What impact has the legalization of recreational cannabis had in the US?

Couple smoking

When it comes to the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use in America, the debate is still a hot topic. Although the step forward to cannabis freedom of will has been made by some states, even with two-thirds of Americans shown to be now supporting the end of prohibition, it’s still heavily contested and debated at the federal level.

In the U.S., medical marijuana is legal in 33 states and Washington DC, while recreational marijuana is legal in only 11 states and D.C. The first most recognizable impact is the economic one. Now we are able to measure cannabis sales legally, it’s clear that the stronger markets are California, Michigan and Washington. In January of this year, Illinois became the newest state to legalize recreational cannabis use, which is also showing steady financial growth in the market.

Whilst it’s easier to track the economic impact of legalization, the social impact needs deeper exploration and a more thorough measurement strategy. Luckily, since recreational cannabis use was first legalized by the states of Colorado and Washington in 2012, researchers have been tracking the social impacts from day one and the results have been, overall positive.

It seems consistency is a key theme, with similar social impacts being recorded across the legalized states. All of which have shown a variety of positive results, with one of the most important being the huge reduction in small-scale marijuana related arrests. This, in turn, has had a positive impact on the costs incurred by law enforcement to enforce cannabis possession laws and has significantly freed-up resources to tackle more serious and violent crime. Other positive conclusions found from initial research shows that marijuana legalization does not negatively impact road safety due to drug (high) drivers in any states and that recreational cannabis has been linked to lower rates of opioid-related overdoses. 

Even with the positive results shown from the research, the debate still appears to have congress divided, and as a result, recreational marijuana remains illegal across most of the United States and at the federal level. Arguments against legalization range from wanting firmer evidence against whether smoking cannabis is a ‘gateway’ to harder drug use and that legalization would cause a higher rate of car accidents and an increase in criminal activity.


“There's not nearly enough evidence as to whether or not marijuana is a gateway drug. Before I legalise it nationally," said Biden, "I want to make sure we know a lot more about the science behind it.”

Joe Biden - US Democratic presidential candidate.


It was hoped that at the close of 2019 congress would have finally passed the bill to legalise cannabis at the federal level, but with the coronavirus outbreak, this now doesn’t look likely to be readdressed in the near future.


Arguments for and against recreational cannabis legalization in the US

Source: Forbes/Satista


Does marijuana use increase crime?


This is proving a more inconsistent measure and harder question to answer. It’s completely clear that in states where medical marijuana use is legalised there has been absolutely no correlation made between crime increase and cannabis. However, crime rates in Colorado have been steadily increasing since 2014, when recreational marijuana was legalised, which has shown concern from the state's governor and consideration to revert legalization in the state. Crime rates have also shown an increase in other cities where recreational cannabis has been legalised, however so have other major cities that are still under prohibition. This makes it hard to correlate recreational cannabis use to increased crime rates, and as such more in depth research is required to ascertain if cannabis use is responsible. 

One measurable and proven positive impact cannabis legalization can be attributed to is the significantly improved crime clearance rates for violent and property crimes. 70% of Americans who support the legalization of cannabis, believe it will free up law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes, and so far the results show that this is the case, with FBI data confirming increased crime case clearance rates.



Does smoking cannabis increase car accidents?


From the social impact research already undertaken, it’s been concluded that there is no evidence to support that cannabis legalization does increase car accidents attributed to being high on marijuana. During the first three years after legalization in Colorado and Washington, it was found that the number of fatal crashes caused by those who were above the legal limit of THC actually decreased by 33% and the number of citations for cannabis-impaired drivers actually remained at the same level, that’s approximately 350 citations out of nearly 5,000 DUI arrests per year.



Is cannabis a gateway drug, and will recreational use lead to a negative impact on public health?


Perhaps the biggest argument against cannabis legalization has always been that it is a gateway drug. There is evidence, found in animal testing to support this claim, with animals showing increased responsiveness to other substances after exposure to cannabis, but this response is also mirrored by alcohol and tobacco. Statistics also show that many people do not go onto user harder drugs after exposure to cannabis, and with so many other contributing environmental factors as to why some users do continue onto harder substances, it makes it very difficult to make a clear correlation. As such, research into finding the answer to this question remains inconclusive.

However, cannabis has been positively linked to improving addiction to harder drugs with opioid overdose death rates being recorded as 25% lower in states with legalised medical marijuana. In these states, a 23% reduction in opioid dependence or abuse-related hospitalizations has occurred and a 15% decrease in opioid treatment admissions recorded. Which is great news as it’s making improvements to public health during an opioid epidemic currently being felt throughout the US.

Another concern is that legalizing recreational cannabis will encourage use in the younger generations, which could, in turn, have a detrimental effect on public health and lead to addiction problems. However, evidence shows that where cannabis has been legalised there has been no increase found in use among teenagers.

There is a further concern that will require long term research and may take years before an accurate conclusion can be made, which is the effect that legalization has on mental health. Now with legalization, stronger and stronger strains of the plant can be bred and with extensive use could be found as a cause of mental health conditions, especially if use is started in the younger years and continued over long periods. Research into this is not new, however, it has always been undertaken in cannabis prohibition, so it's still very early days before a conclusion can be made if the legalization of recreational cannabis will contribute to a detrimental effect on mental health. It's clear that education is key to ensuring this does not happen and if safe and proper recreational use is promoted throughout the industry any risks caused by prolonged use of recreational cannabis to mental health can be reduced.


Whatever your thoughts are on this hot topic, it’s clear that it’s likely that recreational cannabis use will gain federal approval in the not too distant future. With the benefits clearly outlaying the risks and a tax revenue stream that cannot be ignored by the US government it won’t be long before recreational cannabis use becomes part of daily normality for Americans.


States where marijuana use is legal in the US

Source: Shayanne Gal/Business Insider



















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