Marijuana Legalization: Effects, Correlations, Reasonable Conclusions?

a collection of data counter to the war on drugs narrative

Marijuana Legalization: Effects, Correlations, Reasonable Conclusions?

From the wild old days of alcohol prohibition that birthed the social phenomenon of organized crime, we have been told – mostly by our government, also by Hollywood (encouraged by government in the form of the ONDCP) and by the kind of moral busybodies who can’t stand the idea that someone somewhere might be having some fun – that the use of marijuana is remarkably dangerous, or at least leads individuals to seek harder drugs that are much more dangerous, leading users to engage in crime to pay for their illegal recreation, and that whatever the consequences that the criminal justice system could create and enforce upon citizens to discourage the possession and/or use of marijuana are worth whatever the harm, because keeping marijuana out of the marketplace and out of the bodies/minds of our citizens (especially the young) must be a top priority.

I happen to live in a community that has voted to legalize marijuana. The first thing I noticed the day that sales became legal was that there were not crumbled bits of sky all over the ground. This probably had something to do with the fact that medical marijuana had been legal here for years. The main difference once recreational marijuana came into effect was that there were a few new stores in the downtown core, selling numbers of strains of weed and related products that Cheech & Chong would not have imagined in their smokiest reveries.

Here’s how a post-legalization community looks before we get to the actual numbers. Over the following months, the spotty maintenance of our streets, which had been been pretty much routine since the economic crash of 2008 had given way to newly-repaved streets, complete with new street trees and new bus shelters. I haven’t heard of any of my neighbors or friends being victims of any property crimes or violence. In other words, business-as-usual, but with fewer potholes and more places to get out of the rain when waiting for a bus.

Then there’s the numbers. Let’s start with Forbes interestingly-titled, “How is Marijuana Legalization Going? The Price of Pot Peace Looks Like a Bargain”. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper noted the same people who smoked before prohibition was lifted smoked after, and he expected that an increase in impaired driving wasn’t likely. In addition, the state regulating and taxing marijuana got money into the state coffers, and out of the hands of criminal gangsters. Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division agrees with Hickenlooper’s observation that cannabis consumption, both in general and among the young, hasn’t increased since legalization. While teen use in Colorado felol 11% between 2009 and 2011, teen use nationally went up 11%.

Now for crunching some crunchy numbers. According to a 2016 paper by Montana State University’s D. Mark Anderson and Daniel I.Rees of the University of Colorado Denver, prominent drug-policy expert Mark Kleinman predicted a worst case scenario of increasing heavy drinking, increasing crashes and fatalities on our highways and increasing consumption by minors. The Behavorial Risk Factor Surveillance System found that legalization was associated with reduction in heavy drinking, especially in the age range of 18-29, and beer sales (a favored choice among the young) dropped almost 5%, and two studies of Colorado and Washington State youth showed reductions in drinking.

But what about reports of increasing marijuana-related car accidents in Colorado? It’s not that there were more people getting high and having accidents, it’s that marijuana metabolites can linger in the body for up to a month, showing up in blood and urine tests after accidents. Meanwhile the actual rate of fatal car crashes in Colorado has been going down since 2004 and similar declines are showing up in the other 34 states that have medical and/or recreational marijuana as of 2014.

The risk of being involved in a collision when driving while high increases two fold while alcohol of 0.08% or higher increases chances of collision by 4 to 27 times the risk while sober. Marijuana users are aware of their impairment, and tend to compensate by driving more slowly, while users of alcohol drive faster and take more risks. The actual number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities actually declined by 13% in states with medical marijuana laws. In the first year following legalization of medical marijuana, traffic fatalities (not just alcohol related) drop by 8-11%.

Now for crime stats. Colby College researchers Arthur Huber III, Rebecca Newman and Daniel LeFave report legalizing medical marijuana is followed by reductions in property crime of 4-12%. While rates of crime have been dropping nationwide for years, medical marijuana states’ crime rates have been dropping 5% more than states without. Meanwhile “depenalization” (aka “decriminalization”, aka not really ending prohibition) leads to property crime rates rising by 6-12%, similar to increases in such crimes associated with a 2-3% increase in unemployment. A study of crime data from 11 states, 7 of which have medical marijuana, by LeMoyne College economists Edward M. Shepard and Paul B. Blakeley revealed significant drops in violent crime in medical marijuana states. Robert G. Morris of the University of Texas used data from the FBI on seven categories of crime, from states with and without medical marijuana and determined there was no increase in crime in medical marijuana states, and there was a possibility of fewer assaults and homicides. The locations where marijuana is grown and sold also do not attract crime, and in fact, their security measures of increased lighting, cameras personnel decrease crime in the areas around these establishments.

So what have we learned today? The US Federal Government has been promoting a narrative since the 1930s, when Harry Anslinger assisted with the making of the propaganda film “Reefer Madness” that the dangers of personal marijuana use are so great as to justify expending enormous amounts of taxpayer money year after year, incarcerating huge and ever-growing numbers of our citizens, creating consequences such as loss of student aid and civil forfeiture of property and assets before someone is even convicted – and when these efforts to completely rid society of marijuana and cocaine, and meth, and opiates and amphetamines) fail, legislating harsher consequences while claiming that it’s the drugs that cause destruction to individuals, families and communities. Currently the federal government and the mainstream media are focusing on the supposed epidemic of opiate use and opiate deaths (one problem with the numbers of deaths is that most dearly-departed Americans are not autopsied, but even if we take the government’s claims at face value, the deaths they attribute to all drug overdoses in 2014, 47,055 total, come to 0.146% of all the the deaths in the US that year). Are the government and media focused on opiates because the scourge of meth has been removed from our society? Or, if they focus on one drug for several years, and don’t eliminate that drug from circulation, is the focus on opiates just misdirection intended to distract the public from meth remaining available in the US and a complete lack of methapocalypse? Look, over there! It’s opiates!

Marijuana is the most popular non-alcoholic intoxicant in the US by far, and legalization has not been followed by the mayhem we have been told for generations to expect. Why should we believe that the same government that has been so very very wrong about marijuana as a medicine and a form of recreation is right about other, less frequently-consumed drugs being so dangerous to individuals, families and communities?