New Study Reveals Positive Effects of Decriminalization

Investigators discover that decriminalization leads to less arrests and does not lead to uptick in use among children and teens.

A new study from researchers associated with Washington University and the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that reducing the penalty for marijuana possession from a criminal to a civil offense leads to a dramatic decrease in drug arrests and does not cause increased youth consumption.

Researchers studied the effect of decriminalization efforts in five states–Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Maryland–all of which decriminalized between 2008 and 2014. The study’s authors found that decriminalization led to a substantial and immediate decline in drug arrests, which suggests that police followed decriminalization protocol.

No state reported increased marijuana use among teens or children, and in two states, Rhode Island and Vermont, marijuana use actually dropped. According to the study’s authors, “These findings are consistent with the interpretation that decriminalization policies likely succeed with respect to their intended effects and that their short-term unintended consequences are minimal.” The researchers obtained their data through federal crime statistics and Youth Risk Behavior Surveys.

The Move to Decriminalize

Thirteen states have partially or fully decriminalized marijuana, while nine have legalized recreational marijuana. Decriminalization typically allows for possession of small amounts without criminal penalties, but sale of larger amounts remains illegal. Some states still attach fines, and the permitted amount differs from state to state.  

Sixteen states also permit cannabis products are low in THC and high in CBD, and 29 states permit marijuana for medical use. A 2017 study predicted that all 50 states will legalize medical marijuana by 2021.  

Several polls have shown that overall support for marijuana legalization is at an all-time high. A CBS poll found that 61 percent of Americans agree with legalization, up 5 percent from the previous year. The same poll found that 88 percent approve of marijuana for medical use, 65 percent think marijuana is less risky than other drugs, and only 23 percent believe legalization would cause an increase in serious crime.

A similar CBS News poll given in 1979 found that support for legalization was just 27 percent. By 2011, it had grown to 40 percent, and continued to grow, reaching 56 percent in 2016.

A 2017 study by Quinnipiac University found similar results, as 60 percent of respondents support legalization. The study found even greater support for medical marijuana, with 94 percent of respondents in support. Older respondents in both polls reported greater resistance to legalization. Only 37 percent of CBS poll respondents over 65 years supported legalization,  compared to 76 percent of 18 to 34 year olds. Similarly, only 42 percent of over-65 respondents to the Quinnipiac poll agreed with legalization, while 79 percent of those aged 18 to 34 years were in support.

A more recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 70 percent of Americans also oppose the Trump administration’s attempts to interfere with states that have legalized marijuana. The poll found that support for state’s rights when it comes to marijuana legalization was higher among Democrats (at 70 percent) than Republicans (47 percent).

Earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned the Cole Memo enacted by Barack Obama, a policy which helped protect states with legalized marijuana from federal prosecution. This indicates that the Trump administration may attempt to enforce federal law in these states, which could have a major effect on state economies and prohibit access for medical patients. However, CBD oil would be excluded, as it is not classified as a controlled substance.

Learn More About Cannabis Laws

Keep up with changes to cannabis laws by following our news page.  Learn which states permit marijuana use by visiting our education page.