In November 2012, Colorado voters passed Amendment 64, which legalized recreational cannabis for adults 21 years and older. The ballot measure allowed for the licensing of retail stores, or dispensaries, whose purpose was the legal distribution of recreational cannabis. The Amendment also gave local governments the power to regulate or prohibit such facilities in their local jurisdiction.
Five years later, debates surrounding the effects of legalized recreational cannabis grow as more and more local governments in Colorado face the choice of whether or not recreational cannabis dispensaries should be allowed in their jurisdiction. In 2016, fifteen municipalities across Colorado held ballot measures related to cannabis regulation (Mooney 2016). Eight communities banned recreational cannabis sales and seven communities permitted recreational sales.
Similar debates are not just occurring in Colorado but are occurring across the United States. In 2016, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada joined Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska in passing legislation to permit the sale of recreational cannabis. Each state has given local governments the authority to regulate retail cannabis stores. From Roseville, California (Westrope 2017) to Braintree, Massachusetts’s (Hinckley 2016) local governments are debating whether or not to permit recreational cannabis dispensaries in their communities. Debates about the pros and cons of permitting cannabis dispensaries in a community continue to grow as 14 more states currently have policy makers drafting legislation proposing cannabis legalization (Wilder 2017).
An argument made by the proponents of allowing retail cannabis dispensaries is the economic impact of cannabis sales. The Marijuana Policy Group, a collaborative effort between researchers at the University of Colorado Business Research Division and the firm BBC Research and Consulting, found that in Colorado, in just the year 2015, cannabis sales totaled $996 million, generating $2.39 billion in economic impact, and creating over 18,000 new Full-Time-Equivalent (FTE) positions. The report claims that demand is expected to grow by 11.3% per year through 2020 (Light et al. 2016). At the local level, Pueblo County in southern Colorado generated $763,680 in tax revenues from recreational cannabis sales in 2016 and Denver County reported over $8.2 million in recreational cannabis tax revenue (State of Colorado 2017).
Advocates for permitting recreational sales also argue the libertarian belief of self-ownership. Individuals, not government, they argue, should determine what people do with their bodies (Wilson 2015). Furthermore, many advocates for legalization state how the impact of regulated legal sales will undercut the black market and criminal activities associated with cannabis in a community (Morris et al. 2014).
Opponents argue against permitting recreational cannabis dispensaries due to the potential negative social impact of these stores. In 2016, Pueblo County ballot Question 200 proposed a repeal of ordinances allowing recreational cannabis sales. Supporters of the Ballot measure said that the recreational cannabis industry had caused an increase in the transient population, higher crime rates, increased emergency room visits, and an unwanted stigma (Wallace 2016). Possibly the biggest concern raised by supporters of the ballot initiative is the effects that legalizing recreational cannabis for adults has on cannabis use by youth.
Several studies have measured youth cannabis use before and after legalized recreational cannabis in Colorado. Brooks-Russell et al. (Brooks-Russell et al. 2017) in 2017 found that adolescent cannabis use did not increase from 2013 to 2015 despite the opening of recreational cannabis dispensaries across the state in 2014. The authors found a “lack of difference in change by poverty status, minority status, urbanicity, or local policy permitting recreational sales”. In a 2018 study, Brooks et al. (Brooks-Russell et al. 2018) also measured adolescent attitudes towards cannabis, including perceived ease of access, perceived wrongfulness of personal use, and perceived risk of harm from regular cannabis use. Brooks-Russell et al. reported that neither perceived ease of access, nor perceived wrongfulness of personal use changed from 2013 to 2015. However, students’ self-reported perception of the risk of harm from regular cannabis use declined.
Harpin et al. (Harpin et al. 2018) found no relationship between adolescent cannabis use and density of recreational cannabis businesses within 5 miles of schools. The authors mapped 219 recreational cannabis dispensaries and schools. Using the cross-sectional data from the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey (HKCS), they also found that proximity to recreational dispensaries did not significantly contribute to youth’s perception of the ease of access to cannabis.
Studies from outside of Colorado have focused on changes in youth cannabis use when medical cannabis laws were passed as well. It is possible to speculate that results collected after recreational cannabis legalization may mirror results collected after medicinal cannabis was legalized in a state. Johnson, Hodgkin and Harris (Johnson et al. 2017), in a study of 45 states between 1991 and 2011, found that adolescents living in states with medical cannabis laws had higher past 30-day cannabis use compared to those living in states that did not allow medical cannabis; however, they found no evidence of an increase in adolescent past 30-day cannabis use after enactment of medical cannabis laws. Moreover, the study found that enactment of a medical cannabis law appeared to lessen the odds of adolescent cannabis use. Hasin et al. (Hasin et al. 2015) analyzed data from annual, repeated cross-sectional surveys and similarly did not find that medicinal cannabis laws significantly change adolescent cannabis use.
This study sought to answer the question “does permitting recreational cannabis dispensaries in a community effect high school students’ cannabis use, their perceptions of the accessibility of cannabis, and their perceptions of the harmfulness and wrongfulness of using cannabis?” A cross-sectional survey of high school students was administered in 2013, before recreational cannabis dispensaries were permitted, and the survey was administered in 2015 at the same high schools but not necessarily the same students, after recreational dispensaries were opened. During those two years some communities had locally permitted recreational cannabis dispensaries and others had not. The 2013 and 2015 data on student cannabis use and perceptions toward cannabis was analyzed to compare high school student use and perceptions in communities in southcentral Colorado that had permitted recreational cannabis dispensaries with high school students in those communities that had not permitted dispensaries.