WINCHESTER — Colorado is a more dangerous place since the legalization of recreational marijuana, the director of a Denver-area drug task force told local drug prevention and treatment advocates and police and prosecutors on Thursday.
Thomas J. Gorman, 75, spent 29 years as a California police officer working narcotics cases before joining the board of directors for the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force in 1997.
Gorman said marijuana-related traffic fatalities are up in Colorado since the drug became legal in 2014. And some people who visit Denver for marijuana-related events like the annual Mile High 420 Festival hang around for weeks afterward and “terrorize people,” he said.
“These are things that you can expect to happen,” Gorman said at the 11th annual Community Commitment for Change Conference at the Clarion Inn and Conference Center. “Societal costs far outweigh the [tax] revenue.”
Citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, Gorman noted annual marijuana-related traffic deaths increased from 55 in 2013 to 128 in 2017. “You think that’s just a coincidence why that happened?” he asked. “That is a scary proposition to me. They’ve done enough tests to know it impairs people when they’re high.”
Traffic fatality statistics are misleading, said Justin Strekal, the political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana, who spoke by phone from Washington, D.C., after the conference.
Before legalization, Colorado police only did drug testing after crash fatalities if officers suspected a driver was high. Now testing is automatically done.
Strekal compared it to fishing with a rod in one part of a pond one day and returning the next day with a net and dragging the entire pond to catch more fish.
THC — which stands for tetrahydrocannabinol, the main ingredient in marijuana — can stay in the blood system for up to 30 days, he noted, unlike alcohol, which is in the system for 24 hours or less. That means a driver might test positive for marijuana without being high.
The Colorado Springs Gazette reported last year that while the number of highway deaths involving drivers with marijuana in their system grew in 2017, the number with enough in their blood stream to be judged legally impaired dropped from 52 in 2016 to 35 in 2017. The Gazette said of all drivers charged with driving under the influence in 2016, about 91 percent had alcohol in their blood, but just 6 percent tested positive for marijuana.
But Strekal said High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas are run by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and are mandated by law to never say anything positive about Schedule I substances such as marijuana.
There were 659,700 marijuana arrests in the U.S. in 2017, according to the FBI, and Strekal noted that people with marijuana convictions have a harder time getting college loans or grants and finding jobs or housing. But Gorman said he supports punishing marijuana users because fear of arrests will deter some people from using it.
“The more accepting the public is of drug abuse, the more drug abuse,” he said. “The less accepting, the less drug abuse.”
Gorman said marijuana users should be penalized with taxes the way cigarette smokers are. Marijuana businesses in Colorado, he said, are marketing to young people just as tobacco companies were found to have done in the 1990s. However, Gorman acknowledged that while Colorado is fifth in the nation for marijuana use among youths ages 12-17, there hasn’t been a sharp increase in underage use since legalization for adults.
Between 2013-17, underage use in Colorado has increased just 1 percent compared to 2008-12, according to a national survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Nationally, it was down 7 percent.
Nonetheless, Judge Elizabeth Kellas Burton, a judge in Frederick/Winchester Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, told the audience that marijuana use among local young people is “pervasive.” Kellas Burton, who invited Gorman to speak, said 78 percent of 108 offenders between the ages of 14-21, tested by her court since 2017 had THC in their blood. Kellas contends recreational legalization in Virginia would increase underage marijuana use.
However, Strekal argues that by ending the black market for marijuana sales, there would be more government oversight.
“Prohibition is the absence of control,” he said. “One of the best ways to prevent youth access to cannabis is to take it out of the hands of the street dealer on the corner and put it behind the counter where the licensee has the incentive to check I.D.”