Does cannabis legalization lead to increases in crime?
As cannabis prohibition ends internationally, state and federal regulators at every level grapple with a bevy of regulatory hurdles. Bringing a newly regulated market online requires regulations around commerce, decriminalization, expungement, and more. One of the most persistent conversations around legalization and public safety is crime rates. Some neighbors argue that cannabis operations in their neighborhood will increase crime– but in fact, it’s just the opposite.
Adult-use cannabis has been available in some states for over a decade, giving researchers reliable data sets to learn how legalization affects society. This data and subsequent studies are helpful as public safety officials consider how to regulate the plant in newly legalized states.
Assessment of crime data in multiple locations shows a correlation between legalization and lower arrests for cannabis offenses–which many would expect. A 2019 research project funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) set out to analyze how cannabis legalization impacted criminal justice system resources.
Cannabis-related arrests decline with legalization
The project examined the impact of legalization and decriminalization on criminal justice resources in California, Washington, and Oregon, as well as impacts on the border states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nevada, Nebraska, and Utah. It also aimed to understand how drug trafficking through the northern and southwest border states might be affected by analyzing data from Arizona, California, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
Data points showed that legalization led to fewer cannabis-related arrests and court cases and no noticeable uptick in arrests related to transporting cannabis. In addition, states legalizing cannabis had no effect on criminal justice system resources in neighboring states.
While gathering data, law enforcement expressed concerns to researchers regarding potency, an influx of out-of-town or out-of-state visitors, increased incidences of drugged driving, and youth cannabis use.
One section of the Canadian Cannabis Act created a youth possession limit, making over five grams of cannabis a criminal offense. This act was meant to prevent young people from entering the criminal justice system. A study partially funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research employed the Seasonal Autoregressive Integrated Moving Average (SARIMA) time series models on national crime data from January 1, 2015, to December 31, 2021, to learn how the Cannabis Act impacted youth cannabis arrests.
The data included police-reported offenses of those aged 12-17; 34,508 were boys, and 9,529 were girls, showing that legalization played a direct role in “significant reductions” in youth cannabis offenses. During that time, daily criminal offenses decreased by 62.1% among girls and 53% among boys.
Driving under the influence and car crashes post-legalization
Road safety is another common concern for regulators implementing medical or recreational cannabis programs. In Washington, drug-only DUIs have dropped and then risen, but these numbers don’t exclude cannabis-only impairment from other substances. A report on fatal crashes in Washington from the Foundation for Traffic Safety showed that the number of THC-positive drivers in fatal crashes and the concentration of THC doubled in the year following legalization.
A 2020 study assessed the number of fatal crashes in US cities from 2010-2017 related to medical cannabis laws and decriminalization laws, finding a 13% increase in crashes following decriminalization. Data also showed a decrease in fatal crashes with the implementation of medical cannabis laws, especially in those aged 15-24.
In 2022, the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs analyzed quarterly crash rates by the mile of travel state-by-state and found a spectrum of data. Some states saw a 7% decrease in fatal car crashes following legalization, while others experienced an 18% increase. All studies suggest regulators continue monitoring data before it can accurately inform public safety.
How cannabis legalization impacts major crime
The Canadian study also showed no connection between cannabis legalization and property or violent crimes, but another study funded by the National Institute of Justice did. Data was assessed from the states of Washington and Colorado before and after legalization, researchers found no association between legalization and major crimes.
A 2012 study that looked at the spatial relation of violent crime to medical cannabis dispensaries supports this theory, showing a correlation between higher crime in or near commercially-zoned areas, one-person households, and unemployment rate–but not medical dispensaries. To come to this conclusion, researchers compared violent and property crime data against neighboring location demographics along 95 census tracts in 2009 in Sacramento, CA.
More recently, however, violent and property crimes have become common against cannabis businesses. In Spring 2022, Washington dispensaries saw a rise in armed robbery. One year later, San Francisco Bay Area dispensary leaders held a press conference asking authorities for more protection amid rising break-ins. In both states, business owners urged lawmakers to support legislation that reduces the amount of cash cannabis operations must keep on hand.
Analyses of legalized states and countries show lower rates of arrests and court cases among adults and youths, as well as little to no correlation between legalization and major crimes. While public safety officials are concerned about potency, driving under the influence, and youth cannabis use–legalization does not increase major or petty crimes. However, a rise in crime against cannabis businesses shows that we may be looking at the data with the wrong objective.