One of the great myths surrounding marijuana is that its legalization would inevitably lead to an increase in crime. According to opponents of the herb, allowing the public legal access to cannabis would result in a dystopian nightmare, as opposed to the opioid-filled utopia we currently exist in.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we still hear reports that marijuana legalization has caused havoc in states such as Colorado and California. There is a suggestion that increased weed use has led to a rise in violent crimes such as armed robbery and homicides, but the basis for such claims are founded on either sketchy evidence or none at all.
Is California Now Like the Wild West for Crime in the Wake of Marijuana Legalization?
The era of the ‘Old West’ was one noted for violence and lawlessness. If you listen to police officials in California’s Sonoma County, the age of bloodlust has well and truly returned; and it’s all marijuana’s fault! Sonoma County is located around 100 miles outside the city of San Francisco, and Sergeant Spencer Crum of the Sheriff Department claims the legalization of weed has resulted in ‘bodies piling up.’
One newspaper report suggested that legal cannabis has increased violent crimes, robberies, and home invasions. Apparently, thieves are coming over from the East Coast to wreak havoc in California in order to get their hands on weed which they can sell on the black market.
In theory, it makes sense because marijuana is a valuable commodity in states where it is still illegal. In 2017, U.S. Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, claimed that legalization in Colorado was the reason for an increase in violence in surrounding areas. According to Sessions, ‘experts’ told him that the ‘big money’ surrounding the herb was causing violent crimes.
Back in October 2016, a group called Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana (CALM) published a letter from Mitchell Morrissey, the Denver District Attorney, which claimed that cannabis was the cause of a crime increase in the state of Colorado. According to Morrissey, in the three years since legalization (2013 – 2016), weed-related traffic deaths increased by 48% while cannabis-related ER visits went up 49%.
What CALM failed to mention was that there were certain ‘caveats’ included in the letter. Most pertinently, the fact that these statistics related to instances where marijuana was found in the system after a toxicology report. In other words, most cases also involved the use of alcohol and/or other drugs.
For instance, 12% of motorists involved in fatal accidents tested positive for weed, but only 4% had nothing other than marijuana in their system. While it is true that homicides in Colorado rose by almost 15% in 2015 when compared to 2014, there is NO evidence that weed was involved. In fact, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) crime report didn’t mention cannabis at all!
The suggestion that the area of Pueblo’s homicide increase was down to marijuana was also proven to be false. According to local police, the murder rate rose because of a staff shortage, and also due to an increase in the use of black-tar heroin. In Aurora, the murder rate doubled from 2014 to 2015 but reverted back to the 2014 figure the following year! Morrissey claimed that there were 12 murders and 100 home invasions linked to weed, but when pressed, he said that his claims were based on ‘loose’ figures, a polite way of saying he made it up!
Here’s the Reality
Various news outlets have conducted investigations into crime in states where marijuana was legalized. Back in 2012, weed was legalized recreationally in Colorado and Washington state. There were grave concerns about an increase in the crime rate but overall, the state of Washington reported a 40-year low in crime statistics in 2014; including reductions of 10% in violent crime and 13% in homicides since weed was legalized. Colorado has also experienced an overall decline in violent and property crimes.
Although the rate of impaired driving has increased in both states, a significant proportion of those arrested had other drugs in their system aside from weed. Perhaps the biggest myth that was busted related to youth exposure. It was assumed that legalization would significantly increase teenage use of marijuana. In 2010, 20% of tenth grade students in Washington admitted to using weed. After legalization in 2016, the rate had fallen to 17%. Colorado teens also showed a slight reduction in cannabis consumption.
A study by economist Davide Dragone was published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization and focused on the difference in crime rates between the states of Washington and Oregon in 2013 and 2014. Marijuana was legal in Washington by that stage, but illegal in neighboring Oregon.
The results were pretty eye-opening. First of all, Washington state reported a reduction in rapes and property crimes in 2013-2014 relative to the three years before legalization. Remarkably, the study also discovered that Washington’s rape and property crime rate was lower than in Oregon in 2013 and 2014! Rapes were reduced by 15-30%, and thefts were cut by 10-20%. Another interesting ‘side effect’ was a reduction in binge alcohol drinking.
One of the biggest issues surrounding marijuana legalization is arguably the impact it will have on criminal gangs. Some believe it only heightens gang activity because they still have a black market to fall back on, but with fewer customers, there is greater competition which inevitably leads to violence.
However, a study published in The Economic Journal in June 2017 by Gavrilova, Kamada, and Zoutman, reported a 12.5% decrease in violent crime (including murder, aggravated assaults, and robberies) in counties close to the Mexican border where it was legal to use and grow medical marijuana. According to Gavrilova, medical marijuana laws (MMLs) enable people to plant weed in the United States legally. As a result, there is no need to purchase weed illegally.
Overall, robberies are down 19%, homicides by 10%, and assaults by 9%, in counties close to the border with MMLs. Unsurprisingly, drug-law related homicides have fallen by an astounding 41%. Four American states share the 1,954-mile continental border with Mexico: California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The Lone Star State is the only one without MMLs. There is a total of 23 U.S. counties on the border, along with 39 Mexican municipalities.
The majority of illegal drugs that enter the United States come from Mexico in what has become a $6 billion market. It isn’t all good news; drug trafficking organizations are likely to start growing their weed legally on U.S. soil and are also growing opium in Mexico to produce heroin which they smuggle into America. However, the fall in demand for black market weed in border states means crime has inevitably fallen.
Final Thoughts on Marijuana & Crime
You don’t need to be an expert in the analysis of criminal minds to understand that keeping marijuana on the black market is what will increase crime rates. Any increase in weed-related criminal activity is occurring in states where the herb is illegal. Gangs grow weed legally, then transport it across state lines to sell on the black market. No matter the criminal enterprise, violence will always follow.
In states where marijuana is legal, crime has fallen overall because there is no need to engage in illegal activity. Cannabis typically produces a state of relaxation and euphoria which ensures most users are not in the state of mind required for any form of criminal behavior, let alone violence. It is also interesting to note that teenage use has NOT increased as expected. Perhaps the ‘thrill’ is gone if it is legal, even though underage use is obviously against the law. Ultimately, the likes of Jeff Sessions don’t have a leg to stand on, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone knows it.