As Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada prepare to vote on the legalization of marijuana for adults 21 and over in a few weeks, all eyes are on the initial outcomes of those states that have already legalized marijuana. A new report from the Drug Policy Alliance finds a massive drop in marijuana arrests, no increase in youth marijuana use, no increase in traffic fatalities, and major fiscal benefits in states with legalized marijuana.
In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two U.S. states – and the first two jurisdictions in the world – to approve ending marijuana prohibition and legally regulating marijuana production, distribution and sales. In 2014, Alaska and Oregon followed suit, while Washington D.C. passed a more limited measure that legalized possession and home cultivation of marijuana (but did not address its taxation and sale due to D.C. law).
Despite decades of prohibition and aggressive enforcement, marijuana remains widely consumed and universally available. Marijuana prohibition has been a costly failure – to individuals, communities, and the entire country. A marijuana arrest creates a permanent criminal record that can easily be found by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies and banks and operates as a significant obstacle in daily life. The huge number of marijuana arrests every year usurps scarce law enforcement, criminal justice and treatment resources at enormous cost to taxpayers.
As public attitudes toward marijuana have changed, some states have sought to pave a new way forward. And preliminary data from those states bring good news.
The new report reveals that statewide surveys of youth in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon found that there were no significant increases in youth marijuana use post-legalization. Tax revenues in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon have all exceeded initial revenue estimates, totaling half a billion dollars in new revenue for those states. (Retail sales have not yet begun in Alaska.) Legalization has not led to more dangerous road conditions, as traffic fatality rates have remained stable in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon.
Arrests in all states and Washington, D.C. have plummeted since legalization, saving those jurisdictions millions of dollars and preventing the criminalization of thousands of people. Legalization, however, did not abate the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws against black people. While thousands less are being arrested, blacks are still arrested at vastly disproportionate rates, even though white people use and sell marijuana at similar rates.
By shifting away from counterproductive marijuana arrests and focusing instead on public health, states that have legalized marijuana are diminishing many of the worst harms of the war on drugs, while managing to raise substantial new revenue for their state.
Joy Haviland is a staff attorney for marijuana law and policy at the Drug Policy Alliance.