There is endless speculation regarding whether the legalization of marijuana would increase crime. For every proponent of drug legalization, there is another individual who rallies against the legalization of any controlled substances. While subjective opinion isn’t particularly helpful here, there is ample data that suggests that the legalization of certain drugs does not lead to adverse effects. The deciding factor seems to be whether we separate “soft” drugs from “hard” drugs, or whether we instead legalize all drugs.
Virtually no experts on the subject suggest the latter. However, certain European jurisdictions—such as Amsterdam—have legalized soft drugs such as marijuana in certain circumstances, and they have not experienced adverse effects. In fact, the city’s “sailor district,” Zeedijk, was once a hotbed for illegal drug trafficking. Today, it is an upscale residential area. This gentrification is due in large part to the fact that street marijuana dealers were replaced by tax-generating, cannabis-selling coffee houses.
The Netherlands as a country is well known for its low crime rates in the latter half of the twentieth century, and especially since the late ’70s. US news commentator, Barry McCaffrey, who publicly denounced the Netherland’s liberal drug policies, is famous for claiming that the Netherlands had a higher murder rate than the US in 1998. Within 24 hours of this statement, fact-checkers revealed the truth: the Netherlands only suffered 1.8 murders per every 100,000 individuals. That’s four times less than US figures. McCaffrey also claimed that the Netherlands suffered higher rates of drug abuse and rehabilitation. In fact, reporters quickly discovered that the Netherlands consistently had fewer marijuana users overall. Some experts attribute this to the fact that there is less mystique surrounding the drug in countries where it is easily obtainable.
Interestingly, cannabis remains a Schedule 1 substance in the US, despite the fact that the US government holds a patent that claims that chemicals derived from the plant have medicinal qualities. Many experts contend that the drug should remain a Schedule 1 drug because of the gateway effect, which states that marijuana use can lead to usage of harder drugs. However, Andrew R. Morral, in his paper “Reassessing the Marijuana Gateway Effect” for the journal Addiction, states that no gateway effect is required to explain why a percentage of marijuana users go on to try harder drugs. In other words, these individuals, whether by genetic inclination or environmental factors, are susceptible to drug abuse in any event. Furthermore, recent research shows that only around 9% of heavy marijuana smokers become addicted.
Colorado and Washington
Many news outlets have covered the fact that after months of tentative pot legalization, Denver on the whole has not become a drug-infested ghetto. In fact, violent and property crimes have been down since January 2014. It’s important to note that with a population over three million, violent crimes are going to occur regardless of current drug laws. What’s more important is crime overall, and only time will tell whether the current trend continues. It is entirely possible, however, that the high tax attached to the price of legal cannabis may spur a black market at some point in the future. However, many experts believe that as with Amsterdam, Americans will prefer to pay extra for the peace of mind generated by buying from a legal source.
It is also worth noting that Washington state has experienced a stout reduction in marijuana-related misdemeanor charges for those over 21 since recreational use was legalized. The state allows individuals to have up to one ounce of marijuana on them in public, but police have been lax in enforcing the law, and prosecutors seem loath to pursue such cases. In all, the state filed 120 cases in 2013, which is down quite a bit from 2012’s figure, which came in at an astonishing 5,531 cases.
Cartels, mafias and other organized crime outfits generate quite a bit of profit from illegal marijuana sales. Luis Videgaray Caso, advisor to Mexico’s president elect, has complained that the legalization of marijuana in two US states makes it more difficult to justify Mexico’s expenditure of resources in the so-called “war on drugs.” Speculation abounds as to whether the Mexican cartels are putting pressure on the Mexican government to withdraw from this effort completely. William Booth of the Washington Post notes that the legalization of marijuana in two US states would hardly impact the cartel’s profit margin. However, the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness has projected that the cartels will lose $1.425 billion because of marijuana legalization in Colorado and $1.372 billion due to legalization in Washington. This is a mere drop in the bucket compared to overall illicit sales, but some experts warn that if the US becomes marijuana friendly overall, the cartels may turn to opium as a staple product. In the same report, the institute predicted that the cartels would lose around 20 to 30 percent of their drug trafficking revenues due to legalization in only a few US states. The Sinaloa Cartel in particular, who channels most of their drugs to the US West Coast, could lose up to 50%.
Legalization of soft drugs like marijuana on a wide scale is likely to have positive effects in both the short term and the long term, but efforts must be made to curtail the influx of other drugs that will occur. Virtually all of the drugs that the cartels of South America might replace marijuana with are more harmful to health, and are more addictive.