With a congressional committee set to hold a first-ever hearing on ending federal marijuana prohibition on Wednesday, debate among legalization advocates over which piece of cannabis reform legislation would be the most effective and politically achievable is intensifying.
A key part of that conversation concerns the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which would amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to exempt state-legal marijuana activity from federal enforcement actions.
Advocates broadly agree that passage of the STATES Act would represent a momentous development in the reform movement, providing protections for many marijuana consumers and businesses in legal states. But questions remain about what specifically the legislation would accomplish and whether it goes far enough.
Moreover, there’s disagreement about whether lawmakers and activists should invest their political capital and efforts into the bill when several others on the table—such as the Marijuana Justice Act (MJA), the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act and others—would make broader changes to federal drug policy and include social equity provisions that are increasingly seen as vital components of any reform agenda.
It’s a complicated situation that will likely spark discussion at Wednesday’s hearing before the House Judiciary Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee. The panel has released few advance details about the meeting’s scope, but its title alone—”Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform”—indicates that the debate will go beyond merely whether to legalize and instead delve into specifics on charting the best path beyond prohibition.
A staffer for the committee said in a press advisory on Tuesday that the hearing “will not focus exclusively on any one aspect of marijuana laws or any particular legislative proposal.” Rather, it “will address the breadth of the issue and inform future legislative efforts.”
“For the first time in recent history, the Judiciary Committee is going to be having a candid conversation about what reform should look like and how federal criminalization impacts the existing tension between state-legal programs and what changes in federal policy will impact and influence future reform efforts made at the state level to end the practice of otherwise law-abiding adults being put into handcuffs or discriminated against and treated like second-class citizens,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment.
For some advocates, the path to ending prohibition doesn’t lead to the STATES Act. Instead, it leads to more comprehensive reform legislation à la the MJA, a bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) that would not only remove cannabis from the CSA altogether—something STATES doesn’t do—but also provide for record expungements and penalize individual states that carry out cannabis prohibition in a discriminatory manner by withholding certain federal funds.
Booker, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, cosponsored last year’s version of the STATES Act. But he withheld his signature from this latest version, stating that he would no longer consider marijuana reform proposals that don’t address social equity concerns.
The path could also lead to legislation from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), whose Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act would deschedule marijuana and apportion some tax revenue from legal cannabis sales to a grant program aimed at incentivizing participation in the industry by individuals from communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition. It would also set aside funding to support the expungement of cannabis convictions.
A less-talked-about bill from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), another 2020 presidential contender, would also remove cannabis from the CSA—and with Rep. Don Young (R-AK) as an original sponsor, it’s uniquely bipartisan descheduling legislation.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) is also said to be crafting a far-reaching marijuana bill that is expected to include social equity provisions, though details are scarce and advocates expect it will be filed sometime in the wake of this week’s hearing.
The STATES Act, by comparison, is a modest reform proposal that social justice activists have argued is inadequate, especially as momentum builds across the country for wide-ranging measures that place an emphasis on equity.
That momentum was on full display on Tuesday, as 10 leading civil rights and criminal justice reform groups including the ACLU announced that they’d formed a coalition in order to advocate for comprehensive marijuana legislation. Among other things, the Marijuana Justice Coalition said that any reform plan should involve descheduling cannabis, expunging the records of those with past marijuana convictions and investing revenue from legal sales into communities that have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition.
However, proponents of passing the STATES Act—including Cannabis Trade Federation CEO Neal Levine, who will testify as the minority party’s witness at the Judiciary hearing on Wednesday—aren’t arguing that Congress shouldn’t pursue bills like the MJA. Rather, he says, it’s a matter of timing and political calculus about what kind of reform is achievable and can help stop many ongoing harms of prohibition in the short term.
Levine, who previously served as the director of state campaigns and policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that his organization and its allies have a strategy in place proven to get positive cannabis reform legislation enacted: “We passed as much as we could as fast as we could and we built upon it,” he said, referring to incremental cannabis bills that were passed in states and were later expanded through more far-reaching reforms. “That is our general strategy.”
