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Cannabis-Arrests Plummet Following Recreational Legalization, Study Finds

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Dec 08, 2022   
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States that legalize recreational cannabis see a substantial drop in the number of arrests related to cannabis possession, according to a new study.

Published in JAMA Network Open, the study also found that arrests fell, post-legalization, in states that had already decriminalized cannabis.

The findings suggest that states that have decriminalized cannabis already can see their cannabis criminalization figures fall even further if they adopt recreational legalization, too.

Cannabis arrests fall

To get their findings, the researchers from the University of California, San Diego, analyzed data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Cannabis possession arrest statistics from 2010 to 2019 were collated and separated into groups of states, which differed depending on a state’s decriminalization and legalization history.

Some states, such as Colorado and Florida, were disqualified from the analysis, due to periods where police departments misreported or failed to report the number of cannabis arrests.

Recreational cannabis legalization was associated with a 68.6% decline in arrest rates in states that had not decriminalized cannabis prior to legalization, and a 33% decline in the legal states that had already decriminalized cannabis.

These arrest figures included children and teenagers. Among adults only, the drop in arrests was even starker. Recreational legalization was linked with a 76.3% drop in arrest rates in states without decriminalization policies, and a 40% fall in states that had decriminalized cannabis.

“These findings suggest that implementing RCL [recreational cannabis legalization] may be associated with a further reduction in adult arrest rates even after a state decriminalizes cannabis,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

The researchers also broke down their data by race. In recreational states without decriminalization policies, legalization led to a 77.9% fall in arrest rates among Black adults and a 74.6% decline among White adults. In states that had already decriminalized cannabis and then legalized it, legalization was associated with a 35% drop in arrests among Black adults and a 41% fall in arrests among White adults.

“Despite similar rates of cannabis use, Black individuals are reportedly 3 to 4 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession compared with White individuals,” the researcher wrote.

“Our results suggest that RCL might not provide additional benefits in terms of reducing racial disparities compared with decriminalization. Nonetheless, we should note that the decrease in cannabis possession arrests after RCL was substantial for both Black and White adults, demonstrating an overall change in law enforcement behaviors.”


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