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Sunday June 25, 2017

By Michael Walters


In the cannabis debate, few questions play a larger role than the relationship between legalization and crime. Opponents of legalization point out that cannabis use leaves people uninhibited. Legalization, they argue, will eliminate the inhibitions that prevent us all from committing crimes. Supporters counter that it is not cannabis that causes crime, but rather the attempt to penalize a harmless substance. If the drug is legalized, they claim, people won't have to resort to illegal means to get it, sending crime rates through the floor.

For years, this crime question was confined to abstract discussion. But now that dozens of states have legalized medical cannabis, and several have even legalized marijuana for recreational use, we have a unique opportunity to study the issue empirically. Overall, the evidence suggests that legalizing cannabis leads to a significant reduction in crime, bolstering the argument against criminal penalties for it.

Assessing the Impact

In a 2014 study, researchers from the University of Texas looked at 16 years of data from states that had legalized medical cannabis.

The evidence flatly contradicted the claim that cannabis legalization causes crime, and suggested that it may even decrease criminal behavior.

Rates of violent crimes like assault and homicide dropped where medical cannabis was legalized, while burglary and robbery rates remained unchanged. Though it is difficult to establish definitively that legalization caused these changes, the correlation bolsters the argument of those who support legal cannabis.

While recreational cannabis has not been legal for as long or in as many places, recent studies suggest that it, too, helps lower crime. A 2013 study for the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management found that legalization for recreational purposes led to a net decrease in crime, primarily due to its effects on traffic safety. Likewise, the Drug Policy Center found that when Washington State legalized cannabis (pdf), the murder rate fell by 13 percent, overall violent crime fell by 10 percent and burglaries fell by 6 percent. These results strongly bolster the argument of those seeking to legalize cannabis.

Explaining the Impact

At first glance, it may seem strange that legalizing a drug could lower crime rates. Cannabis, after all, affects consumer judgment and lowers some of their inhibitions. Wouldn’t that make them more likely to commit crimes?

As intuitive as this idea may seem, the evidence suggests it is false. To explain why, scholars and activists have identified a number of different ways that legal cannabis might lower crime, including:

  • Alcohol Substitution

    Although this has not been established definitively, it is possible that people use cannabis in place of alcohol. Alcohol leads to violence, impaired driving, and a variety of other dangerous, criminally-sanctioned behavior. To the extent that legalizing cannabis causes people to drink less, it is likely to make society safer.

  • Undermining Criminal Cartels

    When cannabis is illegal, users have to turn to illegal means to get it. This often means ordering it through criminal cartels, which are responsible for horrific violence both in the US and abroad. Legalizing cannabis weakens cartels and the black market by cutting off a key source of revenue.

  • Spurring Safety Steps

    It was initially thought that cannabis dispensaries would attract burglars and armed robbers, given that they carry valuable merchandise. Dispensaries, however, have invested heavily in defending themselves. Not only has this deterred thieves, but the presence of heavily-defended businesses has made their neighborhoods safer as well.

    Marijuana dispensaries have extensive security measures to ensure safety for their businesses, patrons and communities.
  • Breaking the Crime Cycle

    Paradoxically, arresting and imprisoning people can actually lead to an increase in crime. Once someone is branded as a criminal, it becomes much harder for them to get jobs, leases and loans; many must thus turn to crime for their livelihoods. Cannabis possession and use is a common first offense, so by making it legal, society keeps people out of this cycle of crime. It also leaves police free to pursue more serious offenses.

While the initial evidence linking cannabis legalization to reduced crime is promising, further study is needed to definitively establish that one causes the other. As more states and countries legalize or decriminalize cannabis, we will have increased opportunities to study legalization. Our understanding of cannabis and crime is thus bound to improve.

How do you think cannabis affects crime in legal states?

Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver (license)


Michael Walters Michael Walters

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse with a degree in Writing and Rhetoric, Michael started his journey in the cannabis industry managing content, communications, and technical writing for one of Colorado's largest dispensary chains. In 2016, Michael pivoted to the ancillary sector to become PotGuide's Content Manager and was responsible for overseeing all of PotGuide’s editorial endeavors and content marketing strategies. Now, Michael is PotGuide's Director of Content & Marketing, focusing his efforts toward new educational content and exciting media endeavors.

With a life-long passion for cannabis knowledge and education, Michael devoted himself to becoming a subject matter expert on marijuana at an early age. Now, Michael has worked in the marijuana industry for over four years helping break down negative stigma and promoting safe cannabis practices. An avid consumer himself, Michael has worked tirelessly to improve content marketing strategies for cannabis businesses and is devoted to creating meaningful content that is useful to a wide variety of marijuana consumers. Follow Michael on LinkedIn and Instagram for updates and insights.

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