Harsher Weed Policies Make Us Less Safe

States like California where marijuana is legal allow criminal justice leadership to re-address real legal priorities.

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Apr 19 2018, 7:30pm

Image via Flickr.

The War on Drugs narrative that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has revived like a zombie is an antiquated set of policies that ignores decades of research. Sessions has said that marijuana is almost as dangerous as heroin, that good people don’t smoke pot, and that he thought the KKK were okay “until I found out they smoked pot”. But extensive studies, like the one published through the Economic Journal by professors Evelina Gavrilova, Takuma Kamada, and Floris Zoutman, are proving him wrong.

In a 2016 study, the authors look at 16 years of weed legalization and its correlation to violent crime in border states, and they found unequivocally that when border states legalize medical marijuana, violent crime drops. When inland states legalize medical marijuana, violent crime in the nearest border state drops. They looked at data from the FBI and District Attorneys offices, and compared crime rates before and after legalization between 1994 and 2012.

“California was the first state to legalize marijuana in 1996,” Kamada, told VICE Impact. “Now, in San Diego, the number of medical marijuana dispensaries is greater than the number of Starbucks.”

"In order to reduce crime, legalization of marijuana is one way to go.”

And you don’t need to have cancer to get your weed prescription. In California, a medical marijuana “green card” can be obtained for symptoms like difficulty falling asleep or anxiety. Because so many people are able to access weed legally, the market for illegal pot is drying up.

“It has a huge impact on violent crime in the US/Mexico border regions,” said Kamada.


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Under the FBI classification, violent crime means murder, rape, burglary, or aggravated assault. Much of this reduction in crime is connected, not surprisingly, to drug trafficking. Kamada said there is less fighting over territory between rival Mexican cartels or American-grown gangs, because the market isn’t there.

The study also found that other drugs that are still illegal, like cocaine and methamphetamines, are going up in price.

“It’s not drugs that cause violence. It’s the prohibition of drugs that cause violence."

“This proves that the illegal drug market is weaker,” said Kamada. “This is an indirect way to understand how the introduction of medical marijuana in border states is crippling the drug trafficking of cartels.”

For Lieutenant Commander Diane Goldstein (Ret.), a 21-year veteran of the Redondo Beach Police Department and board chair of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, this study is a validation of what her organization has been doing for nearly two decades.

“It’s not drugs that cause violence,” Goldstein told VICE Impact. “It’s the prohibition of drugs that cause violence. All we have to do is go back and look at alcohol prohibition and the rise of the mafia… There’s a huge shadow economy related to illicit drugs and profitability. People use violence to protect their market share because they don’t have an alternative to civil courts or arbitration to handle disputes.”

There are, of course, concerns with how legalization of marijuana will change the game for major drug organizations. The drug cartels aren’t vanishing because marijuana is legalized, and they will probably look to other forms of profit.

“Mexican drug trafficking organizations are rational actors,” said Kamada. “They respond to incentives. Marijuana was the most lucrative drug, but once legalized, [the organizations] are replaced by the legal market. But they may diversify their activities to other crimes like human trafficking and kidnapping. There is anecdotal evidence that they’re switching to smuggling opioids that grow in Mexico, but due to data constraints, we haven’t looked at that yet.”

As someone who has made his career on an evidence-based approach, Kamada sees the Sessions take on marijuana as wrong-headed. “Sessions is cracking down on dispensaries, claiming they increase crime in those areas,” he said. “But in our evidence, precisely the contrary is true. In order to reduce crime, legalization of marijuana is one way to go.”

He points to the decades of efforts to crack down on drug trafficking, and the fact that cartels always found new ways to smuggle. “This is an alternative way to curb the war on drugs and fight drug trafficking and crime associated with it,” he said.

This study doesn’t even begin to look at the other potential ways legalization could reduce crime in communities that are disproportionately affected by laws that prosecute non-violent offenders. Even though rates of marijuana consumption are comparable among white people and people of color, everyone knows that arrests and sentencing disproportionately affects communities of color. This proves that it’s not only the laws, but the enforcement that needs to be looked at.

“It’s not the fact that it’s illegal,” Margaret Dooley Samuli, a top expert on marijuana policy and law at the ACLU, told VICE Impact. “It’s the reality of how it’s enforced. The history of the war on marijuana is exceedingly clear. It’s always been targeted at people first from Mexico or South America and then African Americans. When Jeff Sessions talks about the war on marijuana, he’s actually talking about a war on people of color.”

Since people of color are arrested and convicted for low level offenses much more than their white suburban counterparts, their communities are more negatively impacted. Dooley Samuli emphasizes that prosecutors actually have a choice about which infractions to prosecute, and she encourages them to exercise that right.

“What legalization does is it allows criminal justice leadership to re-address their priorities and focus on criminal cartels and bad actors who are causing the most violence."

“These kinds of arrests destabilize whole communities,” she said. “It impacts the individual and the family, but when it happens on the scale it happens in American cities, it is very destabilizing. It’s not just a result of poverty and downward mobility – it is a cause.”

Even if the laws aren’t changed, prosecutors can make choices about what cases they put their energy into. But once the law changes, it gives police more resources to protect communities in a more effective way.

“What legalization does is it allows criminal justice leadership to re-address their priorities and focus on criminal cartels and bad actors who are causing the most violence,” said Goldstein. “It allows for a redistribution of criminal justice resources that are badly needed.”

Local prosecutors have a lot of sway in the kinds of crimes that are pursued. Call your local prosecutor and tell them you don’t think your tax dollars should go to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses. Also, contact your congressperson above and tell them what you think would really make your community safer