social impacts legalized cannabis

The Social Impacts of Legalized Cannabis

What cultural changes could Santa Cruz see as cannabis goes mainstream?

Beginning next year, California adults 21 and over can legally buy pot at a dispensary, without a medical card. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

At a dinner party in Denver last August, our hosts listed a couple strains of cannabis along with the evening’s wine and beer offerings. Over homework help and lunchbox roundups for the family’s three young children, it was my first inkling that pot, which has been legal for three years in Colorado, had blended into mainstream family life, at least for some.

Standing next to the mint-green refrigerator in GT’s kitchen, a coworker tells me over the hum of the microwave that she can’t wait for Jan. 1, because pot will be legal in California and she’ll finally be able partake “without worrying about it.” She is a mother of two teenagers.

While the medicinal properties of cannabis are becoming increasingly apparent, its ability to get you high is often less explored. Cannabis becomes psychoactive only when its THC is heated, affecting a shift in consciousness that many say changes the way they behave in and think about the world. It’s interesting to ponder, then, the role that one of humankind’s first domesticated crops may have had in the development of society. And in Santa Cruz, how things could change—even for people who have no relationship with cannabis, nor want one—in the months and years that follow its legalization on the first of the year.


Young Brains

Concern that a recreational cannabis market could increase its use among adolescents, whose brains are still growing, led to extensive studies in legalized states—and numerous reports have found no correlation between legalization and increases in adolescent and teen use.

Last week, the National U.S. Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration released the results of its 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Not only were its findings consistent with previous ones, but they also reported declines in cannabis use by teens in most jurisdictions where adult use is legally regulated, including District of Columbia, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado—where it fell to its lowest level in nearly a decade.

The concept behind Santa Cruz County’s “Talk it Up, Lock it Up” campaign, devised by Community Prevention Partners, is that parents with children old enough to start asking questions communicate and be open about their adult choices, like drinking wine or relaxing with cannabis or grown-up chocolate, and to secure and monitor prescriptions and other substances to deter easy access. Lock boxes will be sold at local dispensaries, and are encouraged for households with children, toddlers and pets.


Suds Up

Santa Cruz’s more than 700 alcohol retailers may be wise to plan for revenue drops, as the “miscellaneous/fun” category of citizens’ budgets will soon have a new competitor.

The beer markets in Colorado, Oregon and Washington “collectively underperformed” after recreational cannabis became legal, with sales trailing behind the rest of the country in 2014 and 2015. Research firm Cowen & Company notes its inclusion of areas where craft beer had become popular. Other evidence has shown reduced alcohol consumption—across all types—in medical marijuana states between 2006-2015, compiled in a working paper on SSRN.

Twenty percent of Santa Cruz County’s adults reported “excessive” drinking, according to 2017’s California Health Rankings in Santa Cruz, which is a couple of points above the state’s average. During the first 10 months of the year, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office has reported 1,400 calls for alcohol-related service—up from just under 1,000 for all of 2015, and more than 1,300 in 2016. But while alcohol is damaging to virtually every system of the human body, the consequences of its abuse also impact society at large.

“Alcohol is a precipitant of many crimes. And especially violent crimes in terms of domestic violence and sexual assaults,” says Santa Cruz Chief of Police Andy Mills. “It plays a significant role, a very big role. And those are crimes that really matter to us.”

Mills adds that alcohol also plays a significant role in nuisance crimes, including urinating, defecating, and being drunk in public.

In the first nine months of this year, SCPD reported 52 rapes, up from last year’s 38, and 204 aggravated assaults. The city’s homicides dropped to one this year, from last year’s four.

In a city that embraces its microbrews and cutting-edge mixology, only time will tell if alcohol consumption will drop after cannabis becomes legal for adults over 21. But there’s reason to believe legalization won’t cause an uptick in violence.

