Beth Bice of Charlotte, N.C., smokes a joint on the bus during a marijuana tour hosted by My 420 Tours in Denver on Dec. 6, 2014. (Denver Post file)

Editorial: Increase in Colorado marijuana use raises a red flag

There’s no way to put a positive spin on the latest news on marijuana use in Colorado since the passage of Amendment 64. Usage has gone up, and what had been mostly anecdotal evidence just got a serious confirming boost from the federal government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

In fact, the percentage of Coloradans over 12 who reported using marijuana in the previous month for the years 2012-13 rose to the second highest in the country — 12.7 percent — after Rhode Island.

This is obviously disturbing — unless perhaps those responsible for the increase are cutting back on other recreational drugs. But as a matter of fact, the opposite seems to be true. The same federal survey shows the use of other drugs, as well as the use of alcohol and the non-medical abuse of pain relievers, also increased in Colorado during the same period, although generally by smaller percentages.

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Before pushing the panic button, however, there are several things to keep in mind.

First, it was always probable that marijuana use would increase by a modest amount after legalization, even if most people who wanted the drug were already getting it illegally. The question was always how much consumption would rise and whether it would be worth the tradeoff of bringing pot out of the underworld and into a transparent and regulated environment.

It’s still impossible to answer that question until we see where marijuana consumption ultimately settles.

In the short term, it’s reasonable to expect consumption estimates to rise again, since the federal survey included data from only the first year of legal pot and not 2014, the first year of retail sales. So it’s important to see where consumption settles, and that may not be apparent for several more years.

Keep in mind, too, that Colorado’s marijuana use had already been trending up before Amendment 64 — and even before the advent of medical marijuana dispensaries — and so apparently reflects underlying issues beyond legalization.

None of this means the verdict on Amendment 64 has been written or that consumption patterns can’t be changed. But it does suggest complacency about legalization is misplaced as well.

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