Intriguing new research on criminal justice impact of distinct marijuana reforms.

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Intriguing new research on criminal justice impact of distinct marijuana reforms.



The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice has produced this interesting new research report titled “Reforming Marijuana Laws: Which Approach Best Reduces “The Harms Of Criminalization? A Five-State Analysis.”

Here is what the report’s Introduction:

The War on Drugs is losing steam. Policymakers, researchers, and law enforcement are beginning to recognize that arresting and incarcerating people for marijuana possession wastes billions of dollars, does not reduce the abuse of marijuana or other drugs, and results in grossly disproportionate harms to communities of color.  Marijuana reforms are now gaining traction across the nation, generating debates over which strategies best reduce the harms of prohibition.

Should marijuana be decriminalized or legalized?  Should it be restricted to people 21 and older?  Advocates of the latter strategy often argue their efforts are intended to protect youth.  However, if the consequences of arrest for marijuana possession — including fines, jail time, community service, a criminal record, loss of student loans, and court costs — are more harmful than use of the drug (Marijuana Arrest Research Project, 2012), it is difficult to see how continued criminalization of marijuana use by persons under 21 protects the young.  Currently, people under 21 make up less than one-third of marijuana users, yet half of all marijuana possession arrests (ACLU, 2013; Males, 2009).

This analysis compares five states that implemented major marijuana reforms over the last five years, evaluating their effectiveness in reducing marijuana arrests and their impact on various health and safety outcomes.  Two types of reforms are evaluated: all-ages decriminalization (California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts), and 21-and-older legalization (Colorado and Washington).  The chief conclusions are:

  • All five states experienced substantial declines in possession arrests.  The four states with available data also showed unexpected drops in marijuana felony arrests.
  • All-ages decriminalization more effectively reduced  arrests and associated harms for people of all ages, particularly for young people.
  • Staggering racial disparities remain— and in some cases are exacerbated — following marijuana reforms.  African Americans are still more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses after reform than all other races and ethnicities were before reform.
  • Further reforms are needed in all five states to move toward full legalization and to address racial disparities


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