A new study published by the American Medical Association is challenging a key argument from legalization opponents who say that marijuana reform should be limited to simple decriminalization because it would similarly end cannabis arrests.
It’s certainly true that decriminalization is associated with significant decreases in arrests, the research, published last week in the Journal of the American Association (JAMA) Substance Use and Addiction found. But legalization pushes that trend even further, indicating that comprehensive reform produces maximal results if the goal is to stop arresting people over marijuana.
The way the researchers at the University of California, San Diego arrived at that conclusion is by looking at the impact of legalization on arrest rates in states that previously had more modest decriminalization laws in place as compared to those that move directly from full criminalization to outright legalization.
The analysis examined arrest data from 2010-2019 in 31 states, including nine where cannabis was legal for adult use. Of those nine legal states, five made the transition from decriminalization to legalization and four moved straight from prohibition to legalization.
Legalization “was associated with decreased cannabis possession arrest rates among adults during the study period, even in US states that had already decriminalized cannabis.”
The researchers found that, in the states that hadn’t previously decriminalized marijuana, legalization was associated with a precipitous 76 percent drop in cannabis arrests. But states that had already decriminalized marijuana still saw a “substantial” 40 percent decrease in arrests after legalizing cannabis, indicating that simple decriminalization alone does not maximize results if the goal is ending the policy of arresting people over the plant.
The study authors summarize the argument that prohibitionist groups have made as a sort of compromise—encouraging lawmakers to go no further than decriminalizing possession, without including a legal sales component, because that is enough to stop arresting people and putting them behind bars over marijuana.
“Recreational cannabis legalization (RCL) has been advocated as a way to reduce the number of individuals interacting with the US criminal justice system; in theory, however, cannabis decriminalization can achieve this objective without generating the negative public health consequences associated with RCL,” the paper says.
In practice, however, it appears that broader legalization does significantly more to reduce cannabis arrests compared to simple decriminalization alone.
“If we compare the benefits of RCL and cannabis decriminalization based solely on their associations with cannabis possession arrests, this study and the existing literature suggest that both RCL and decriminalization are associated with a sizable reduction in adult arrest rates,” the researchers said. “Even after decriminalization was implemented, adults could still benefit from a further reduction in arrests under RCL. The argument that RCL could reduce individual contact with the criminal justice system is supported.”
There are some nuances to flag. Decriminalization was linked to “reductions in arrests among youths and in racial disparities among Black and White individuals,” for example. RCL “did not appear to be associated with changes” in that way.
Also, the study authors made a point to say that “the choice of RCL and decriminalization approaches should be made with a holistic evaluation of all benefits and costs,” adding that the “effect on the criminal justice system is a major consideration but should not be the only one.”
“Other considerations could include effects on public health, the economy, and society,” the study says. “Policy makers are encouraged to adopt a strategy only when the total benefits outweigh the total costs.”
The study was also limited by the fact that it relied on data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which compiles arrests numbers from state and local law enforcement agencies on a voluntary basis. The methodology has raised questions about the accuracy of studies that rely on that data to draw generalized national conclusions about crime trends.
The American Medical Association has been publishing a number of drug policy studies in recent weeks, including one published last week that analyzed psychedelics policy reform across the U.S. and determined, in part, that majority of states will legalize psychedelics by 2037.