“Unregulated and uncontrolled cannabis business is ripe for robberies and thefts and burglaries and other types of violent crime,” says Mills, who says he saw a lot this in his four years as chief in Humboldt County’s Eureka. “And almost all of it was related directly to cannabis. Having said that, it’s not because somebody is using cannabis, it’s because it’s an illegal business. For those who have come inside the rule of law and be part of this culture of lawfulness in Santa Cruz, we welcome them. It’s just another business to us,” he says.

A 2015 study published by the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that density of medical marijuana dispensaries was not associated with an increase in violent or property crimes—which is good news for dispensary-rich Santa Cruz County. In a report in the Journal of Economics, 2017, it was estimated that “An open dispensary provides over $30,000 per year in social benefit in terms of larcenies prevented.”

As far as code enforcement goes after legalization, Mills says, “We’re after what creates the most harm to our community. And, as we analyze these businesses, I’m much more interested in those that are combining green dope with white and black dope, which is with meth and heroin,” says Mills, adding that he’s seen an “incredible amount” of both in Santa Cruz.


Rx Fix

For years, cannabis has been a pain-relieving option for low-income and uninsured patients who can’t afford pharmaceuticals to ease their suffering. Cannabis also potentiates pain meds, which helps patients reduce their dosage, along with uncomfortable side effects. Contrary to early anti-drug campaigns, many experts consider cannabis to be an “exit drug” for those in recovery from addiction to opioids.

A five-year study at the University of New Mexico found that among 125 chronic pain sufferers, 34 percent of those who used cannabis eventually stopped taking their prescription pain medication, compared to just 2 percent of non-cannabis users.

An analysis of Santa Cruz County’s opioid overdoses and use since the opioid epidemic took off in the U.S. will be available in February, says Lt. Chris Clark.


Drive Safe

Cannabis attorney Ben Rice says he tried the first cannabis-only DUI case in the county, which was dismissed, about 15 years ago—and he doesn’t know of any subsequent cases that have gone to trial.

“When you try a DUI case and it’s alcohol, they have all these things they can point at. And so they can prove to a jury everybody’s [intoxicated] at .06, but certainly by .08 BAC [blood alcohol content],” says Rice. “You can’t do that with cannabis, because we’re all different, we have different tolerance, and because we use more or less—if we’re medical patients we use a lot more.”

The District Attorney’s office did not reply to multiple phone calls and emails inquiring about the number of cannabis-specific DUIs brought to trial in the county over the last couple of decades.

In 2016, California Highway Patrol reported 1,128 DUIs in the unincorporated areas of the county and 229 in the city of Santa Cruz—fairly consistent with this year’s 1,066 in the unincorporated areas and 211 in the city. In 2016, 110 drug-only DUIs were recorded in the county, and 53 in 2017, through a breakdown of specific drugs was not available.

So, is driving stoned unsafe? Surely it’s illegal, but as the science around cannabis and psychomotor performance evolves, studies are showing that THC-positive drivers possess virtually no increased risk compared to drug-free drivers after adjusting for age and gender. A paper by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—which conducted the largest case-control study on the subject of drug use and car crash risk—concluded that acute cannabis intoxication is related to a 1.2 to 1.4 odds ratio for increased risk of crash, while the odds ratio is nearly four-fold for driving with legal amounts of alcohol in one’s system.

In 2016, CHP reported five fatal collisions in Santa Cruz County due to alcohol, plus one due to drug DUI, and one due to a drug and alcohol combination DUI.

Colorado’s Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Public Health reported in October a decrease, not an increase, in DUIs since legalization. And a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Public Health Association found no increase in vehicle crash fatality rates in the first three years after recreational cannabis legalization in Washington and Colorado.

Managing Editor at Good Times Newspaper |

The managing editor at Good Times, Maria Grusauskas writes the column Wellness, and also gravitates toward stories about earth science. She won a CNPA award for environmental reporting in 2015. Her interests include photography, traveling, human consciousness, music, and gardening. Her work has also appeared in Astronomy magazine, High Times magazine, Los Gatos magazine and on

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