Is Legal Marijuana Linked to Violent Crime?


Resistance to change has been critical to the survival of what was, in 1776, a novel experiment in popular government. Wisely, America’s founders established a network of checks and balances to insure against dangerous concentrations of power. As a result, achieving even moderate changes through federal legislation has often been likened to whipping a U-turn in an aircraft carrier. On the federal level, only small collections of opposition are necessary to torpedo reform.

Americans overwhelmingly support some form of marijuana legalization. According to a recent CBS news poll, 61% of Americans support full legalization, while 88% support a patient’s right to use marijuana medicinally. But progress is tough. Politicians employ a number of arguments to justify their opposition to what is steadily becoming, for most Americans, common sense. Many statements sound the same: “I believe it’s an unhealthy practice, and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago, and we’re seeing real violence around that,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this year. “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved.”

Sessions makes a number of assertions here, and some of them are true. Let’s break them down, one by one:

“I believe it’s an unhealthy practice”

For practical purposes, an unfalsifiable remark. It’s likely true, coming from a man who’s also claimed that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Someone using marijuana at the recommendation of their physician might disagree. Otherwise, a true rebuttal would require more context. For instance, the McRib is arguably an unhealthy practice, but it is, of yet, not outlawed.

“Current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago”

Again, it depends. Average levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in marijuana have certainly increased over the years as cultivators have cross-bred different strains to produce stronger plants. A comparison between the last “few years,” however, would be unremarkable if measured beside what has changed over, say, the last few decades. “We’ve seen potency values [today] close to 30 percent THC, which is huge,” says Andy LaFrate, Ph.D, who operates a testing laboratory in Colorado. Thirty years ago, he says, THC levels were well below 10 percent.

So, technically, Sessions is not wrong. It is worth mentioning, however, that most if not all marijuana dispensaries operating under regulatory supervision are required to measure, limit, and declare the potency of each product they sell. Legalization is one way to at least attempt to control THC levels, which have evidently increased somewhat rapidly within the unregulated environment.

“We’re seeing real violence around that….Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think”

Here is what we can assume is the meat of Sessions’ argument: While the effects of drug use upon an individual are a concern, the peripheral effects of drug use upon families and communities are, potentially, menacing. Again, Sessions is not wrong, per se. We can predict that a thriving black market trafficking in an increasingly powerful drug will incite the kinds of criminality and violence that have always been linked to the drug trade.

But Sessions is making a wider point. He is implying that the legalization of marijuana will contribute, and is already contributing, to increased violent crime. This is a trickier nut to crack. The Attorney General’s decision not to support his feelings with empirical data means that we must search for it on our own, an often exhaustive chore of which, over the years, his constituents have probably grown tired.

Efforts to legalize cannabis in America are in their infancy. This is worth noting not because preliminary data will confirm that legalization begets a surge in criminal activity (it doesn’t), but because establishing causation when discussing specific types of crime is notoriously difficult. For example, although it’s been the subject of endless curiosity among criminologists – as well as a rich source of data – a conclusive explanation for America’s sharp decline in violent crime during the 1990’s remains, to many experts, elusive.

In fairness, Sessions did elaborate briefly upon what’s been quoted here. Specifically, he made reference to conversations between himself and Nebraska Attorney General Douglas Peterson. Nebraska sued the state of Colorado in 2016, essentially arguing that Colorado’s legalized cannabis market would result in increased lawlessness in Nebraska. Peterson’s strongest statistical data consisted of a document, produced by a federal drug enforcement task force, highlighting increased rates of property crime and violent crime in Denver over selected periods of 12 months. (The court was expected to reach some conclusions about Nebraska based upon evidence from Denver). The case was ultimately halted by the Supreme Court.

Connections between marijuana and crime in Denver have been disputed by, among others, Denver’s own police department. There are other studies, outside of Colorado, that have also failed to demonstrate correlations between marijuana legalization and increased crime. Some research actually indicates an inverse relationship to homicides and assaults.

Despite initial signs, it is still too early to untangle legalized cannabis from the multitude of variables that affect and contribute to violent crime. Research by The Cato Institute, a right-leaning, libertarian think tank, reached a similar conclusion: Effects of new marijuana laws, it found, do not prompt any real deviation from the existing, long-term trend of dropping violent crime rates. There is cause for optimism, but a solid verdict would require real evidence – too much to expect, it would seem, from the head of the Justice Department.

….oh, and “there’s big money involved”

Sure. Legalized drugs involve big money in America. Ask Purdue Pharmaceuticals. Ask Phillip Morris, or Altria, or whatever they call themselves now to avoid being associated with the slow, painful (but non-violent) deaths of millions of people. That one checks out.

Connor Narciso

The author Connor Narciso

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