The unintended consequences of marijuana decriminalization
Decriminalizing marijuana will not end the arrests. Gleti / Getty Images
America's decades-long war on drugs has disproportionately harmed minorities. Well, it seems that the decriminalization of marijuana hasn't leveled the playing field.
Black men are 12 times more likely than white men to spend time in the United States. Since the Anti-Drug Abuse Act came into effect in 1986, the enrollment of black men in college has declined.
I am a public policy scholar. In my book, From Criminalization to Decriminalization of Marijuana: The Politics of Social Control, I want to provide a historical overview of marijuana legislation and its impact on minorities.
Some drug laws related to marijuana are being relaxed. As of this writing in early 2020, 25 states have introduced decriminalization reforms, with 11 states allowing adult recreational use. Such reforms directly affect adults 21 and older, but also have indirect effects on younger Americans.
Although marijuana is still illegal for people under the age of 21, there is growing evidence that decriminalization is increasing the number of children who illegally use weed.
As I wrote in my book, young people have always been the main marijuana buyers. Marijuana smoking has become an important part of growing up for many U.S. teenagers, a fact that is not recognized by any marijuana reform advocacy analysis.
Additionally, crime data shows that even in the most revealing legal environments, minority youths continue to be disproportionately arrested and convicted of marijuana allegations.
Teenagers who use marijuana
From 2000 to 2014, self-reported usage rates for Americans 15 and older doubled. These rates include adolescents and those under the age of 21 for whom marijuana use remains illegal and most likely will continue to be illegal.
Those advocating marijuana reform ignore the fact that looser laws encourage more marijuana use, especially by young and marginalized Americans buying the drug in illegal markets.
For example, arrest data shows that in Colorado, legalizing recreational use for people age 21 and older has significantly increased the arrest rates of African Americans and Hispanic Americans below this legal age limit. At the same time, arrests of white minors declined.
In Washington state, arrests for all marijuana charges decreased by 90% between 2008 and 2014, but the "hazard rates" for African Americans remained unchanged. This means they are still twice as likely as whites to be arrested on marijuana charges.
In other words, decriminalization has done little to change the historical patterns of national trends in marijuana arrest.
Adults 21 and older will be able to purchase recreational marijuana in Michigan starting December. AP Photo / David Eggert
What is driving reform?
Liberal Americans tend to believe that marijuana legalization drives reform.
There are three distinctly different categories of marijuana policy reform - decriminalizing the possession of a small amount of marijuana, legalizing medical marijuana, and decriminalizing recreational use.
The proliferation reform trend gained momentum in 2000 when Hawaii and Nevada legalized medical marijuana through their legislatures.
This signaled the beginning of the political normalization of the marijuana reform. Previously, medical marijuana laws were largely reformed through voting initiatives in states with constitutions that have a measure of direct democracy.
In my book, I analyzed the political, economic, and demographic predictors of any type of policy reform from 2000 to 2014. The results show that rising marijuana use rates, an electoral initiative that gives voters a say, and the experiences of neighboring states are the main drivers behind decriminalization in general.
In all three reform cases, usage rates were the strongest predictor. They had remained largely unchanged until the wave of decriminalization began two decades ago. When state laws were reformed, usage rates began to increase slightly but steadily. They have doubled nationwide since 2000.
The strongest spikes are in states that are not only known to be leaders in decriminalization, but that are relatively more permissive about ownership, access, and oversight, such as Washington and Vermont.
States with relatively large African American populations, such as Mississippi, North Carolina, and New York, were more likely to decriminalize possession of small amounts first, possibly to combat social injustice.
States like Maryland, Virginia, and Rhode Island have legalized medical use without first decriminalizing possession of small amounts.
The decriminalization of recreational use came primarily as a function of high marijuana use in states such as Massachusetts, Oregon, and Colorado.
Reports of juvenile arrest rates may indicate unintended consequences of decriminalization.
These consequences include increased discretion by the police, incentives for young people to consume in illegal markets and an exacerbation of racial problems in juvenile justice.
If reformists are to address the historic flaws of the war on drugs, they must figure out how to address the cultural advancement of marijuana use that goes hand in hand with political advancement of decriminalization.
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This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Nikolay Anguelov, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
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Nikolay Anguelov does not work for, advise, own or fund any companies or organizations that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant connections beyond her academic appointment.
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