Attorney General Jeff Session thinks legalizing pot increases violent crime — he’s wrong
© Greg Nash

United States Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThose predicting Facebook's demise are blowing smoke If bitcoin is 'digital gold,' it should be taxed like gold The metaverse is coming — society should be wary MORE alleges that statewide laws regulating the use and retail sale of cannabis by adults are leading to upticks in violent crime. But the facts say otherwise.

Over the past two decades, 29 states have enacted legislation regulating the production, sale, and use of marijuana for medical purposes. More recently, eight states have legalized marijuana for all adults.

The passage of marijuana liberalization policies over the past 20 years overlaps with consistent downward trends in rates of violent crime, which have fallen nationwide since the early 1990s.


Studies assessing crime rates in medical cannabis states following changes in the plant’s legal status further undermine Session’s claims. For example, a 2014 study published by researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas determined that medical marijuana access was not predictive of increases in violent crime, burglary, or theft, but that legalization was associated with reductions in incidences of homicides and assaults.


“Medical marijuana laws were not found to have a crime exacerbating effect on any of the seven crime types (homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, auto theft),” investigators concluded. “On the contrary, our findings indicated that medical marijuana laws precedes a reduction in homicide and assault. ... In sum, 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.”

Their findings are not unique. A federally funded study published by UCLA researchers previously reported that the proliferation of medical cannabis retailers in urban areas “was not associated with violent crime or property crime rates.” Further, authors speculated that the existence of such facilities may potentially reduce these unwanted activities since many retailers hire their own door security, utilize security cameras, and take other steps to deter would-be criminals.

Most recently, a 2017 study prepared by a pair of New Zealand economists similarly concluded that neither legalizing the use of medicinal cannabis or regulating its sale adversely impacts public safety. "We do not find evidence that medical marijuana laws consistently affect violent and property crime," authors concluded. "Our results suggest that liberalization of marijuana laws is unlikely to result in the substantial social cost that some politicians clearly fear."

Specific data from states where recreational marijuana sales yields similar results. In Washington, where voters legalized adult use in 2012, violent crime fell ten percent statewide. In Colorado, rates of violent crime and property crime fell in the city of Denver following legalization. Crime rates have similarly declined in Portland, Oregon according to a recent CATO think-tank policy report.

Overall, CATO’s researchers concluded that concerns regarding the potential adverse effects of legalization laws on crime have largely been blown out of proportion. “The absence of significant adverse consequences is especially striking given the sometimes dire predictions made by legalization opponents,” they reported.

Of course, it is true that drug cartels and other black market criminal organizations often settle their business disputes with violence rather than through courts of law.  But this phenomenon is a direct result of the product’s criminalization. Just as alcohol prohibition took the production and sale of booze out of the hands of licensed businesses and placed it into the hands of organized crime, cannabis prohibition drives marijuana production and sales to an unregulated, underground market occupied primarily by criminal entrepreneurs.

By contrast, enacting legalization and regulation brings this market above ground so that police can readily discern good actors from bad, and so regulators can impose controls and demand transparency upon those legitimate, licensed businesses who pay their taxes and play by the rules.

If the US Attorney General is serious about reducing the involvement of violent cartels and criminal gangs in the marijuana trade then the solution is to promote policies that legalize and regulate the marijuana market.

The majority of voters desire such a change and more and more states are parting ways from the federal government’s archaic and failed prohibition. 

At a minimum, Jeff Sessions ought not to stand in their way.

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and an adviser for Freedom Leaf. He is the co-author of the book "Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?" (Cheslea Green, 2013) and author of the book "The Citizen's Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws" (Whitman Press, 2015).

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.