And for the time being, the bill that stands the best odds of getting enacted into law is the STATES Act, he argues. There’s “not a lot of political will to go far beyond” that bill in the Senate today, and Levine said that if it does pass, it wouldn’t take the wind out of the sails of broader reform legislation—it will add to it.
“What we want to see is the full end of prohibition with full expungements. Period,” Levine said. “If we took a whip count of the U.S. Senate and we found that the Marijuana Justice Act had 60 votes and a credible path, we’d be all in on the Marijuana Justice Act. We want to see prohibition end.”
Levine will make that case on Wednesday. An excerpt of his written testimony that was released on Tuesday reads:
“We have a long way to go with respect to reversing the harms caused by marijuana prohibition and need to begin the process as soon as possible. The question before this Subcommittee and before Congress is whether there is a willingness to advance a bill to the President’s desk that will immediately address nearly all of the issues I have raised. With strong bipartisan support for legislation like the STATES Act, it is possible during the current session of Congress to take major steps toward respecting state cannabis laws, protecting workers, and advancing a more secure, vibrant, and equitable cannabis industry. We hope that Congress will take advantage of the opportunity.”
Other advocates are concerned that with only so much time left on the congressional calendar, and an uncertain Capitol Hill and White House situation going forward after next year’s elections, they may only get one bite at the apple to change federal cannabis laws for the foreseeable future—and the STATES Act isn’t the bite they hope to savor.
The STATES Act is, by most measures, one of the most practical pieces of marijuana reform legislation that stands any chance of being enacted in the 116th Congress. It has a states’ rights focus that has engendered bipartisan support, with notable Republicans signed on as original cosponsors for both the House and Senate versions. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH) are behind the bill, and both can exercise influence in their respective chambers to get it out the gate and onto the president’s desk.
That leads into another significant factor: President Donald Trump has said that he “really” supports the STATES Act. Following conversations with Trump on the issue, Gardner said he was left with the impression that there is “an ally in the president on this” and that he’d be inclined to sign the bipartisan bill.
The Colorado senator’s advocacy for the legislation could also open an essential window for advancement in the Senate, which is overseen by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a vocal proponent of hemp but a staunch opponent to the crop’s “illicit cousin” marijuana. McConnell might be compelled to bring the bill to a floor vote if he’s thinking strategically about how to minimize Gardner’s 2020 reelection risks in Colorado by giving him a win to bring home to voters who want the federal government out of the way of their state’s cannabis laws.
While it is far from certain that McConnell will end up allowing the STATES Act to advance under his watch, it seems much more unlikely that the Senate leader would be willing to give that courtesy to even more wide-ranging legislation focused on social equity.
The STATES Act also received an unexpected tacit endorsement in April: Attorney General William Barr said that while he does not support legalization, he would prefer for the modest reform legislation to pass rather than maintain the status quo of conflicting state and federal laws.
Levine said that getting the STATES Act passed wouldn’t represent the finish line for the reform movement. It would be a critical step forward, to be sure, but not the end game. He’s of the mindset that the bill would be a battle won in the war against prohibition, and it would demonstrate momentum that would bolster efforts to enact further legislation that addresses related issues like social equity.
Strekal said that Wednesday’s historic hearing—and particularly the Republican minority’s choice of Levine as their sole witness—shows “the evolution and the paradigm shift that has been made over just the last few years, where the new floor is the STATES Act and a bipartisan compromise is somewhere between the STATES Act and something along the lines of the Marijuana Justice Act.”
There are some concerns about just how far the STATES Act’s protections would extend, though. Without explicitly descheduling cannabis, the plant would remain a federally controlled substance in any states that haven’t legalized it, potentially resulting in enforcement complications.
Would the legislation offer protections for immigrants seeking citizenship and who work in a state-legal market, which is currently grounds for having naturalization applications rejected under federal immigration policy?
One could argue that it would, as the STATES Act specifies that conduct described in the legislation—including the manufacturing, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration or delivery of marijuana in states where it’s legal—”shall not be unlawful.” But because the federal government would still regard cannabis as illicit under the CSA and the bill doesn’t provide specific protections for immigrants, some question what practical impact, if any, the STATES Act would have.
