Opinion | Criminal Justice

Is marijuana legalization driving increases in violent crime?

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

The legalization of marijuana has not resulted in a reduction in crime, as we were told it would. The numbers show the results have been quite the opposite.

In 2012, Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize recreational use and possession of marijuana and eight states and the District of Columbia have followed suit. Other states have tiptoed into the foray by either decriminalizing possession of small amounts or legalizing use or possession of the drug for medicinal purposes. Proponents have pushed the idea that legalization would eliminate the underground, illicit market for marijuana and eliminate, or at least reduce, violent crime related to the illegal sale of the drug. But has legalization delivered on its rosy promise of peace and harmony, or has it just fueled a spike in violence?

A review of the crime statistics cast doubt on proponents' claim that legalization reduces violent crime; to the contrary, homicides have generally increased in pro-marijuana jurisdictions. In Denver, the homicide rate has steadily climbed from 36 in 2013 to a peak of 67 in 2018. Seattle had 19 homicides in 2013, then the rate increased every year except 2016, reaching a peak in 2018 of 31 cases. Even the District of Columbia has experienced a resurgence of violence - reaching 160 homicides in 2018 after seeing a historically low 116 homicide cases in 2017. Though too early in the year to make a meaningful projection, homicides spiked more than 100 percent in January 2019, as compared with January 2018.

The oft-cited justification for legal marijuana, reducing drug-related violent crime, is not materializing.

It turns out that legalization of marijuana doesn't eliminate the illicit black market, but may actually increase competition among rival factions of black-market dealers. State regulation, taxes, cultivation, and supply chain logistics force prices much higher for legal pot than its illegal and unregulated competition. The illegal market persists because most users aren't inclined to pay premium prices just to avoid committing a very low-level transgression that police are increasingly being asked to ignore.

Downward pressure on prices of illegal pot in legalized states is explained by reduced police enforcement of marijuana laws. The "risk premium" that artificially inflates prices of prohibited substances has been virtually eliminated. At the same time, it's likely that demand for pot has increased in legalized states because users' fear of adverse legal consequences has subsided and users from prohibition states flock to legalized states for legal or lower cost marijuana. It's not surprising, given these market dynamics, that there would be increased competition among illegal dealers. And any cop who has worked in narcotic enforcement will tell you that market force disruptions that increase competition often lead to increased violence among and between market participants.

There is also the issue of de facto legalization. Take, for example, the recent announcement by Baltimore's chief prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, that her office would no longer prosecute criminal cases for possession of marijuana, regardless of the amount. Her announcement was met with disapproval by her own party's leadership in the Maryland General Assembly - which was under the impression that the state legislature, not a local prosecutor, should decide whether marijuana will be legalized in the state. The impact of Ms. Mosby's decision could be even more dramatic than actual, statewide legalization since there will be no legal, regulated market at all and because the immediately surrounding jurisdictions continue to enforce the prohibition of marijuana.

The bottom line? Despite growing political and cultural momentum in its favor, legalizing marijuana has unintended economic and social consequences. States beginning to consider full legalization would be wise to take a critical look at the increased rates of violent crime in Colorado, Washington, and the District of Columbia.

Jason C. Johnson is president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, which helps pay for the defense of wrongfully accused or charged law enforcement officers and promotes public understanding and support of law enforcement challenges.

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