Examining the effects of pot legalization on law enforcement

Washington State University researchers are undertaking a $1 million, three-year study of how the state’s legalization of marijuana has affected law enforcement and crime.
The study will look at state, county and tribal police jurisdictions, as well as policing in neighboring states.

Mary Stohr, principal investigator and professor of criminal justice and criminology, said legalization has created a “great natural experiment” for studying the effects of changing marijuana policies on law enforcement and society in general.

“There are plenty of people starting to look into this area because it has such a huge potential impact on our communities and families and because it’s a retreat from the war on drugs,” Stohr said.

On the ground

“Our investigation will look at the people with the boots on the ground in that war, the folks who actually have to deliver policy and have to interact with the public and deal with the implications of the policy.”

The study could lead to a set of law enforcement “Best Practices” and will be instructive to other states that legalize cannabis, said Dale Willits, a co-investigator and assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology.

“They don’t have to go into a blind,” Willits said. “They can say, ‘Here’s what agencies in Washington tried. These things really don’t work. And these things really did work.’ And they can use that as a jumping off point.”

Washington voters approved Initiative 502 in 2012, legalizing small amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and older. Colorado passed a similar measure the same year. Another five states—Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada—have adult-use measure on the ballot in November.

Funding for the research is coming from the National Institute of Justice, a research agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The study will compare how law enforcement handled crime and offenders, particularly those involving marijuana, before and after legalization. It will examine the effects of legalization on crime, clearance rates (crimes that result in charges), and other activities across the state, as well as in urban, rural, tribal and border areas.

As the researchers note in their grant application, supporters of I-502 claimed legalization would reduce crime and the numbers of people in jail and prisons while focusing limited resources from law enforcement on more serious crimes.

Opponents said legalization would increase marijuana use by minors and increase the incidence of drug-impaired driving.

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