“The STATES Act will not protect immigrants who work in the legitimate marijuana industry from the current severe immigration penalties,” the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) concluded in a May memo. “These penalties also will apply to their spouses and minor children.”
(See the full ILRC memo on the STATES Act embedded below.)
“In contrast, bills that remove marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance will protect against all the above consequences,” ILRC wrote. “They will remove severe immigration penalties from employees of the legitimate marijuana industry and their families. They will remove those penalties from people who use marijuana in accord with, or in violation of, state law.”
Without specific language addressing the immigration issue, it’s within reason to assume that it may be a matter taken up in court. And considering the difficulties that many immigrants face in securing effective legal representation, there are worries that the STATES Act alone wouldn’t be enough to protect them.
By contrast, CTF’s Steve Fox argued in a call-to-action email in April that the existing language and the protections if offers generally to those working in the state-legal cannabis market demonstrates that lawmakers can “help remedy this problem by passing the STATES Act.”
“We are upset by the suggestion that hard-working cannabis industry employees lack good moral character simply for working in our industry,” Fox wrote in the message urging supporters to contact lawmakers about the STATES Act. “It is even worse that some employees may be denied citizenship for this work.”
Separately, some have raised questions about what the STATES Act would do to resolve banking issues in the cannabis industry.
The bill does note that “proceeds from any transaction in compliance with this Act and the amendments made by this Act shall not be deemed to be the proceeds of an unlawful transaction,” but there are still questions about how it would impact banks that operate in multiple states and transfer cash between branches, including those situated in jurisdictions that still prohibit marijuana.
It’s possible that some of these potential limitations will be discussed at Wednesday’s hearing. But don’t expect the STATES Act to be the only object of legislative interest. Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment that all signs point toward a conversation centered on social equity and racial justice—something that the STATES Act doesn’t address.
“I get that impression from the hearing, the way it’s structured, the witnesses they’ve called,” Collins said. “[Democratic] leadership in the House is not open to moving the STATES Act, otherwise the hearing would be different and the witnesses would be different. Some Republicans are open to STATES Act in the House, but it doesn’t have a path” in the Senate.
Levine said he sees the fate of the STATES Act in the Senate differently. The path might be precarious, but it’s achievable, he said.
While the two advocacy camps hold differing views on the best next step toward advancing cannabis reform, one possibility would be to try a dual approach, pushing the STATES Act to a vote in the Senate while the House weighs a broader bill like the MJA. Such activity could open dialogue between the chambers about potential compromises, or at least push social equity provisions closer to the forefront of the conversation.
Collins said that, in his view, “there’s recognition that we can do better than STATES” among Democrats. And if there’s not a clear path for the legislation to get passed and on the president’s desk, it’s in the party’s interest to take up bills that do include provisions focusing on social and racial justice—that do more than protect business interests in legal states and also acknowledge and seek to repair the damages of the war on drugs.
(Full disclosure: CTF, DPA and NORML, or their staffers, have all sponsored or supported Marijuana Moment through Patreon pledges.)
Read the full ILRC memo on marijuana bills and immigration below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Maryland Congressman Tries To Block D.C.’s Psychedelics Decriminalization Ballot Measure
Washington, D.C. activists are hoping local voters will decriminalize psychedelics at the ballot box this November, and public opinion polling suggests there’s a good chance they’ll do it. But a Republican congressman from Maryland who’s long stood in the way of marijuana and drug policy reform efforts in the nation’s capital says he will do everything in his power to stop the measure from being enacted.
“This is a bald-faced attempt to just make these very serious, very potent, very dangerous—both short-term and long-term—hallucinogenic drugs broadly available,” U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) told the New York Post on Wednesday, two days after organizers submitted more than 35,000 signatures in an effort to qualify the decriminalization measure for November’s ballot.
Harris told Post reporter Steven Nelson that he will use Congress’s control over D.C.’s budget to block the measure through a House Appropriations Committee amendment next week.
Harris famously led congressional efforts to block Washington, D.C.’s local leaders from passing legislation to create a legal system of recreational cannabis sales in the city after voters approved a 2014 ballot measure legalizing low-level possession and home cultivation of marijuana.
