More than half of the 50 states in the U.S. have legalized marijuana use for medicinal or recreational purposes. How does marijuana legalization affect crime rates? Does it lead to more crime? Less crime? The impact of marijuana legalization on crime rates is, at best, unclear.
While crime has fallen across the U.S. in recent years, there’s little consensus on whether it fell more in states that legalized pot than those that didn’t. Studies have found only modest or no impact in some cases.
In contrast, others have pointed to a reduction in crime — especially crimes like vehicle theft and burglary that may be linked to illegal drug trafficking.
Even among researchers who have found an effect, there’s no agreement on the reason for it. Some argue it’s because fewer people are serving jail time for marijuana offenses or because legal marijuana has cut into the black market for pot, reducing violent crimes associated with trafficking illicit drugs. Others say it’s because some people substitute pot for alcohol, linked to violence.
Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas used data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program to examine whether marijuana legalization increased crime rates. The study found that property crime declined when medical marijuana laws were passed, but violent crime did not change significantly.
The researchers chose to focus on property crime because there is a high correlation between illegal drug use and property crimes.
“When marijuana is legalized, there are fewer opportunities for marijuana users to engage in criminal activity to get money to buy drugs,” said Robert Morris, co-author of the study and associate professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas. “If you can just go down to your convenience store and buy the drug legally, there may be less motivation to engage in criminal activity.”