Historically, the most effective argument for legalizing cannabis is its promising ability to help with a wide range of medical issues. Its medical value has been a pathway for legalization since 1996 when California successfully passed the nation’s first medical cannabis law. The belief in cannabis as medicine has taken hold in public consciousness, with 88% of Americans agreeing that medical use should be federally legal.
But there is another worthwhile reason for legalizing that isn’t cited as often: criminal justice reform. When cannabis legalization laws are well-written, thorough and implemented properly, they can be an excellent method to reduce arrests and incarceration rates.
Police conduct over 20 million traffic stops per year, with blacks and hispanics being stopped most. These stops result in thousands of searches conducted because police claim to smell cannabis.
Police stop more than 20 million drivers a year, leading to thousands of searches citing “marijuana odor” every year. The Open Policing Project at Stanford University, a project started in 2015, has analyzed data from more than 100 million traffic stops.
Effects of Legalization
According to their analysis, states that legalize cannabis, specifically Colorado and Washington, saw a steep decline in traffic stops that led to searches.
This makes sense. When a state legalizes cannabis, it makes it harder for police to stop people because they smell like cannabis and harder to arrest people for small amounts of cannabis or paraphernalia.
This doesn’t mean that cannabis legalization efforts have addressed the issue perfectly. There is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to ensuring reparations for those affected by the War On Drugs in the past and having legalization reach its potential as a vehicle for criminal justice reform. This also doesn’t mean cannabis legalization will completely fix the issue.
The results from the Open Policing Project are heartening, but show that despite the steep decline in traffic stops and searches, blacks and hispanics are still disproportionately affected by traffic stops and searches in both Colorado and Washington.
In other places, legal cannabis laws lack the legal clarity that would really allow cannabis legalization to achieve its potential as a vehicle for criminal justice reform.
Washington D.C. was the first legalization campaign to run on a platform of criminal justice reform rather than patient rights, according to Seema Sadanandan, the Criminal Justice Director at the ACLU’s D.C. office.
Immediately after legalizing cannabis, possession arrests dropped by 99% in Washington D.C., a truly remarkable piece of data from the Drug Policy Alliance.
In 2011, 4,256 people were arrested for possession of cannabis, compared to just 32 in 2016. In the same vein, possession with intent to distribute arrests dropped from 1132 in 2010 to 175 in 2016, an 85% decline.
Distribution arrests dropped as well for a time, but are now back up to pre-legalization levels.
How could distribution arrests go back up under a legal system? Poorly written laws, mostly.
In D.C., there are high barriers to getting your medical card and not enough medical dispensaries to satiate demand. Even though cannabis is decriminalized, allowing adults to have up to an ounce or six plants in their home, there is no actual market allowed for recreational pot. It is legal to gift someone cannabis, but not legal to accept anything for it in return.
This is why D.C.’s law has gained the nickname “Dealer Protection Act”. A legal market and competition cannot exist according to the law, but those same laws make it hard for police to arrest dealers if they aren’t caught exchanging money.
Cannabis legalization won’t be the cure all solution for criminal justice issues in the United States, but it can play a huge role when laws are written and implemented correctly.
As states play their role as laboratories of democracy, hopefully we can continue to test and iterate on cannabis laws, creating policies that optimize for patients and criminal justice reform.
This post was originally published on July 18, 2017, it was updated on October 5, 2017.