Does Cannabis Legalization Lead to Increases In Crime?


One of the primary arguments used by those who oppose marijuana legalization or decriminalization is that both could/will lead to increases in crime. Many supporters of legalization/decriminalization would counter this argument by saying (among other counter-arguments) that while there may be an increase in marijuana related crime initially, these numbers would level out as society adapts to the new normal.

Now that marijuana has been legalized in multiple states, we have the opportunity to analyze who is correct on this matter, in an objective manner using the data and information available. Colorado began the sales of legalized commercial cannabis in 2014, as one of the first states to legalize recreational cannabis, this is where we have a lot available data. So, let’s take a look...

(This data comes from the Colorado Department of Public Safety)

Driving Under the Influence:

  • DUI cases reported by the Colorado State Patrol (CSP) overall were down 15% from 2014 to 2017. It’s also worth noting that while there have been recorded DUI’s attributed to marijuana, these DUI’s are dwarfed in comparison to those attributed to alcohol, with 91.3% of all DUI’s in the state coming from alcohol, and 6.2% being attributed to marijuana.
  • The amount of marijuana-only impairment CSP citations has remained the same prior to legalization, at 7%. However, the percentage of CSP citations including marijuana overall rose from 12% in 2012 to 17% in 2016, but dropped to 15% in 2017.
  • The percentage of crashes involving a fatality where drivers tested positive for cannabis decreased from 11.6% in 2016, to 7.5% in 2017.
  • The percentage of drivers who tested positive for *any* cannabinoid (Delta 9 or any other metabolite) increased from 55 (11% of all fatalities) in 2013, to 139 (21% of all fatalities) in 2017.

*It’s worth noting that marijuana will show trace levels during drug tests for up to 30 days after consumption*

Conclusion: In Colorado, following recreational legalization, traffic citations related to marijuana decreased overall, however, there was an increase in drivers who had tested positive for marijuana. Although, it should be noted that marijuana stays in your system for 30 days after use, so it stands to reason that if more people are smoking/ingesting marijuana as a result of legalization, it is showing up in more drug tests, and doesn’t immediately mean that drivers were under the influence at the time of the test.

Overall Crime:

  • Felony Marijuana court case filings declined from 2008 to 2014, and increased from 2015 to 2017. However, most increases in recent filings could be the result of changing legislation in regard to the legal indoor plant count. Despite what looks like an increase (a raise in cases from 2015 to 2017) felony filings in 2017 (907) were still below 2008 filings (1,431).
  • Organized crime filings were on a decrease from 2012 to 2013, but saw a significant increase since 2014. There were 31 organized crime case filings in 2012 and 119 in 2017. It should also be mentioned, that with legalization came more laws and regulation regarding cannabis. And, when there are more laws, there are more opportunities to break laws.
  • Filings for juveniles under 18 have remained the same level after legalization.

Conclusion: This one is a bit harder to pin down. When recreational marijuana was introduced there were some increases in crime, without analysis, it just seems as if legalization led to an increase of crime outright, but there were also increases in laws related to marijuana. It stands to reason that when there are new laws created, there will be more crime as a result of new laws. In some other data below, we dig into this a bit further.

Out of State Crime:

  • The number of seizures reported by the El Paso Intelligence Center increased from 2012 (286) to 2015 (768) but decreased in 2016 (673) and 2017 (608).
  • Marijuana seized by the postal service has been on a steady increase since 2010, from 15 parcels seized containing 57 pounds in 2010, to 1,009 parcels in 2017.

Conclusion: Looking at only the data provided by Colorado, it would indicate that the areas being recorded saw an increase. However, with seizures that number seems to now be on the decline, supporting arguments that while there may be initial increases, those increases level out as time passes after legalization. Alternatively, recent studies on the effects of out-of-state crime as a result of recreational legalization in Colorado tell a different story entirely, and that is included in the article below.

Marijuana and minors

  • The youth marijuana rate reported via NSDUH for the 2015/16 school year (9.1%) was the lowest it’s been since 2007/08 (9.1%).
  • According to HKCS, the proportion of high school students reporting using marijuana ever in their lifetime of reporting past 30-day use remined unchanged from 2005 to 2017.
  • Also according to HKCS the proportion of students trying marijuana before age 13 went down from 9.2% in 2015 to 6.5% in 2017.
  • Alcohol was the most common substance students reported using at any point in their lives (59%) followed by e-cigarettes (44%) and marijuana at 35%.
  • The total number of suspensions, expulsions, and law enforcement referrals for any reason has remained the same after legalization.
  • Marijuana was the single most common reason for school expulsions (22%) and law enforcement referrals (24%) in the 2016-17 school year, however that was also the first year where marijuana was reported separately as a reason for disciplinary action. This tells us that the rates had not changed as a result of legalization, rather the rates overall stayed the same, and when the state began categorizing marijuana related issues, marijuana related issues started to be visible.

