A November 2017 study published in the Economic Journal has found that the implementation of medical cannabis laws led to a decrease in violent crimes in states on the Mexican border. The study also found that the introduction of medical cannabis laws in inland states caused a crime reduction in the nearest border state. The authors of the study concluded that this is because cannabis consumers are more likely to turn to state-legalized pot when it is accessible than to the Mexican cartel-controlled market.
This is not the first time researchers have observed a decrease in crime upon the implementation of cannabis regulation.
A 2014 study reviewing U.S. state panel data collected by the FBI between 1990 and 2006 found that there was no increase of crime related to medical marijuana laws (MML). Instead, it was possible that “state MML may be correlated with a reduction in homicide and assault rates.” A 2015 presentation, “Assessing the Impact of Medical Marijuana Laws on Violent and Non-violent Crimes in the US,” concluded that MMLs were correlated with a decline in arrests for violent crimes and suggested that enhanced dispensary security, reduced alcohol consumption due to MML implementation, and the participation of law enforcement in regulation played important roles in the crime reduction. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Drug Issues confirmed these findings concluding that “there is no evidence of negative spillover effects from medical marijuana laws on violent or property crime. Instead, we find significant drops in rates of violent crime associated with state MMLs.”
So what’s the deal with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his statement that “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved”? Sessions’ fearful and scientifically disproven fears about ganja are relics of a bigoted pot mythology that just won’t quit.
A History of Alternative Facts
Of the many attacks Harry Anslinger, Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the precursor to the FBI) made in his assault on weed, this is one of the most entertaining to read:
“How many murders, suicides, robberies, criminal assaults, holdups, burglaries, and deeds of maniacal insanity it causes each year, especially among the young, can only be conjectured. No one knows, when he places a marijuana cigarette to his lips, whether he will become a joyous reveler in musical heaven, a mad insensate, a calm philosopher, or a murderer.”
Propagandist images depicting women’s lifeless bodies in the arms of joint smoking demons made enticing book covers for thrillers about social recluses who smoked the devil’s lettuce and either lost their minds or went looking for trouble. Movies like Reefer Madness portrayed cannabis use as gateway to suicide, rape, murder, and insanity. In addition to being one of the worst movies of all time, the film contributed to the baseless idea that being in the same room as a joint could lead to an unstoppable transformation of our youth into an army of Norman Bates-styled psychopaths.
In his stunning use of hyperbole, Anslinger’s wild conjecture articulated the racist and xenophobic paranoia that drove cannabis prohibition in the 1930’s. Mexican refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution brought the recreational use of marijuana with them. The plant became popular in Black communities too. Consequently, cannabis use was conflated with the irrational fear that Mexicans were thieving murderers and that Blacks were rapists. It is from the dissemination of this mythology that President Nixon’s disastrous war on drugs was born.
The irony of ironies is that the government was aware of the lie pretty much from the get. Weed was federally legislated in 1937 under the Marijuana Tax Act, a law that imposed hefty fines on cannabis. In 1944, the New York Academy of Medicine released a heavily researched report concluding that cannabis was much less dangerous than the American population had been led to believe. In fact, the report concluded that “the practice of smoking marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word, marihuana is not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes, juvenile delinquency is not associated with the practice of smoking marihuana, [and] the publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marihuana smoking in New York City is unfounded.”
Despite this report, federal antagonism toward cannabis intensified. Under the leadership of President Nixon, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, a law that categorized cannabis as an illegal, dangerous, and medically useless substance. The CSA initiated a war on drugs that has cost this country over $1 trillion and the entanglement of countless lives into the prison industrial complex. Nixon’s campaign for this legislation was rooted in the same fears that had been disproven by the LaGuardia Report released 26 years earlier. In 1972, a report echoing those findings was released, and this time, by the government.
The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse released a document commonly referred to as the “Shafer Commission” recommending the decriminalization of cannabis. The Commission urged both the federal and state governments to relax their prohibitionist laws, citing the lack of evidence supporting their existence in the first place:
“T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use. It implies an overwhelming indictment of the behavior which we believe is not appropriate. The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.
“… Therefore, the Commission recommends … [that the] possession of marijuana for personal use no longer be an offense, [and that the] casual distribution of small amounts of marihuana for no remuneration, or insignificant remuneration, no longer be an offense.”
Since the release of that report 46 years ago, over 17 million people have been imprisoned for cannabis-related offenses, over $20 billion has been spent enforcing cannabis laws, and almost 25 percent of the population has been disqualified from receiving federal financial aid for higher education because of minor pot crimes.
The uninformed belief that cannabis is an extremely dangerous substance has created very real and devastating consequences for too many people. No one is saying that cannabis use is without risk. Instead, advocates are chipping away—one state, one study, one court case at a time—at the monument of prohibition built on a foundation of racist and xenophobic myths.