Across the board, Americans are safer than they have ever been. There are fewer criminals, and they are committing fewer crimes. So why does the myth of skyrocketing crime rates persist? In 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a notorious anti-legalization (and pro-mass-incarceration) Republican with a long history of using the moral panic surrounding cannabis to drum up votes, claimed that there was a link between THC levels in marijuana and violent crime.
Using Logic To Debunk The Crime Myth
Before getting into the claims made by anti-cannabis activist groups, it’s helpful to apply some simple logic. In states that passed recreational legalization, something that used to be illegal is now legal. On Monday cannabis users were lumped in with heroin users, on Tuesday they’re beer drinkers. It’s doubtful there were too many first-time users walking through the door the day rec dispensaries opened for business, so the marijuana-consuming population remains the same cross-section of society it always was.
Crime rates, in general, have been dropping for the past twenty-five years. Property crimes like burglary are often linked in the public imagination to rates of drug use, but while cannabis consumption has risen, the FBI says property crimes have fallen a staggering 48% since 1993, while the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports an even more optimistic 66%.
“I don’t think America is going to be a better place when people of all ages, and particularly young people, are smoking pot,” Sessions said to reporters Monday at the Department of Justice. “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.”
Sessions said he had a meeting on Monday with the attorney general of Nebraska, who is very concerned about marijuana flowing in from Colorado, which legalized weed in 2012. “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved,” he said. […]
“You can’t sue somebody for drug debt; the only way to get your money is through strong-arm tactics, and violence tends to follow that,” Sessions said.
Anyone familiar with cannabis dispensaries will spot a flaw in his logic right away. It’s hard to go into “drug debt” in a cash-only business. The persistent characterization of cannabis users as drug-crazed maniacs putting their lives into hock for one more puff of that devil weed has old and deeply racist roots, due in part to the 20th-century association of cannabis with jazz musicians.
The Difference Between Correlation and Causation
Now, Sessions' supporters didn’t reason their way into racism and they can’t be reasoned out of it. There will always be a contingent of the country who are willing to believe any negative thing they hear about people and activities they disapprove of. But it’s more disheartening to hear government officials with better access to facts repeat the same misinformation.
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has a front-row seat to his state’s experiment with cannabis legalization, a measure he opposed but relented to at the will of Colorado voters. Now that legalization has passed and the state is reaping the benefits in rising tax income and falling opioid use, he’s testing the waters for a reversal, making claims about rising crime rates to justify repealing legalization.
He cites reports showing a five-percent spike in crime, with a twelve-percent increase in violent crime statewide, but police in Denver, Colorado’s destination city and a burgh that now boasts over 170 recreational dispensaries, don’t think correlation necessarily indicates causation.
"[Property crime is] the biggest driver of our [overall] crime, and of our increases. So, can you attribute that to marijuana? I don't think you can," said Denver Police Commander James Henning. "The data isn't there."
There's Actually Been A Decrease in Crime Since Legalization
The data isn’t even consistent in pointing towards a trend in one direction or another. The Colorado Department of Public Safety reports a six percent decrease in violent crime statewide, and Colorado showed a 2.2% drop in violence during the first year of recreational legalization alone.
“The Denver, Aurora and Edgewater police departments have not shown any link between violent crime and marijuana,” said Kristi Kelly, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group.
“In fact, the statistics trend in the opposite direction.” Kelly is one of the leading advocates for the cannabis industry in Colorado, so she’s especially alert to the rumblings of the Justice Department about a nationwide crackdown.
“We have a sensitivity to the concerns that are being expressed at the federal level, and we want to do what we can to mitigate those concerns. We have members in an industry who are thoughtful and pragmatic and sophisticated. This is not a fly-by-night kind of deal. People are putting a lot of resources into this industry and really want to see a successful model."
Biased Data Interpretation
Part of the challenge with getting an accurate answer about the possible connection between cannabis legalization and changes in crime rates, positive or negative, is how many reporting agencies have institutional reasons to highlight data that suggests a particular reading. True studies into crime causation, not just correlated statistics, are rare. Spurious correlations are easy to generate for just about any set of data.
Ever since the “War on Drugs” began in the 1980s, the United States Justice Department has been heavily invested in the business of prosecuting and incarcerating drug users. Data that makes it look like drugs cause drug-users to break more laws than just the ones against using drugs help sell the idea that the War on Drugs is a noble cause worth earmarking a sizable chunk of the federal budget to.
For a more even-handed stance, it’s better to go to academia for statistics. The scientific journal PLOS-ONE published a study examining the link between medical marijuana laws and crime statistics in multiple states. In the researchers’ own words, “These findings run counter to arguments suggesting the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes poses a danger to public health in terms of exposure to violent crime and property crimes.”
Not only did their research not show that marijuana consumption exacerbated crime statistics, but they found a possible link between medical marijuana and a drop in homicide and assault rates. More research is needed and will continue, but one might speculate that cannabis use is replacing at least some alcohol consumption, a drug for which the link between consumption and violence is much less spurious.