has added new set of supposedly damning statistics to the arsenal of legalization opponents ahead of election season.
According to data compiled by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), Colorado's recreational cannabis market has caused increases in fatal traffic accidents, use among teens, hospitalizations of kids, and out-of-state smuggling, among a host of other problems.
There are several reasons to take the findings with a nugget-sized grain of salt, among them being that Rocky Mountain HIDTA is led by Thomas Gorman, a career drug warrior who is so hardcore that he supports prohibition of both marijuana and alcohol.
In an interview with VICE News, Gorman maintained that his agency's report is unbiased, saying "all we do is take data that's available, which is limited, and put it together in a publication." But he also said he's personally against marijuana legalization and would also support reinstating the 18th Amendment, which outlawed booze from 1920 to 1933.
"I'm against legalization because I think if you have increased use of anything that makes people under the influence, that's not good for society," Gorman said. He argued that prohibition led to less drinking, which is somewhat true, but he overlooked side effects like gangsters controlling the liquor biz and people dying from poisoned hooch. "What would've happened if we kept [prohibition] for another 20 or 30 years? Who knows where we'd be today," he said.
That's exactly that kind of comment that irks legalization advocates like Mason Tvert, spokesperson for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, who argues that Gorman is attempting to mislead the public before votes on recreational marijuana in Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Maine, and Nevada.
"It's kind of laughable, but unfortunately it gets taken seriously by some," Tvert said of the Rocky Mountain HIDTA report. "This is an agency that, much like the DEA, is living in the 1930s when it comes to marijuana."
Tvert noted that Gorman personally donated at least $3,000 to the campaign to defeat the 2012 ballot initiative that legalized marijuana in Colorado, and argued that the HIDTA wants marijuana to remain illegal in order to justify its existence. "This is an agency whose jobs depend on being able to investigate and punish adults for using marijuana," he said.
Gorman, who began his career as a narcotics detective in California in 1968, vehemently denied that his individual views on marijuana legalization seeped into the report, and accused his critics of having their own biases.
"Proponents of legalization hate it," Gorman said, "and obviously I would too if I was them because it's all about making money, and this does not bode well for them as you look at these trends."
The report — viewable in full below — includes a host of statistics that suggest legal weed has made Colorado less safe. But some of the scariest findings don't hold up under scrutiny.
For instance, the number of traffic fatalities linked to marijuana includes all cases where a person involved in a fatal accident had some level of THC present in their blood. This testing is notoriously unreliable, and doesn't necessarily prove that the motorist was high at the time of the crash. In fact, the driver could have smoked several days prior and still tested positive.
"You don't say very definitely that the marijuana caused the crash," Gorman concedes. "The guy or gal could have been texting, it could have been a lot of things."
As for the claim that more Colorado kids are getting high now that weed is legal, the state Health Department released a study in June that said the teen usage rate has not increased and remains in line with the national average.
And while it's true that more Colorado children are ending up in the hospital because of accidental marijuana exposure, Tvert noted that weed-related ER visits still pale in comparison to the number of kids poisoned by cosmetics, vitamins, and other household items. Also, none of the marijuana incidents were fatal.
"We need to keep it in context,' Tvert said, "and of course they have no desire to do that."
Even Tvert admits that when it comes to legal weed in Colorado, it's impossible to claim "that it's been all positive or there's been no negative," but he says reports like Gorman's are "a disservice to those who want to know the true impact of this law has been."
Gorman, on the other hand, maintains that informing the public is exactly what his agency set out to accomplish with its report. The way he sees it, the statistics speak for themselves.
"Whether you believe in legalizing or not legalizing," he said, "you can make an informed decision based on the data you see."