Conclusion: In general, issues related to marijuana in the context of usage by minors has decreased.

More about out of state crime:

According to a more recent study, conducted by Guangzhen Wu of the University of Utah, Francis D. Boateng of the University of Mississippi and Texas-based economic and statistical consultant Thomas Roney, the authors write: “We did not detect any increases in the rates of multiple types of crimes in border counties of the nonlegalized states bordering Colorado and Washington,” wrote the authors of the new study, published in the Journal of Drug Issues. Moreover, “we observed a substantial reduction in certain types of crimes, namely, property crime, larceny, and simple assault, in border counties in the Colorado region.”

More information about this study can be found here.

More information about crimes related to the distribution, production, and use of marijuana

(this information comes from a report that can be found here, the reports cited below are all broken down in the footer of the report as references).

*as we move on to some other statistics, keep in mind that while some studies are conducted in 2013-2014, they are including medical marijuana legalization, along with recreational legalization)*

  • In Washington State, which legalized recreational marijuana use in 2013, the number of low-level court filings for marijuana fell by 98% between 2012 and 2013.
  • The number of adults (over 21) convicted for misdemeanor possession fell from 297 in January 2012 to 0 in January 2013, and has remained there since. The number of those under 21 convicted of possession fell by around 50% between 2012 and 2013.
  • In California, marijuana legalization was associated with a reduction in property crime of 20%.
  • A 2017 study in Denver, Colorado claimed that there was a significant reduction in crime rates for neighborhoods that contained a dispensary.
  • A recent study focusing on the rate of clearance of cases for violent crimes (a previously worsening trend) reported that there was a shift in said trend, offering evidence that legalization may lead to an improvement in the prioritization of police resources.
  • Three separate studies conducted by 3 separate parties, came to the conclusion that legalization led to a decline in traffic fatalities overall. The authors of said studies provide evidence that the reduction in fatalities is primarily the result of a reduction in drunk driving.

How marijuana legalization effects other drug use:

  • A study in 2014 found that opioid overdoses were about 25% lower in states that had introduced legalization, and that this effect was larger the longer legalization was in place.
  • Another study in 2016 found that states with medical marijuana legalization, Medicare prescriptions to drugs that treat a range of ailments, including pain, depression and anxiety, were significantly lower.
  • Two studies published in 2018 found a similar effect, and one of those papers found that legalization of marijuana for reactional use had an even stronger effect.
  • Surveys in Michigan and California found significant reductions in use of opioids for pain management following the introduction of medical marijuana legalization.

If you’ve stuck around this long, we salute you. This is a lot of data to go through, and sometimes that sort of things can become confusing or difficult to follow. There are likely other reports here with more data available, and we suggest to try and search that data out if this is a topic that holds your interest. However, for the sake of this article not being any longer than it currently is, we decided to go with what’s included here.

This is a tricky debate to have, and it requires a lot of intellectual honesty to fid the truth, be it in debate or analysis. An example is how without context, looking at crime rates in Colorado related to marijuana overall would lead one to believe that crime has increased as a result of legalization. But when you break down crimes by category, and you consider the fact that more laws came as a result of legalization, the discussion becomes anything but clear-cut.

What’s more interesting are the tertiary results listed. Things like an increase in the rate of clearances for violent crimes, reductions in drug prescriptions to treat common issues, an overall decrease in traffic fatalities, an overall reduction in property crime, and a reduction in overdoses from opioid use.

Data is a tricky thing, and it’s often times difficult to sift through the narrative behind the data being presented. The same thing could be said for this specific article and breakdown, and it’s that reason exactly why we recommend you look under the hood and go through some of this data yourself to have a better understanding of what the landscape of crime looks like in a post-legalization world. One thing is for sure, legalization seems to be a trend that’s catching on, and as it does we will have much more data.

It is worth pointing out that while there are some areas of increase, none of those found from this brief analysis seemed particularly egregious. When you consider that, and then observe the monetary gains that have come as a result of legalization, the case against legalization becomes much more difficult.

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