Does Legal Marijuana Cause Crime?

Opponents of legal pot continue to claim that broadly legalizing the drug would lead to crime. The basis of their argument is twofold.

On one hand they believe cannabis is a gateway to harder drugs like narcotics. Lifestyles around these harder drugs tend to involve crime and general deviancy. Marijuana is cheap and easy to get; something like opioid pills are tougher to acquire and much more expensive, and have a worse impact on the user’s state of mind. It’s not uncommon for opioid addicts to steal or break into homes to get the cash or pills they desire.

Protestors of legal pot also believe that the cannabis industry itself is surrounded by crime. Even the legal market. Kids living where recreational marijuana is legal may be more tempted to try the drug while underage. And cannabis shops could become common targets for break-ins, both for all the cash involved and for the allegedly criminal drug culture that surrounds the industry.

These same protestors also believe that legal cannabis will lead to more stoned drivers, or, worse, drivers who are high and drunk.

The most influential anti-pot official is Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The outspoken opponent of legal cannabis, notoriously hard on crime, said earlier this year, “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved.”

“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,” he added.

Sessions did offer evidence to back his claim. Measuring violence around the marijuana black market is difficult, but what about in states that have legalized cannabis? Has crime increased in Washington or Colorado? Available data points to the contrary.

Dropping Crime Rates

Despite claims by Sessions and other officials, there has been no noticeable rise in crime in either Washington or Colorado. Recreational cannabis has been available in both states since 2014. Studies by the Drug Policy Alliance looked into the resulting crime rates.

In the first years in Colorado since recreational cannabis stores opened, crime actually decreased. It dropped 2.2% in 2014 versus 2013. Burglaries also went down, declining 9.5%. Property crime fell 8.9%.

Washington saw similar results. Violent crime decreased 10% since voters approved legal possession and recreational marijuana in 2012. The murder rate went down 13%. Burglaries dropped 6%, while property crime rates remained flat statewide.

What’s behind these curious numbers? Those who support pot claim that when people swap alcohol for cannabis, they’re less likely to commit crime or violence. Alcohol tends to fuel aggressive behavior, while cannabis typically calms people.

That said, both studies that produced the data above stopped short of suggesting a link between marijuana and declining crime rates.

Instead, the studies pointed out that the decreases were in line with similarly shrinking crime rates across the nation. Here, both studies allowed a pro-pot observation: “While these data do not establish causation, they do demonstrate that legalization of marijuana for adults 21 and over did not lead to an increase in crime.”

In a 2014 study of 11 states that legalized medicinal cannabis between 1990 and 2006, there was no noticeable increase in crime. Violence actually decreased, including homicide and assault.

Traffic Fatalities

What about stoned drivers? It’s tough to question the correlation between legal cannabis and more people (unfortunately) sitting behind the wheel of a car while high. But how much of a threat is this to public safety?

Hardly any cannabis activist would publicly suggest that people are not dangerous while driving stoned. But what they do sometimes argue is that driving high is not as bad as driving drunk. People who are stoned tend to drive slower, more cautiously, anxiously following the law. Alcohol typically has people driving faster, recklessly, with careless abandon. Or so pot proponents claim.

Statistics in Washington and Colorado do not indicate a rise in traffic fatalities since voters approved recreational cannabis.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance report, traffic fatalities dropped about 3% in 2014 in Colorado. This marks a continuation of a 12-year long downward trend in traffic fatalities in the state. Again, no link between legal cannabis and improved public safety, but also no link between recreational laws and increased crime.

Same in Washington. Traffic fatalities remained flat statistically in 2014.

Possesion Arrests

Unsurprisingly, both studies found similar results when it came to low-level marijuana arrests: these decreased significantly.

Low-level possession arrests have decreased 84% in Colorado since 2010. In Washington they have declined 98%.

Which makes sense, of course. If carrying around small amounts of cannabis is no longer illegal, then that eliminates a significant source of arrests. Especially for minorities.

According to a report published by the American Civil Liberties Union, blacks are 3.73 times more likely to get arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite both groups using marijuana at roughly the same rate.

The ACLU report believes that America spends between $2-$6 billion annually on low-level marijuana arrests due to the costs of policing, adjudication and corrections.

Whether government officials believe it’s worth tax dollars and the time of law-enforcement to pursue low-level possession arrests will go a long way towards determining these officials’ view of crime rates under legal cannabis.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Cannabis Regulator. Reach him at or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece 8 States That Could Legalize Cannabis In 2017.