One of the biggest questions that arises when it comes to deciding whether or not to legalize marijuana is how doing so will affect crime rates. Some policymakers argue that society would see a dip in drug-related offenses if the substance is no longer prohibited, as illegal drug distribution and trafficking would cease. However, others assert that making marijuana legal would increase crime rates because it would impair a person’s normal faculties.
Having received a $996,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, researchers at Washington State University, Stockton University, and the University of Utah set out to determine whether or not legalizing marijuana led to an increase in crime. What they found was that there was no substantial difference in crime rates in states where the substance is legal and those where it is not.
Gathering Crime Statistics
To carry out this study, the researchers examined monthly violent and property crime reports from 23 states. Of those, 21 do not allow either recreational or medicinal use of marijuana. The other 2 states, Colorado and Washington, do. The researchers collected the data reported between 1999 and 2016 to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.
Why Were Colorado & Washington Chosen?
Although many other states have legalized marijuana, Colorado and Washington were specifically chosen for the current study because they were the first two to do so. In 2012, residents of both states voted to remove prohibitions, and the first marijuana dispensaries officially opened in 2014.
According to the study’s findings, in 2012, when legalization was first approved in Washington, there was a slight uptick in burglaries. However, after the first marijuana shops were opened, the spike dropped. Since 2014, the crime rate in Washington and Colorado has stayed close to the national average.
Previous Studies Examining the Same Question
Research on marijuana legalization and crime rates has been done in the past and has found mixed results. Some studies concluded that offenses increased, while others have found the opposite. The researchers of the current study stated that earlier methods and results were based on anecdotal evidence and examined crime statistics for only a short time period. The subjective sample and limited review period could have led to inconclusive results. Unfortunately, lawmakers have relied on previous research to argue against making marijuana lawful.
The current study looks at empirical evidence, examining crime rates from before and after the legalization of marijuana. It also spans a larger time period than previous studies. The researchers said that their findings provide a more in-depth look at the effects of legalization on crime rates, and could help inform policymakers as they consider whether or not to make marijuana lawful.
Further Research Needed for Wider Application of Results
There are limitations to the current study. First, it examines only those crimes identified by the FBI’s database, which usually contains information about the most severe offense if a person was charged with multiple crimes. Second, it only examined serious offenses, and does not include data for DUIs, which could be higher in states with legal marijuana because people might get behind the wheel while high. Lastly, it does not look at the trends across states. Crime rates might be different in other areas of the country because of variances in social circumstances.
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