Marijuana was considered an illicit substance and its consumption illegal until recently when medical science spoke in favor of it as a cure for serious chronic diseases. As few first-world nations moved towards the legalization of this substance (Uruguay, Catalonia, Canada, and nine states of the USA), the debate is picking up in others to follow suit (Lee, 2018). However, there are popular concerns about the effect of the legalization of marijuana on crime. So far, research scholars have not presented a convincing argument that shows a positive relationship between legalization and crime reduction. Using these research studies as a base for analysis, this paper argues that the legalization of marijuana is unlikely to reduce crimes. It bases the argument on the relationship of marijuana consumption with violence, robbery and theft, illicit use of other illegal substances, and drug trafficking crimes. Given the impact of marijuana on the cognitive abilities of the user and its nature as an addictive substance, legalization is more likely to increase consumption and thereby increase crime.
Even since the use of marijuana was legalized in Australia’s counterparts, state governments here have been feeling the pressure to follow suit. On the political front, this is being heavily debated. The Greens leader Richard Di Natale vocalizes the want for Australia to legalize marijuana use and for it to be regulated by a federal agency (Lee, 2018). However, the population is split. In 2012 a survey concluded that 48.4% of males and 54.2% of females opposed the legalization of marijuana (Ritter & Matthew-Simmons, 2012). In 2018 a poll resulted in approximately 30% of Australians in support of legalization (Lee, 2018). While these numbers are not significantly supportive for legalization to occur, they are enough to keep the debate alive. From these numbers though, it can be inferred that one of the key concerns for people remains the effect of the legalization of marijuana on crime.
Literature produces conflicting results in the discussion of the legalization of marijuana and the reduction of violent crime. In comparison to other drugs such as cocaine, marijuana produces feelings of relaxation and euphoria (Dragone, Prarolo, Vanin & Zanella, 2019) and temporarily decreases a person’s aggression (Pacula & Kilmer, 2003). This would suggest that violence would not increase but rather potentially reduce with legalization. Huber, Newman & LaFave (2016) found a 15-20% decrease in violent crimes, and Gavrilova, Kamada & Zoutman (2018) reported a 12% decrease in violent crimes where medical marijuana use had been legalized (Chu & Townsend, 2019). A 2010 study further confirmed that marijuana use did not lead to violent crime (Green, Doherty, Stuart & Ensminger, 2010).
In comparison, other studies suggest otherwise and find that legalization of marijuana increases consumption of this drug among the population and thereby increases crime. For example, Washington showed a 10% increase in the use of this drug since legalization (Dragone, Prarolo, Vanin & Zanella, 2019). It is reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that since 2014 four states in America that legalized the use of marijuana – Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington – faced a significant increase in homicides and aggravated assaults (Singal, 2019). A similar result was produced by a study conducted on New Zealand adolescents which suggested that dependence on marijuana increased violent crime by 280% (Morris, TenEyck, Barnes & Kovandzic, 2014). In light of these conflicting studies, it seems apparent why the population and politics are generally on the side of aversion to the legalization of marijuana.
Marijuana is an addictive substance that severely alters the nervous system in a way that increases the tendency to engage in violent crimes (Pacula & Kilmer, 2003). Soon after consumption, the user feels light-headed and less in control of the senses. The cognitive impairments affect the executive functioning and processing speed of the brain (Feeney & Kampman, 2016). This makes the user more violent, aggressive, and abusive soon after consumption when the effect of the drug is still strong. Consequently, he/she is more likely to commit violent crimes soon after consumption. With repeated and frequent use, the effect on cognitive abilities are severe and likely to last longer, increasing the tendency of the user to commit multiple crimes in the state of intoxication.
The nature of the crime committed in this state of intoxication is not limited to violent crimes but extends to other property-related crimes such as theft and robbery. The literature demonstrates a positive correlation between marijuana use and property crime. After consumption, the user feels an increase in confidence level which may tend to push him/her to conduct property crime. A 1998 study conducted by Baker on secondary students concluded that individuals who repeatedly used marijuana were five times more likely to conduct types of property crime as opposed to non-users (Pacula & Kilmer, 2003). A study in 2010 by Pederson & Skardhamar provided similar results (Green, Doherty, Stuart & Ensminger, 2010). In 2014 the Californian Chiefs of Police Association commented that there is an increasing trend on individuals consuming marijuana and committing home invasion robberies (Morris, TenEyck, Barnes & Kovandzic, 2014). This goes to show that the link between marijuana use and property crimes has remained positive over the years and is likely to continue despite legalization.