The new proposed D.C. ballot measure, Initiative 81, doesn’t attempt to legalize the sale of psychedelics. Instead it would make the enforcement of existing laws against psychedelics possession among the lowest priorities for the Metropolitan Police Department. The measure would apply to all plant- and fungi-based entheogenic substances, including psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, ibogaine and DMT.
While Harris’s push to prevent D.C. cannabis legalization has run into increasing pushback in the past few years, he seems to be drawing a new line with psychedelics. In his comments this week, he said he believes his colleagues across the aisle will agree that psychedelic substances go too far.
“I think there’s probably a lot of Democrats who draw a very distinct line between potent hallucinogens and marijuana. And whereas the majority may support recreational use of marijuana, I doubt the majority supports the broad use of these potent hallucinogens,” he told the Post. The newspaper noted that Harris is “an anesthesiologist and top pharmaceutical donor recipient.”
Melissa Lavasani, chairwoman of Decriminalize Nature D.C., the group behind Initiative 81, said that Harris’s use of the congressional budget process shows how Washington, D.C.’s lack of statehood prevents voters from exercising control over their own government.
“Continued overreaching actions like this by Andy Harris are the reason why D.C. needs statehood now,” Lavasani told Marijuana Moment in an email. “Why should a Maryland representative have any say on laws that govern the over 700,000 federal taxpaying citizens in the District?”
A public opinion poll from April commissioned by Decriminalize Nature D.C. found that a majority of voters (51 percent) supported the measure after reading the ballot text. After hearing pro and con arguments about the policy, that number rose to 59 percent. Thirty-two percent of voters were opposed after hearing the arguments.
As for D.C. statehood, the House voted 232–180 last month to support a resolution to make the District the country’s 51st state. Though Senate Democrats are largely supportive of the move, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said he won’t let the issue come to a vote in his chamber.
“After my D.C. statehood bill passed in the House last month and has shown momentum in the Senate, Republicans have become increasingly fearful,” Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) said in a press release. “Representative Andy Harris, who has been a chronic abuser of home rule, is the latest example. Republicans are right to be nervous. We will continue to fight any and all attempts to overturn D.C. laws, regardless of the policy, as D.C. has a right to self-government.”
Many in D.C.’s reform community say they feel Harris is using the drug issue in a neighboring jurisdiction as a way to capture attention.
“We have a history, and it’s not surprising to me that Andy Harris is butting in on our coattails,” Adam Eidinger, a longtime D.C. drug reformer who is also involved in the decriminalization campaign, told Marijuana Moment. “He’s just butting in and is just using us a way to get his name in the press.”
On the marijuana front, Harris and his allies have been able to block D.C. sales for years, but there are signs that support is flagging. Last year, after House Democrats introduced an annual spending bill without the cannabis provision, Harris didn’t even bother trying to reintroduce it as an amendment despite having a seat on the relevant committee. Asked why by reporter Matt Laslo, he replied: “We’re not in charge anymore,” referring to the GOP.
“We’re not in charge anymore,” Rep. Andy Harris says of why he didn’t try and offer his amendment restricting DC from setting up a regulatory system for marijuana
— Matt Laslo (@MattLaslo) June 13, 2019
Harris’s measure was eventually introduced in the Senate version of the Fiscal Year 2020 spending bill, and Congress as a whole ultimately approved it as part of the final spending legislation sent to the president. But this year could be different. The senator who inserted the language in last year’s bill, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), has been replaced as chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government by Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), who is generally considered less of a drug war hawk than Lankford, though he is by no means a legalization supporter.
House leaders this week introduced an appropriations bill for the coming fiscal year that again doesn’t include Harris’s traditional budget rider against D.C. marijuana sales. Advocates are now watching to see whether the Senate version of the bill, which has yet to be introduced, will seek to preserve the language.
In the meantime, Washington, D.C. officials have less than 30 days to verify thousands of signatures submitted by the psychedelics decriminalization campaign.
“D.C.residents are tired of being treated like second class citizens with no representation,” Lavasani said Wednesday. “We will vote on this in November.”
