Study Shows Pot Legalization Has Little Effect on Crime Rates

First Author of Study Was Stockton University Professor
By Rick Mellerup | Oct 16, 2019
Source: Wikipedia

Galloway Township — A newly released study found the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington state had minimal to no effect on rates of violent and property crimes in those states. The study was released while Gov. Phil Murphy’s push to legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey remains stalled.

But the debate over legalized weed could rise in volume next year because pot advocates are pushing to have a referendum question put on New Jersey’s 2020 ballots. Referendums are, far and way, the most common way to legalize recreational pot – of the 11 states that have done so, 10 went the referendum route while only Vermont followed the normal legislative process, which ran into roadblocks this spring in both New Jersey and New York.

Many questions will be asked during the resulting debate. How much money can New Jersey expect to make by taxing pot sales? How high can those taxes go without making the black market a cheaper alternative for users, thus cutting into state revenue? How can police determine if a driver is under the influence of cannabis? How do you keep weed out of the hands of kids? Will edibles and oils be legalized as well? Will the state’s crime rate rise or fall as the result of legalization?

The last question is important to both sides. Advocates of legalized pot argue crime rates will drop because the large illegal trade of marijuana and associated criminality will be eliminated or at least reduced. Opponents say pot will become a gateway drug to harder drugs, creating a rise in both violent and property crimes.

The results of the study released last week could provide some answers to the pot/crime question. The study, funded by a grant from the National Institute of Justice and undertaken by researchers from Stockton University, Washington State University and the University of Utah, appears in Justice Quarterly, a publication of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. Stockton University Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Ruibin Lu was the report’s lead author.

To repeat, the study found minimal to no effect on the rates of violent and property crimes in the two states that were the leaders in the legalized pot movement, Colorado and Washington, which both passed referendum questions in 2012.

“In many ways, the legalization of cannabis constitutes a grand ongoing experiment into how a major public policy initiative does or does not accomplish its expected outcomes,” said Lu upon the study’s release. “Given the likelihood of more states legalizing recreational marijuana, we felt it was important to apply robust empirical methods to parse out the effects of this action on crime in the first years after legalization.”

This is not the first study that attempted to relate legalized recreational pot to crime rates. But the press release announcing the results of this new study claims it is more credible.

“Previous studies have reported mixed and inconclusive results on how legalizing cannabis affects crime. Some politicians and advocacy groups have used these data to support their positions for and against legalization. In this new study, researchers used methods that they say are more rigorous than those used in previous research to determine whether the legalization of cannabis led to changes in crime rates. Researchers chose Colorado and Washington because they were the two earliest states to legalize growing, processing, and selling cannabis commercially for recreational use.”

Researchers compared monthly crime rates in Colorado and Washington to crime rates in 21 states that have not legalized marijuana use for recreational or broad medical purposes at the state level. The crime rates came from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report from 1999 to 2016 for agencies that reported complete data during this period. The study calculated how violent and property crimes changed for Colorado and Washington after the legalization and retail sale, and compared the changes to what happened in states that had not legalized marijuana.

The study found some increases in crime in the two states immediately following legalization of cannabis – with property crime rates rising in Colorado and Washington, and aggravated assault rates rising in Washington. But in both states, these increases were short-lived and did not reflect permanent shifts.

“In general,” the press release reads, “the study found no statistically significant long-term effects of recreational cannabis laws or the initiation of retail sales on violent or property crime rates in either Colorado or Washington, with the exception of a decline in burglary rates in Washington. This suggests that the legalization and sales of marijuana have had minimal to no effect on major crimes in those states.”

The study’s authors said they examined changes only in “serious crimes” and did not address the effect of legalizing marijuana on other types of crime such as driving under the influence. And they stated they could not “rule out the possibility that marijuana laws might have different effects on different types of communities within a state.”

That last statement may pose a problem for legalization in New Jersey. One of the strongest critics in the state Legislature of Gov. Murphy’s push for legalization has been Sen. Ronald Rice of Essex County, chairman of the state Legislative Black Congress, who worries legal pot would affect black neighborhoods. “I support expungement (of marijuana convictions) and medical as long as it’s done right,” said Rice in May, “but what people don’t want is to see people walking up and down the avenues and seeing marijuana cupcakes and candy bars for sale next to liquor stores.”

Marijuana legalization would have a huge impact in New Jersey. In 2017, 34,500 people were arrested for cannabis offenses. That was more than any other state.

Rick Mellerup

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