Legalized Recreational Marijuana Use: What Does it Mean for the U.S. Criminal Justice Field?

By Vincent Giordano
Program Director, Criminal Justice at American Public University System

This year’s election was a contentious one. No matter who you might have supported for President, it is clear that most of us ignored the fact that two states (Colorado and Washington) had ballot initiatives to legalize the use of small amounts of marijuana for recreational purposes, and Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of legalized medical marijuana (Coffman, 2012). In the last 10 years it is not surprising to see medical marijuana initiatives on state ballots. Many have cited fears that medical marijuana is nothing but a spring board for the total legalization of marijuana, but until the 2012 election, total legalization of marijuana had not come to pass.

[Read Dr. Giordano’s blog about medical marijuana prior to the 2012 elections.]

However, as Americans were focused on the Presidential race, both the states of Colorado and Washington passed ballot initiatives that legalized the use of marijuana for recreational use. According to Reuters (2012), the Colorado and Washington initiatives legalized the use of up to 28.5 grams of marijuana for individuals ages 21 and higher. Additionally, driving under the influence of marijuana would be treated like alcohol intoxication. Businesses will be licensed and regulated by the state to sell cannabis in a similar manner to alcohol (Coffman, 2012).

So what does marijuana legalization in these two states mean for the future of the drug war and drug policy?

Well, time will only tell. However, the drug war as it stands is no longer enforceable as it once was. I say that using the National Alcohol Prohibition as a prime example of how the enforcement of a federal law became impossible once the people and the states in which they reside in no longer have the will or desire to enforce it.

According to Lerner (2007) alcohol prohibition failed precisely because the states refused to enforce the law and provide resources for its enforcement. Essentially, the states told the federal government that they had no intention to enforce the law. This placed a large amount of pressure on the federal government to enforce a law in areas where other governments were either ambivalent or downright hostile towards the idea of enforcing the law.

The same outcome is beginning to play out in terms of cannabis use. Presently, there are 18 states and the District of Columbia which allow for use of marijuana for medical purposes. Coupled with the fact that two of these states now allow for the recreational use of cannabis, the writing appears on the wall that the will to enforce federal marijuana policy is gone. As with alcohol prohibition the people no longer wish to see their family, friends and peers go to jail for a drug that is commonly perceived as being no more harmful than alcohol.

Another impact of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington will be seen from a research aspect. As a criminal justice researcher, I must confess that I am rather excited to see what the effects of marijuana legalization will have on crime statistics. Both sides of the legalization issue have made predictions about what would happen if marijuana were to be totally legalized. Some of the pro-legalization predictions have included a reduction in crime because legalization would result in lower costs to communities for enforcement; and that organized crime would be reduced because a major source of income would be eliminated.

Not to be outdone, anti-legalization proponents have made claims that healthcare-related costs will increase due to the increase in cannabis use. Additional concerns include the increase use of cannabis by younger people; criminal issues in relation to increased intoxication (i.e DUIs); and the increase of the use of other drugs due to the permissiveness of lax marijuana laws.

Until this point, these questions were rather philosophical. After all, there are really limited examples to refer back to as far as the impact of marijuana legalization in the United States. In fact, most of the information on the impact of marijuana legalization, or decriminalization, is based on what European nations have done. Unfortunately, using Europe as a baseline does not always work in terms of applicability since the United States has several cultural and economic differences compared to Europe. Legalization in these two states allows criminal justice researchers to take the questions out of the realm of pure speculation and insert those questions into the real world.

I predict in the next five years, barring any setbacks with the implementation of the marijuana laws, researchers will begin to paint a clear and tangible picture as to the accuracy of these questions. Again, time will tell as to which side is correct when it comes to marijuana legalization. Perhaps we will find that neither side is correct, although we will now have a legitimate opportunity to look at real examples and not hypothetical ones.   

About the Author:
Dr. Vinnie Giordano Ph.D, CAP, CCJAP- obtained his Bachelor’s in Liberal Arts from Long Island University/ C.W. Post with a specialization in political science. He then went on to achieve his Master of Science in Criminal Justice from Florida Metropolitan University, and another Master of Science in Criminal Justice from the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Giordano obtained his Ph.D. in Human Services with a specialization in Criminal Justice from Capella University. Before coming to APUS as a full-time employee, Dr. Giordano worked in the field of substance abuse and behavioral health for 13 years where he worked as a substance abuse counselor in a Department of Corrections-funded youthful offender program. There he maintained positions in counseling and supervising for a 28-day residential and aftercare program, and as the Administrator of Juvenile Services at the Pinellas Juvenile Assessment Center.  

References

Coffmen, K (2012, November 7). Colorado, Washington first state to legalize recreational pot. Reuters. Retrieved from: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/07/us-usa-marijuana-legalization-idUSBRE8A602D20121107

Lerner, M.A. (2007). Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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