The Trump administration will soon clarify its stance on marijuana legalization. On April 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memo instructing U.S. Attorneys to review state marijuana policies in every jurisdiction, which could be the first step toward a crackdown on states that have defied federal cannabis prohibition by legalizing medical and/or recreational marijuana use. But if the task force pays attention to current research, they might tell Sessions that legalizing cannabis might actually help combat violent crime.
The two-page memo only mentions cannabis in one sentence. But those words could shape the future of cannabis legalization in America. The overarching purpose of the letter was to notify U.S. Attorneys of the administration's efforts to combat violent crime in the country. The Trump administration plans to begin that work by forming a task force charged with investigating issues related to violent crime. One facet of that task force will focus specifically on America's cannabis policies.
"Task Force subcommittees will also undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing, and marijuana to ensure consistency with the Department's overall strategy on reducing violent crime and with Administration goals and priorities," Sessions wrote in the letter.
The memo is essentially another attempt by Sessions to link marijuana with violent crime. "Experts are telling me there's more violence around marijuana than one would think," Sessions told reporters on February 27, 2016. "You can't sue somebody for a drug debt. The only way to get your money is through strong-arm tactics, and violence tends to follow that."
The connection that Sessions is trying to make is tenuous at best. Shortly after the attorney general discussed cannabis with the press in February, Alex Kasprak of Snopes reviewed his remarks and determined that Sessions' claims are false. Kasprak came to that conclusion after reviewing three major studies on the effect that medical marijuana legalization (MLL) has had on American states.
The earliest was a 2014 study published by PLOS One, which found that "MLL may be correlated with a reduction in homicide and assault rates" in legal states. The following year, researchers studying the correlation between medical marijuana legalization and crime rates from 1994-2012 came to a similar conclusion.
"Preliminary results suggest MMLs lead to a significant decrease in arrest rates for violent crimes among both juveniles and adults," researchers wrote. "Initial estimates also point to a reduction in arrest rates for property crime, which is likely driven by a decrease in burglary and theft arrests among juveniles. Adults living in states with MMLs experience a significant decline in drug abuse violation arrests. Potential mechanisms to explain the decline in arrest rates include increased security at dispensaries and homes, the decreased level of alcohol consumption that accompanies the implementation of MMLs, and the role of law enforcement."
More recently, a study published in January 2016 in the Journal of Drug Issues found that "There is no evidence of negative spillover effects from medical marijuana laws (MMLs) on violent or property crime. Instead, we find significant drops in rates of violent crime associated with state MMLs."
Unfortunately, it's too soon to undertake these sorts of studies in terms of the effects that recreational marijuana legalization has on society. Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2014. And their laws didn't take full effect until the following year. More time is needed to determine the impact that state-legalized recreational cannabis industries have had on rates of violent crime. But initial results suggest that crime rates are declining in Denver thanks to legalization.
So if Attorney General Sessions is serious about removing the criminal element from marijuana, he should look into helping states transition marijuana sales from the black market to a state-regulated market. However, there isn't much hope that he can use good judgment when it comes to marijuana. After all, Sessions once said that he thought the Ku Klux Klan "were OK until I found out they smoked pot."
The taskforce is expected to report back to Sessions with recommendations by July 27.
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