If you think Colorado has become the wild west for weed, don’t tell the people who live there.
Six years since Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, we traveled there to find out what’s changed. Most of the people we talked to said: not much.
“It’s very well controlled,” one Denver resident told us. “I think most people will be surprised at who goes in and purchases recreational marijuana. A lot of people in my (older) generation.”
Perhaps the best news of all, say marijuana proponents, is that there are fewer people going to jail or prison for low-level drug crimes. The number of marijuana-related arrests have plummeted since legalization.
“Instead of putting people in jail, we’re saying look, go home, use this as you will,” said Bruce Nassau, owner of Lit Cannabis in Denver. “We’ll leave you alone. You’re not creating problems.”
While there are fewer people being locked up, there seem to be more living on Colorado’s streets. Liz Gelardi, a reporter for our sister station KMGH, has covered Denver’s rising homeless population.
“We do have a rising homeless population. There is that statistic out there that it’s tied to marijuana,” she said. At the St. Francis Center in Denver, Tom Luehrs and his team help more than 700 homeless men, women and children each day.
“Are some of those people who came to town just because they needed marijuana? We think so, and some people have told us that,” Luehrs said. A recent survey of seven city and county jails in Colorado showed that a third of homeless inmates reported coming to Colorado—at least in part—for legal marijuana.
It means greater demand at shelters already struggling due to limited resources. But if you think that would make people like Luehrs a marijuana opponent, you’d be wrong. “If it helps people deal with pain, helps people with anxiety, helps people sleep at night,” he said, “I wouldn’t deny people that.”
Marijuana opponents say that legalization has come with health risks. Much of the pot being produced in Colorado is more potent than marijuana from only a few years ago. THC, marijuana’s psychoactive component, may have averaged 4 percent in the 1990s. Today, some products contain as much as 90%.
Ben Cort lives in Boulder, Colorado and used to abuse alcohol and marijuana. Since the 1990s, he’s been sober and says big business has made marijuana more potent than ever.
“This stuff is so new that we don’t really know how it’s affecting people’s brains and bodies and that’s scary,” Cort said.
Just this month, a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that marijuana use is more damaging to teen brains than alcohol—with “significant” negative effects on problem solving, short and long term memory.
“The brain doesn’t really start maturing until the early 20s to mid 20s,” said Maggie Gindlesperger, a neuropsychologist for Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. “And so when we expose it to any kind of substances, there always can be changes.”
With all that being said, six years later, would voters approve legalization again? Most polling says: absolutely.
“Everyone who comes to Denver thinks we’re going to have all these horrible things with people smoking pot and doing crime up and down the 16th street mall,” a Denver resident told us. “And as you can see, it’s not the case at all.”