It has now been almost five years since the voters in Washington and Colorado chose to legalize the sale of cannabis to any adult, without requiring a medical recommendation. They were the first states to do so; since then, seven more (including California) have followed their lead.
In an study published in the Journal of Drug Policy and Analysis, the authors reviewed the legalization of cannabis in Washington and Colorado five years ago and the consequences of this. Listening to advocates and opponents of legalization, one might have expected very large changes (for good or bad, depending on the source) as a result.
Some enthusiastic advocates of legalization promised the disappearance of the illicit market and the creation of large numbers of high-paying jobs, a surge in state revenues, a decrease in the prison population, reduced racial disparity in law enforcement, greatly reduced consumption of alcohol and other drugs more harmful than cannabis, and the growing popularity of lower-potency products and cannabis use short of intoxication. Anti-legalization forces predicted an upsurge in drug addiction and use by minors, highway carnage, and a crime wave.
Drug-related crime has not increased
Roughly speaking, none of that has happened. Washington and Colorado both succeeded in establishing state-regulated markets even in the face of continued federal prohibition, with federal authorities largely agreeing to get out of the way.
The licit markets in Washington and Colorado have displaced much but not all of the illicit markets; the states have enjoyed modest revenues; the legal industry has created a noticeable number of (mostly not very well-paid) jobs; prices have fallen and continue to fall; crimes and auto accidents, and consumption of alcohol and other drugs, have gone neither dramatically up nor dramatically down; the two states continue to have higher-than-average rates of cannabis use, but without any marked change in trend; arrests for cannabis have fallen but without any noticeable impact on prison populations.
That doesn’t mean that state-level legalization doesn’t matter, or that details – including, crucially, the tax rates that determine retail prices – don’t have an impact. It’s still reasonable to think that, under current policies, already-low prices will fall even further, and that very low prices will tend to spur intemperate consumption. But to those who study these matters professionally, it seemed likely five years ago that the impacts of the new policies wouldn’t be apparent until they’d been in place for about ten years. That still seems like a good guess. The key virtue in this case is the patience not to pass judgment until the data are in.
Illegal markets could be a thing of the past
The legal cannabis markets in Washington and Colorado have largely but not entirely displaced the illegal markets. Tax revenues are modest. Prices have fallen and continue to fall. There have been no dramatic impacts, for good or ill, on drug abuse, crime, auto accidents, or incarceration. Judging the results of legalization will take at least a decade.
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