In the unlikely event that Harris’s new psychedelics rider gets attached to federal spending legislation, it could potentially prevent the District from spending its own money to event print ballots with the decriminalization question on it or to count the results of a vote on it, depending on when the restriction is enacted.
This story was updated to include comment from Norton.
Oregon Voters Will Decide On Legalizing Psilocybin Therapy In November, State Announces
Oregon officials announced on Wednesday that the state’s voters will get a chance to decide whether to pass a first-of-its kind measure to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use in November.
This isn’t the only far-reaching drug policy reform question that Oregon voters will have before them on the ballot this year, as a separate initiative to decriminalize low-level drug possession formally qualified last week. That proposal would also use existing tax revenue from marijuana sales, which voters legalized in 2014, to fund expanded substance misuse treatment programs.
Psilocybin activists turned in their final batch of signatures for verification last week and were confident they would have more than enough valid petitions to qualify.
The campaign collected 132,465 valid signatures form registered voters, the secretary of state’s office said. That exceeds the 112,020 needed to qualify by a comfortable margin. In all, 82.30 percent of the 160,963 signatures accepted for verification were deemed valid, officials determined.
“We are thrilled that Oregon voters have come together to tackle mental health and depression by qualifying this ballot measure for the November election,” Tom Eckert, a licensed psychotherapist, who is a co-chief petitioner for the initiative, said in a press release. “Oregonians deserve access to psilocybin therapy as a treatment option—and now we officially have a chance to win it.”
It's official – WE DID IT! After turning in 132,465 signatures, the campaign team is proud to announce we are officially on the 2020 November ballot. Come #electionday2020, every Oregon voter will have the opportunity to make psilocybin therapy legal for those in need. pic.twitter.com/WuZ2NkKEnC
— Yes On IP 34 (@yesonip34) July 8, 2020
If voters approve the measure, known as IP 34, Oregon would become the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to implement a therapeutic legalization model for the psychedelic derived from so-called magic mushrooms. There wouldn’t be any specific conditions that make people eligible for the therapy.
“We want to thank the thousands of volunteers and the over 160,000 Oregonians that made this ballot measure possible, and we look forward to talking with voters over the next four months to share the research and show why psilocybin therapy is a part of our collective answer to the mental health crisis our state faces,” Sheri Eckert, who is Tom’s wife and the other co-chief petitioner, added. “This careful, regulated approach can make a real difference in people’s lives and we’re looking forward to bringing this program to the state.”
The Oregon measure’s formal ballot qualification is one of the latest examples of the success of the psychedelics reform movement after Denver became the first place in the U.S. to deprioritize enforcement of laws against psilocybin last year.
That was followed by a unanimous Oakland City Council vote in favor of a measure to make a wide range of entheogenic substances among the city’s lowest law enforcement priorities. The Santa Cruz City Council followed suit, and activists in more than 100 cities are now exploring ways to enact the policy change.
Colorado activists are likely to pursue a legal psilocybin ballot measure in 2022 after a poll showed majority voter support.
Here’s a status update on other 2020 drug policy reform campaigns across the country:
Washington, D.C. activists turned in what they believe are more than enough signatures to put a broad psychedelics decriminalization measure on the November ballot this week.
In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort turned in 420,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot last week.
Organizers in Nebraska last week submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.
Montana activists recently turned in more than 130,000 signatures to qualify a pair of marijuana legalization initiatives for the November ballot.
Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative could get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.
The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.
And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.
A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.
North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.
Washington state activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman.
Colorado’s Marijuana Legalization Law Decreases Crime In Neighboring States, Study Finds
Law enforcement and other opponents of marijuana legalization have long warned that ending prohibition would lead to surges in crime, wreaking havoc on neighborhoods that hosted retail stores and spilling into neighboring states that wanted nothing to do with the drug. But as researchers crunch the data since Colorado and Washington State because the first two states to pass adult-use marijuana laws in 2012, they’re finding scant evidence to support the dire warnings.
One of the latest studies to examine before-and-after crime data, which looked at how legalization in Washington and Colorado affected crime rates in neighboring states, finds that passage of adult-use cannabis laws may have actually reduced certain major crimes in nearby jurisdictions.
“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.”
