In the midst of a raging pandemic, increasing political polarization, and issues surrounding justice and equality, marijuana — once Colorado’s signature social issue — seems to be the furthest from anyone’s mind in the state.
But a survey quietly released this week showing large increases in youth marijuana use and marijuana driving rates should require us to pay attention.
The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, routinely heralded by current and former pro-pot politicians alike as “proof” of no increase in youth marijuana use, dropped some important numbers this year.
Marijuana use went up in 2019 compared to 2017 among all age groups and grades. In the under 15 group, significant — nearly 15% increases, were seen. Furthermore, there was a 10% spike in marijuana use among 11th and 12th graders since the implementation of legalization in 2013. The survey also reported that more than 1 in 5 users get their marijuana from adults — a sure sign that legalization isn’t keeping kids from pot.
It’s drawing them to it.
Just because the state didn’t include these stats in its news release doesn’t mean they don’t exist. To give them credit, buried in the data summary was a startling statistic showing 1 in 3 Colorado youths admitting to driving stoned in the past month — up from 1 in 9 just two years ago. That is a 260% increase. Research shows that THC levels can at least double one’s changes of getting into a car crash.
Notably, 13.5% of drivers involved in a fatal car crash in Colorado in 2018 tested positive for marijuana impairment, according to CDOT. Other reports found that number to be higher — more than 18%. A 2017 analysis by the Denver Post found that the rate of marijuana-impaired drivers involved in fatal car crashes in Colorado more than doubled since the implementation of commercialization.
These statistics have real stories behind them. Just ask Tamlin Bullard. Her son’s father, a major marijuana producer, ran over their 23-month-old and killed him after taking a high potency “dab” of marijuana beforehand.
Dabs are an increasingly popular — and very dangerous — way of ingesting today’s highly potent THC. The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey reports a nearly five-fold increase in the method of “dabbing” and a doubling of vaping THC since 2017. Dabbing usually requires levels of THC 5-20 times higher than the old “Woodstock Weed.”
Laura Stack knows this all too well. Her son died by suicide after a bout of mental illness she says was partly caused by repeated exposure to dabbing. She’s since started her local education group to prevent the same tragedy from befalling others.
But people like Tamlin and Laura need more help. The state should immediately ban the sale of high potency products and commence a large-scale education campaign about the harms of stoned driving. Swift and severe penalties should be attached to stoned driving offenders, and students should get real knowledge about what today’s marijuana can do to their brain. Industry-led narratives about the relative harmlessness of marijuana and how it is at least “safer than alcohol” won’t help.
We need real leadership from the top — that means the governor should set aside his personal penchant for pot — to convey to adults and kids alike that today’s marijuana is more harmful than one might think. In fact, research has found that roughly 1 in 3 marijuana users will develop a marijuana use disorder.
Furthermore, according to the National Academies of Science, marijuana use has significant links to additional serious mental health conditions — including schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and suicide. Prolonged use has also been shown to lower IQ by 8 points and motor function and can cause particular damage to the developing brains of young people.
It’s “high” time we listen to the scientists, not the pot lobbyists that crowd Capitol Hill. Our kids deserve it.
Dr. Kevin Sabet is a former senior drug policy adviser to the Obama administration and serves as president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana.