What REALLY happens in states where marijuana is legal?
The experiment has gone on long enough that now we have sufficient data to measure the impact that expanded and easier availability of the drug has, both on the individual and on local communities.
No matter where you stand on the legalization debate, the findings are concerning. In fact, even if you currently support legal weed, the indisputable facts may just change your mind. And if you oppose legalization, this information gives you even more ammunition to counter the false narrative that marijuana is harmless.
Here, we will take a closer look at the true societal costs of legalized cannabis.
#1 Legal Marijuana Increases Crime and Violence
“For centuries, people worldwide have understood that cannabis causes mental illness and violence – just as they’ve known that opiates cause addiction and overdose…Opiates are riskier and they cause a more imminent crisis, so we have focused on those. But soon enough, the mental illness and violence that follow cannabis use will be too widespread to ignore.”
~ Alex Berenson, author of Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence
For a drug that supposedly mellows users out, marijuana is strongly associated with aggression and violence. This should not be surprising because smoking pot impairs cognition and decision-making, lowers inhibitions, worsens paranoia, increases hostility, and weakens emotional control. As a result:
- Users are 7 times more likely to commit a violent crime.
- A study from 2001 found that the more frequently someone uses marijuana, the more likely they are to commit a crime involving a weapon.
- This association is not present for any other illicit substance.
- Since 2012, the number and rate of aggravated assault and other violent crimes in Colorado, has increased significantly, and is now higher than the US average.
- Marijuna use is common among domestic abusers.
- Marijuana is classified as a date rape drug, and is second only to alcohol as the substance most involved in sexual assault cases where the victim is incapacitated.
- Among people convicted of homicide, three-fourths were under the influence of marijuana at the time of the crime.
In fact, in several states where recreational marijuana is legal – including Colorado, Alaska, Washington, the District of Columbia, and California –homicides are at an all-time high.
In addition, legalization means an explosion in the number of dispensaries, to the point of over-saturation and instability. And with the dispensaries comes a corresponding surge in crime.
For example, after retail marijuana sales were legalized in Colorado, a University of Colorado study determined that “neighborhoods with one or more medical or recreational dispensary saw increased crime rates that were between 26 and 1,452 percent higher than in neighborhoods without any commercial marijuana activity,” according to Dr. Lorine A. Hughes, PhD, Associate Professor in the School of Public Affairs and lead author of the study.
#2 Legal Marijiuana Benefits the Black Market
“Law enforcement is just inundated with illegal marijuana and exportation. There aren’t enough resources in place for us to do anything about it.”
~ Brandon Boice, a State Police Sergeant in Oregon, where recreational marijuana is legal
Rather than reducing the illicit drug trade, legalization has created new opportunities for traffickers. Although cartels were originally hit hard, they have rebounded and expanded in different directions.
Despite easier availability of the drug in much of America, there is still tremendous demand for black market marijuana. Just look at a few examples in states where recreational use is legal:
- Colorado (legalized in 2012): In 2021, the “Asian Pride” bust netted 80,000 marijuana plants and 4500 pounds of finished product, making it the largest marijuana bust in Colorado history.
- Washington (2012): In 2017, a series of arrests across three Central Washington counties resulted in the seizure of more than 41,000 pounds of illegal marijuana.
- Oregon (2014): In November 2021, Oregon State Police seized 500,000 pounds of illegal marijuana during a bust outside of Medford. The street value was estimated at $500 million.
In late October 2022, the Yamhill County Sheriff’s Office seized 77,000 pounds of processed marijuana worth $77 million.
- California (2016): In July 2021, a massive sting operation in Southern California resulted in the confiscation of 375,000 plants and 33,480 pounds of processed marijuana, with an estimated value of $1.19 billion.
- Nevada (2017): In September 2021, a raid in Douglas County led to the destruction of 123,000 pounds of marijuana. The illegal grow site was so large that it was visible from space.
Why is There Such a Demand for Illegal Marijuana?
“Cannabis consumers are rational economic actors. They’re probably going to pick the cheaper option. In a lot of states, that would mean black market cannabis.”
~ Dr. John Hudak, PhD, Deputy Director, Center for Effective Public Management, Brookings Institute
While you might suppose marijuana consumers have no need to shop illegally in states where recreational use is allowed, in many places, they choose a black market option for the most obvious reason of all – it’s cheaper.
Supporters of legalization are quick to point out how much tax revenue cannabis dispensaries generate, but the imposition of “sin” excise taxes means pot customers pay more…sometimes a LOT more.
This “benefit” of tax revenue for the public good is what the marijuana industry and its lobbyists promise when pushing for expanded legalization.
For example, after all state and local sales taxes and excise taxes, California residents can pay a surcharge of up to 38% on their marijuana purchases. And that is after the dispensary pays wholesale tax and marks their products up.
This scenario makes it much easier for drug cartels to swoop in. Because they do not have to follow safety protocols or pay taxes, they can sell their illicit marijuana at much cheaper prices.
#3 Legal Marijuana Has Opened New Doors for Drug Cartels
“Why try to bring that bulk marijuana into the United States, when you can just grow it in the United States in remote locations…and then move it across the entire country?”
~ Mike Sena, Executive Director, Northern California’s High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force
Major Mexican drug cartels, including the infamous Sinoloa and Cartel Jalisco Nuevo Generacion outfits, are now hiding their operations in plain sight, right here in America.
Enticed by the massive profits of expanded legalization in this country, cartels have largely abandoned generational marijuana farms in Mexico and moved their operations to places like the “Emerald Triangle” in Northern California, where they blend in alongside legitimate growers.
According to the 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment, “Mexican marijuana has largely been supplanted by domestically-produced marijuana.”
The problem is simply massive. In Mendocino County alone, there are fewer than two dozen deputies to patrol an area of over 3500 square miles. That is a jurisdiction larger than Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, and New Orleans combined.
It is estimated that in just this one county, there are 10,000 illegal cannabis grows.
#4 Legal Marijuana Made the Opioid Epidemic Worse
“…he also learned to numb himself with marijuana… He then began to explore more effective ways to numb his growing negative feelings. This led him to pills such as Xanax and later on OxyContin in his last 9 days. It turned out that he was being sold fentanyl, a cheaper and more deadly alternative that killed him quickly one night.”
~ Amy Neville, founder of the Alexander Neville Foundation
A recent analysis suggests that cannabis legalization has worsened the opioid epidemic in America, countering the claim that expanded availability of marijuana reduces overdose deaths.
Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the opioid mortality rates in states where marijuana is legal were compared to states where the drug is still prohibited. Data was grouped by all opioid deaths and separately for fatal overdoses involving fentanyl.
Between 2010 and 2012, the overall opioid mortality rate for both legal/prohibited states was comparable. It then diverged drastically, with a significantly greater increase in states with legalization – 227% versus 160%.
The fentanyl overdose death rate was also higher in the legalized group.
A Surge of a Deadly Synthetic Opioid
This is not surprising, because marijuana legalization directly contributed to the flood of fentanyl entering the United States.
Coinciding with expanded legalization, marijuana seizures by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol are down dramatically. In 2020, CBP intercepted 582,000 pounds of marijuana. Compare that to the first 10 months of 2022, where seizures sit at just under 142,000 pounds. That is a decrease of over 75%.
Fentanyl traffic, on the other hand, is exploding. In 2019, CPB agents seized 2800 pounds of fentanyl, but so far in 2022, they have confiscated nearly 15,000 pounds. That is an increase of more than 500%.
Although marijuana has traditionally been a profitable cash cow for Mexican cartels, steady legalization in several U.S. states has prompted a paradigm shift.
Fentanyl also is also much more profitable, with a gram selling for $150 to $200 on the street, while a gram of weed goes for about $15. Because fentanyl is completely synthetic and made in a laboratory, production requires far fewer resources – less money, less manpower, less space, and less time.
Instead of planting, cultivating, watering, harvesting, drying, processing, and waiting months on a marijuana crop, a single cartel lab can synthesize 20,000 doses of fentanyl every week.
#5 Legal Marijuana Contributes to Mental Illness
“Potency has increased over time. More sophisticated technology is being used to extract CBD oil from the product, resulting in more and more products with potent levels.”
~ Dr. Patricia Conrod, PhD, Department of Psychology and Addictology, University of Montreal
Perhaps the biggest way marijuana affects the brain is by causing a dependence or addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that up to 30% of regular users will develop some degree of Cannabis Use Disorder.
Chronic cannabis use directly affects the brain physically and chemically.
Among pot smokers, the hippocampus — the part of the brain that regulates memory — is an alarming 12% smaller than those of non-users. The amygdala, associated with memory and emotion, is 7% smaller. This can have tremendous negative consequences on the user’s brain function and mental health:
Other long-term consequences of marijuana use include:
- Impaired verbal memory
- Suicidal ideation
- Premature brain aging
- False memories
- Worsened bipolar disorder
- Increased risk of schizophrenia
- Hindered recovery from other addictions
- Lowered IQ
- Damage to the brain’s pleasure center
- Worsened ADHD symptoms
- Deepened depression
- Heightened anxiety
The risks cannot be overstated. Dr. Murat Yurcel, PhD, and his fellow researchers at the University of Melbourne wrote, “There is ongoing controversy concerning the long-term effects of cannabis on the brain…these results suggest that heavy daily use might indeed be toxic to human brain tissue.”
#6 Marijuana is Devastating the Environment
“We have international cartels successfully operating here. They’re poisoning our ground and stealing our water…”
~ California Assemblyman Tom Lackey
Unconcerned about safety, regulations, legality, or the consequences to the land, these illicit farms are responsible for deforestation, poaching already-scarce water resources, and poisoning the environment with dangerous chemicals.
But the impact to the environment goes far beyond the harm caused by illegal growers. A 2015 study concluded that marijuana cultivation is directly responsible for widespread damage to natural ecosystems.
The study focused on California, because the state is the largest producer of cannabis in the country. Up to 70% of the marijuana consumed in the U.S. comes from California.
The first issue is the amount of water used during cultivation. Marijuana plants use twice as much water as say, tomatoes or grapes. One-eighth of an acre of cannabis plants uses 24,000 gallons of water per growing season.This is a major cause for concern in drought- and wildfire-stricken California.
There is also the issue of how cannabis plants get their water. Most irrigated plants are supplied by water tanks that were filled in the cooler winter months, when natural sources were full.
During cannabis plants’ summer growing season – when drought conditions are at their worst – many growers use scarcer surface water.
Stanford Professor Roz Naylor says, “Taking water directly from rivers and streams in the summer not only reduces the water available for agriculture, but also threatens wildlife species, especially birds and fish that depend on these wetland ecosystems for survival.”
Pollution from marijuana farms also has experts alarmed. Some waste dumps are so toxic with chemicals that simply touching the cannabis plants sent law enforcement officers to the hospital. Between 2013 and 2017, the amount of solid fertilizers in California forests increased by 4100% and the amount of liquid pesticides jumped 8000%.
#7 Legal Marijuana is Hurting Food Production
“I have seen our river valley good prime ag soils essentially get paved over for putting in greenhouses, which will then truck in soil to grow cannabis in.”
~ Kevin Cunningham, a farmer in Garberville, California
Now consider that available food-producing farmland is already being squeezed in the rush to maximize the profits of a marijuana cash crop. In 2020, there were more than 13,000 licensed cannabis farms in America, and several times that if you include those that are not licensed yet and illicit cartel grow sites.
Take Trinity County, California, for example. As of the start of 2022, only 68 of the county’s 782 marijuana farms had a state license. Extrapolate that percentage across the country and you may start to grasp the size of the problem.
Prime farmland that was once used to grow produce has become unaffordably expensive because it is instead being used to grow profitable cannabis.
As Cunningham says, “There were seven acres for sale just down the road from us for $1.2 million because it has a stamped cannabis permit. That’s just unattainable for somebody who wants to start out growing vegetables. Absolutely unattainable.”
#8 Marijuana Legalization Means More Stoned Drivers
“What we found is that drivers are more likely to use and get behind the wheel after the law passed.”
~ Jake Nelson, Director, for Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research, AAA
According to a recent study, one consequence of expanded legalization is that more people than ever before are driving while under the influence of marijuana. Unlike alcohol, pot’s effects may not be as obvious, but users are still impaired and may not be fit to drive.
- Decreased attention span
- Inability to focus
- Delayed visual processing
- Slowed reaction time
- Poor coordination
- Impaired ability to judge distance
“Because someone who is high on marijuana isn’t stumbling or slurring their speech, because they don’t fit our mental models of what an impaired driver looks like, we tend to think they are less impaired or not impaired at all, even when they are,” says Nelson.
69% of marijuana users admit to driving while high at least once, and 27% say they drive under the influence every day.
Stoned Driving Increases after Legalization
“The legalization of marijuana doesn’t come without cost. Legalization removes the stigma of marijuana use, while the onset of retail sales merely increases access…Users who previously avoided driving high may feel that it’s okay after legalization.”
~ Dr. Charles Farmer, PhD, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
So what is actually happening in some of the states where marijuana is legal?
- Arizona: Drugged driving arrests went from 1153 in 2009 to 7140 in 2019, an increase of 519%.
- California: In 2018, the California Highway Patrol reported a 142% year-over-year increase in the number of marijuana-related collisions that resulted in injuries.
- Colorado: The prevalence of marijuana in a DUI skyrocketed from 12% in 2014 to 31% in 2020. Between 2020 and 2021, the number of marijuana DUI arrests jumped 48%.
- Illinois: Marijuana was legalized in Illinois in 2019, and by 2021, the state saw a 33% increase in the number of traffic fatalities.
- Massachusetts: Marijuana is the most-common drug found in the system of drivers involved in fatal crashes.
