The cannabis industry brings with it legitimate concerns and lingering stigmas.
The WM Policy team works to provide accurate information that addresses the issues.
An increase in the underage use of cannabis–as a result of legalization–is a frequently cited concern of legislators, concerned parents, educators, religious organizations and law enforcement representatives. Their concern is well-being and should not be discounted. There is compelling data from states that have legalized medical and/or adult-use cannabis that provides reassuring evidence that these laws DO NOT lead to increased cannabis usage by youths.
A 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows rates of cannabis use “in the past 30 days” has not changed since 2017, and rates are substantially lower than in years prior to any state legalizing adult-use cannabis.
A 2019 study examining data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys from 1993 to 2017 found no relationship between medical cannabis laws and youth cannabis usage, and adult-use legalization was associated with an 8% decrease in the odds of youth cannabis use.
A 2021 report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) examining youth surveys from 2009 to 2019 found no measurable difference in past 30-day cannabis use among those in grades 9-12.
Due in large part to the legacy of the failed “War on Drugs,” cannabis use is often associated with crime. But emerging evidence is making a strong case that cannabis legalization is not associated with increased crime rates. In some cases, it may be the reason why crime rates go down.
A study of Washington and Colorado, the first two states to legalize adult-use, found that legalization had “minimal to no effect” on major crimes, and no long-term effects on violent and property crime rates.
A study examining crime data from 1990 through 2006 found no increases in crime in states with medical cannabis laws and found a potential correlation between medical legalization and a reduction in violent crime.
According to a study published in the Journal of Regional Science and Urban Economics, the addition of just one found that an addition of just one dispensary in a Denver, Colorado neighborhood resulted in a reduction of 17 crimes per month per 10,000 residents (a nearly 20% decline).
A 2017 study found that medical cannabis laws lead to a decrease in violent crime in states along the Mexico border. The reduction was strongest in the counties closest to the border, indicating that legalization leads to a reduction in violent crime associated with drug trafficking activity.
A cannabis dispensary in the neighborhood leading to decreased property values is a common concern among policymakers and their constituents. However, emerging research shows that commercial and residential property values actually increase in neighborhoods near medical and/or adult-use cannabis retailers. These property value increases are likely the result of heightened demand due to new business and employment opportunities from the emerging industry, as well as cannabis tax revenue funding public services and infrastructure in a community.
The National Association of Realtors has reported that medical and adult-use states experienced an increase in demand for land, warehouses and storefronts for commercial cannabis use–a 42% increase in demand for warehouses; 27% increase for storefronts; and 21% increase for land.
A 2021 report from real estate marketing firm, Clever, found an average increase in value of $22,090 for homes in cities that allow dispensaries, compared to cities where cannabis is legal, but dispensaries are prohibited.
Cannabis-impaired driving is a policy challenge in every U.S. state, regardless of legalization status. While opponents routinely claim that legalization makes roads more dangerous, research indicates two important trends: (1) medical cannabis laws are actually associated with declines in traffic fatalities and (2) adult-use cannabis laws are not associated with increases in traffic fatalities.
According to a 2017 study conducted by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, states with medical cannabis laws had lower traffic fatality rates compared to states without medical cannabis laws, and the adoption of a medical cannabis law is “associated with immediate reductions in traffic fatalities in those aged 15 to 24 and 25 to 44 years, and with additional yearly gradual reductions in those aged 25 to 44 years,”. This is one of the most comprehensive studies on cannabis-impaired driving and is based upon decades of data from the National Highway Traffic Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS).
A 2018 study by the University of Oregon (published as a National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper) revealed that the states of Washington and Colorado “saw similar changes in marijuana-related, alcohol-related and overall traffic fatality rates” as states without adult-use cannabis laws. The conclusion: “the similar trajectory of traffic fatalities in Washington and Colorado relative to their synthetic control counterparts yield little evidence that the total rate of traffic fatalities has increased significantly as a consequence of recreational marijuana legalization.”
Special note: Testing positive for THC does not necessarily mean a driver is impaired. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly referred to as THC, is the main psychotropic component of cannabis. Blood-plasma concentrations of THC can be detected up to 72 hours after consumption, so blood tests to determine impairment are unreliable. The Michigan Impaired Driving Safety Commission concluded that there is no scientifically supported threshold of THC bodily content that is indicative of impairment. The Commission recommended against using any THC threshold when testing drivers.
To learn more, check out our Cannabis Impaired Driving policy paper.
Legalization opponents often refer to cannabis as a “gateway drug” that increases the likelihood an individual will use harder substances, such as cocaine or heroin. This theory is baseless.
The Institute of Medicine found that cannabis use does not appear to cause, or be the most significant predictor of, serious drug abuse. Similarly, RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center suggests “it is not marijuana use but individuals’ opportunities and unique propensities to use drugs that determine their risk of initiating hard drugs.”
A key fallacy in the gateway theory is the conflation of correlation and causation. It is true that almost all individuals who have used hard drugs have used cannabis at some point, but that does not imply that cannabis is the cause of hard drug usage. Another key issue with older studies that conclude cannabis is a gateway drug is that they were observational studies that failed to consider outside factors that contribute to cannabis use. Many of these studies did not take into account other behaviors the subject engaged in (alcohol, cigarettes, etc.) or the risk-taking personality that a cannabis user would need to have in the era before decriminalization.
Cannabis prohibition itself also contributes to the plant’s association with harder drugs. Purchasing cannabis through illicit channels necessitates interaction with dealers who may have access to additional drugs. As the Netherlands began to liberalize cannabis laws in the 1970s, they paid close attention to the supposed “gateway effect.” Believing the link to be sociological, the Dutch developed a regulatory system to separate the legal and illicit market by keeping cannabis users away from hard drug dealers. Data compiled from the experiment suggests this approach weakened social interaction with dealers of harder drugs and demonstrated that no gateway effect resulted from legalization efforts.
To learn more, check out our “Dispelling the gateway theory” policy paper.
Public Health and Safety
The best way to protect public health and mitigate any potential harm from cannabis is by regulation and safety standards. Banning cannabis guarantees that purchasing and consumption operates through illicit channels. Requiring all cannabis products to undergo rigorous laboratory testing ensures that consumers are not exposed to harmful contaminants. Laboratory testing is also an important way for consumers to learn about cannabis, particularly regarding cannabinoid and terpene content. This has the added benefit of educating individuals on potency and dosage–promoting safe consumption of cannabis.
Additional safety measures can be implemented to ensure cannabis is safely consumed by the intended users: childproof packaging on all cannabis products, prohibiting advertisements from targeting children, and updating laboratory testing standards in accordance with emerging research and best practices.