Studies have also shown an increase in consumption of other illicit substances with the use of marijuana. It is common for individuals to consume a cocktail of drugs some of which true contents are unknown to them. A study found that “medical marijuana users have a higher chance of using cocaine compared to recreational marijuana users and non-marijuana users” (Cheon, Decker & Katz, 2017). When consumed, this cocktail of drugs (including alcohol, cocaine, and amphetamines) has a much more severe impact on brain function and individual’s self-control, making them more prone to committing a crime (Dragone, Prarolo, Vanin & Zanella, 2019). As a result, the use of illicit drugs is likely to increase with the legalization of medical marijuana, resulting in potentially higher crime rates.
Consequently, this increase in consumption of other illicit drugs following from legalization of marijuana is likely to spook the demand for such illicit drugs and lead to more drug trafficking of substances besides marijuana. The US marijuana market is largely controlled by Mexican drug trafficking organizations (Gavrilova, Kamada & Zoutman, 2017). There is significant evidence to indicate that legalizing marijuana in certain states throughout the US has resulted in a reduction of profits for trafficking organizations (Gavrilova, Kamada & Zoutman, 2017). Individuals are purchasing marijuana from legitimate places and less is being illegally smuggled from Mexico (Morris, 2018). States which have legalized marijuana are moving towards domestic production to control drug trafficking. As a result, upon legalization, drug trafficking of marijuana has reduced. However, the same cannot be said for other illegal drugs that will continue to be smuggled, and rather in more quantity, thereby increasing the rate of drug trafficking.
The tendency to consume marijuana and commit crime afterward is not just in adults but also in adolescents. Academic literature frequently links marijuana use and crime with adolescents. Theories such as general strain theory, self-control theory, and social learning theory explain why adolescents have a higher chance of using marijuana recreationally (Meneses & Akers, 2011). Social learning theory has received the most support for explaining the link between marijuana use and crime (Meneses & Akers, 2011). Individuals in their adolescence are at a time in their life where they want to fit in and explore new things. Adolescents are likely to engage and continue in criminal behavior when they are linked to others who are involved in or are supportive of this behavior (Meneses & Akers, 2011). A study conducted in the Netherlands reported that adolescents who used marijuana were more likely to engage in delinquent and violent behavior (Morris, TenEyck, Barnes & Kovandzic, 2014). Research has also shown that adolescents at the age of 15 using marijuana had a higher likelihood of reporting aggressive and violent behavior at the age of 19 (Morris, TenEyck, Barnes & Kovandzic, 2014). This behavior increases the likelihood of committing a crime. Results conclude that if heavy marijuana use was prevented in adolescence then they were less likely to criminate themselves in adulthood (Green et al, 2010). If marijuana is legalized and is easily as well as cheaply available to adolescents, then it is likely to promote its use instead of help in retrieval.
From the analysis above, it is evident that the legalization of marijuana is likely to increase rather than a crime. However, if such legislation is necessary for medical reasons, the law must be supported by strong soft laws and policies to avoid misuse. There must be an age limit of 25 to limit consumption amongst adolescents. Moreover, the drug must not be available over-the-counter. It should be supplied only upon prescription and in limited quantity. For recreational users, the plantation of marijuana should be limited to avoid illegal supply. These controls in the system will perhaps reduce the otherwise overshoot in the crime rate that can result from legalization.
To conclude, there is a lack of convincing evidence to support a reverse relationship between legalization and crime. The effect of consumption on the cognitive abilities of the user is likely to result in more crime. However, if marijuana is to be legalized for medical reasons, its use and supply must be controlled through strict regulations and policy to ensure that our society is still safe. Research between the legalization of marijuana and crime is very limited to the United States. Further research needs to be conducted in other areas of the world for comparison.