“Overall, the results for the Colorado region provide some evidence suggesting a crime-reducing effect of legalization on neighboring states.”
“This finding,” the authors add, “challenges the argument made by the opponents of legalization that marijuana legalization would increase crime.”
The research was 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.
Existing research on how cannabis affects crime is limited and largely mixed, the authors write. On one hand, there exists what researchers called “substantial evidence” suggesting that legalizing cannabis increases certain criminal activities. Some studies, for example, have found that neighborhoods with a higher rate of retail marijuana outlets experienced higher rates of crime. Another found that both medical and adult-use marijuana retailers were linked to increases in certain crimes.
Confusing that data, however, is the fact that cannabis businesses typically lack access to traditional banking services, forcing most transactions to be handled in cash. “As scholars have reasoned, the criminogenic effect of recreational marijuana dispensaries is largely attributable to the fact that marijuana sale is a cash-and-carry business,” the study says, “which exposes both the business and customers to criminal victimization.”
Meanwhile, other researchers have argued that legalization in fact reduces crime. They assert not only that decriminalization of cannabis itself reduces crime, but also that legalization shrinks what the study describes as “the underground marijuana market that is believed to be fertile soil for violent crime.” Certain studies support that claim, for example research showing drops in rape and property crime in Washington state compared to neighboring Oregon after Washington legalized marijuana for adults.
Little research has been done, however, into how legalization affects crime rates in nearby states. To answer that question, the team dug into county-level data in neighboring states before and after Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana.
“Border counties in the Colorado region saw substantial decreases in overall property crime rate and larceny rate relative to nonborder counties following Colorado’s legalization.”
Researchers drew data from a variety of sources, but a key source was the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program, which tracks a variety of crime statistics. “The UCR data provide not only crime information on most serious violent and property crimes, categorized as Part I crimes, including robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft, but also less serious crimes such as simple assault, categorized as Part II crimes,” the study says, capturing many of the crimes critics have warned might accompany legalization.
The team controlled for demographic changes, such as population, poverty level, household income and unemployment rate, because of those variables’ strong association with crime rates. They also attempted to control for other changes, such as nearby Oregon and Nevada passing adult-use marijuana laws in 2014 and 2016, respectively.
Analyzing the data, the researchers found no significant changes to crime rates in nonlegal counties bordering Washington following marijuana legalization, refuting the idea that legalization might lead to a spillover of crime to neighboring states.
Data from the Colorado region went further, suggesting “a crime-reducing effect of recreational marijuana legalization in Colorado on neighboring states.”
“In the six states surrounding Colorado—Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming—following Colorado’s legalization, the border counties experienced, on average, a decrease of 393.1 cases of property crime and 277.3 cases of larceny per 100,000 population relative to the nonborder counties.”
“Specifically, we observed that the property crime rate and larceny rate experienced substantial decreases in the border counties in neighboring states relative to nonborder counties following the legalization in Colorado,” the study says. “This is also true for the rate of simple assault…if Utah is not considered (only considering Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming as neighboring states of Colorado).”
“This finding suggests that recreational marijuana legalization in a state (e.g., Colorado) may not bring about negative consequences on crime in neighboring states, which challenges the assertions made by public officials in these neighboring states arguing a crime-inducing effect of legalization,” the researchers concluded.
What might be causing the decreases in crime? Researchers can only speculate. One idea is that lower marijuana prices in legal states “would arguably reduce individuals’ motivation to resort to predatory crime to support their drug use,” the study says. Another is that police may be more alert to cannabis-related crimes in counties close to where cannabis is legal. It’s also possible that easier access to marijuana has led to lower rates of alcohol consumption, the authors said, “which may reduce crime given the well-documented connection between alcohol use and criminal involvement.”
While the study’s findings contradict arguments by some public officials that legalization in a neighboring state might hurt communities at home, researchers caution that they also can’t say with certainty that legalization reduces crime. Counties neighboring Washington, after all, showed no such effect.
“This suggests the potential spillover effect of legalization (either exacerbating or reducing crime in neighboring states, may be a function of the differential social/cultural and policy contexts of the neighboring states,” the authors conclude, “which certainly deserves further scholarly exploration.”