As more states push to legalize marijuana, more misinformation is spread to persuade people that it's a bad idea. We saw this happen with reports that marijuana edibles were a public health risk. Now we're seeing it with renewed claims that legalizing marijuana leads to an increase in crime, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
New Mexico's state senate recently rejected a measure that would have let voters decide on legalizing marijuana, and Republican state Sen. William Sharer argued that legalizing marijuana caused crime to rise in Denver, the Denver Post reported Wednesday.
What's happening in Denver?
But it's unlikely that marijuana legalization had much to do with a 44 percent increase in "misconduct" over the past four years as measured by the the National Incident Based Reporting System, police told The Post. For one thing, the 44 percent figure is based on a system that is often said to over-count crimes, The Post reported. FBI data show that crime went up only 3.5 percent in the same period.
Denver's city government has determined that just more than 200 crimes annually can be connected to marijuana, which is less than 1 percent of total crime, regardless of which crime tracking system you use. (The city has been counting crimes that can be tied directly to marijuana since it was legalized in 2012.)
ATTN: attempted to reach out to officials in Colorado's state government and did not receive a response before publication.
"The murder rate in Denver went up this year due to a rise in gang activity that seems to happen every so often for the past three decades now," Art Way, Colorado State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance, told ATTN:. "Law enforcement and health officials need to consider the causation/correlation between the drug war and gang violence."
It's not as if people using marijuana is new to Colorado, and any major changes in crime are almost certainly not connected to legalization, Way added.
Legalizing does not increase crime rates.
"Opponents of marijuana policy reform have been claiming that [legalizing] marijuana would lead to increases in crime since medical marijuana first became legal in California in 1996," Morgan Fox, communications manager at the Marijuana Policy Project, told ATTN:. He said studies have repeatedly shown this is not true and that legalizing marijuana actually often gets rid of crime connected to the illicit marijuana markets. One 2014 study from the University of Texas at Dallas found that legalizing medical marijuana may actually lead to a reduction in violent crime.
As ATTN: reported before, decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana does appear to lessen crime related to black markets. There's much less motivation to sell marijuana illegally when there's a legal option.
Mexican drug cartels have seen less of their illegal marijuana cross the border as a side effect of legalization in the U.S. Legalizing marijuana also frees up police to focus on more serious crimes instead of having to pursue marijuana users.
How this affects the country.
The reason this matters nationally is that there are more than a dozen states that may vote on legalizing marijuana in November. Public perception of the effects of legalizing marijuana will play a major role in how those states make their decisions.
Way said it's likely legalization opponents will try to repeat false claims about marijuana's effects on crime to stymie marijuana legalization efforts. He said that he hopes people will see legalizing marijuana as the benefit to public health it truly is.
Way points to marijuana's documented medical benefits, such as relieving insomnia, alleviating symptoms of PTSD, lessening nausea, potentially slowing the progress of Alzheimer's disease, and much more. Legalizing marijuana has also been tied to reduced painkiller overdoses in some states.
"I’m sure prohibitionists will look to push various issues affiliated with the legalization experience and claim they are impediments to legalization," Way said. "I’m confident that, over a period of years, reformers will show public health benchmarks were not impacted in a manner outside of normal fluctuations."
Crime may be up in Denver, but that doesn't mean marijuana was the reason. It's just another example of tying marijuana to problems it hasn't caused.