- Michigan: Since legalization in 2018, there has been a 140% increase in the number of total crashes and a 430% spike in the number of fatal crashes involving marijuana.
- Virginia: 1 in 7 Virginia drivers admit to driving while high within the past year.
- Washington: In the five years following legalization, the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes who tested positive for marijuana more than doubled.
From 2000 to 2018, traffic fatalities involving marijuana climbed from 9% of the overall total to 21.5%. Cannabis-related car crashes are more likely to result in the deaths of passengers and people under the age of 35.
Dr. Timothy Naimi, MD, MPH, an Adjunct Professor at Boston University’s School of Medicine, says, “There has been (a reduction in) deaths from alcohol-impaired driving, but our study suggests that cannabis involvement might be undercutting these public health efforts.”
#9 Legal Marijuana Harms Young People
“If we legalize marijuana, kids will see their parents using it, it will be more accepted, and they will have easier access. It’s not a stretch to say we will see an (increase in) use and more problems with addiction with kids and their parents.”
~ Patti Skelton-McGougan, Executive Director, Youth Eastside Services
The above statement comes from 2011, before recreational marijuana was legal anywhere. Today, it is eerily and tragically accurate, because everything that Skelton-McGougan warned us about has come to pass.
With the easier access granted by expanded legalization, marijuana use is up across the board, especially among young people. In fact, according to the most-recent Monitoring the Future report, use among teenagers and young adults is at an all-time high.
- 43% of Americans between the ages of 19 and 30 have smoked or vaped cannabis within the last year.
- A decade ago, before recreational use was permitted, that number was just 29%.
- Today, 29% of young adults admit to using the drug within the past month.
- 1 out of 9 smoke or vape pot daily.
Cannabis use among school-age teenagers is equally alarming;
- 31% of high school seniors.
- 17% of sophomores.
- 7% of 8th -graders.
That’s right – in an average junior high class filled with 13- and 14-year-old children, 1 or 2 of them use marijuana. And by the time they graduate high school, that number will have increased to include a third of the class.
All of this is especially concerning because the human brain continues to mature until around age 25. The still-developing brain is extremely vulnerable to marijuana’s harmful effects – cognitive impairment, memory problems, lower I.Q., poor academic performance, mental illness, and even changes in brain volume and chemistry.
And it all starts with what they see at home. Children whose parents use marijuana are up to 4.4 times more likely to use the drug themselves.
#10 The Economic Burden of Legal Marijuana
“…there is not…this huge windfall that will be able to subsidize education or health services.”
~ State Representative Ryan Yamane, Hawaii
Supporters of expanded legalization are quick to point to the expected tax revenue that such a move would generate. But there are several problems with that pro-marijuana argument.
First, no one can seem to agree exactly how much money a marijuana tax could bring in or how to best spend such a windfall.
For example, out of the 11 states that collected taxes on the sale of recreational marijuana in in 2021, only 4 use any portion of that money on restorative justice programs aimed at helping neighborhoods and individuals disproportionately affected by drug possession laws of the past.
Second, despite the previous promises about all the good marijuana tax money could do, growers in some states are already pushing back and asking their Legislatures to lower the taxes they are obligated to pay.
Third, revenue projections are not taking into account how much it costs to oversee and manage the marijuana industry. For example, in Hawaii, where recreational use is still illegal, some lawmakers are warning that even $50 million in projected tax revenue is not enough to regulate legal sales, let alone enough to have a surplus that could fund social programs.
Finally, supporters are also ignoring the economic burden imposed by increased drug use and abuse – health care, high school drop-out rates, lost worker productivity, accidents, and addiction treatment, etc.
For example, workers who test positive for cannabis have 55% more industrial accidents, suffer 85% more injuries, and miss work 75% more often than their abstaining peers.
Just look at Colorado – for every $1 collected in marijuana tax money, the state spends $4.50 to deal with the consequences and effects of legalization.
And as far as marijuana legalization funding education, listen to Jason Glass, Superintendent of the Eagle County School District in Colorado:
“Many come up to me assuming we’re rolling in cash because of marijuana taxes, and that’s just not the case.”
Learning from Other States
“They continue to reach out to us and say, ‘Do not let the genie out of the bottle in your state, you will not get it put back in.’ We understand what the negative impacts are on the community as far as drug-related accidents and fatalities, the impact that giving more youth access to the drug in the community is going to have. We’re very happy to be part of this effort that is encouraging people to vote no on this measure.”
~ Brian Mueller, Sheriff-elect for Pennington County South Dakota
When looked at it objectively and when real data, statistics, and evidence is considered, it is easy to see the true costs of legal marijuana causes, both to the individual and to society as a whole.
In other words, the more this not-harmless drug becomes available and the easier it is to get, the more damage it will cause.
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