How cannabis legalisation can prevent violent crime

Yesterday, the Sun attempted to settle once and for all the debate on cannabis legalisation. Trumpeting a series of warnings that such a move would turn ‘a new generation into hard drug addicts’, the piece swiftly concluded that the UK would become the next Los Angeles, riven by violent crime fuelled (supposedly) by legal cannabis products. 

The evidence to support this, however, is rather dubious. Perhaps the most striking misinterpretation stands at the beginning of the piece, where a connection is drawn between the legalisation of cannabis in California and rising gang-related violence. A cursory glance at the FBI’s murder rate statistics shows that the homicide rate in California is indeed rising, and has been since 2010. But so have rates in almost every other state, with Louisianans taking the highest tally of eleven murders per thousand people, a place where cannabis is still illegal. Indeed, the use of only one sample city in the Sun’s report renders the findings more or less void even without resorting to contextualising statistics. In fact, studies of US border states where medical cannabis is available show a major reduction in violent crime, as well as localised reductions in crime rates corresponding to the locations of legal dispensaries. 

Inaccuracies raise their head very shortly afterwards with the blanket assertion that cannabis users are thrill seekers. This leads to the apparent conclusion that if the drug were to be made legally available, it would only be a short while before its users resorted to the illegal market again for other stronger substances like cocaine in order to feed their addictions. But the major function of cannabis as a gateway drug is simply through contact with illegal dealers, who are able to offer stronger and more dangerous drugs in an unregulated market. The assertion also ignores the wide range of uses that the product has, not least (as heavily reported by the Sun) as a treatment for epilepsy. 

Taxing higher potency cannabis at higher rates—a measure that could only be effective within a legal, regulated market—would allow the state to have some measure of control over the strength of the substance. It is estimated that the UK cannabis black market is worth approximately £2.6 billion, and even a small amount of tax revenue from this could fund measures to counter violent crime, from a greater police presence to counselling and healthcare measures to help the areas most affected by more damaging drugs. A study by Washington State University even connected legalisation with higher crime clearance rates, police resources being freed to tackle the root causes of crime. 

The act of decriminalisation alone would claw back huge amounts of money currently spent by the UK government prosecuting cannabis suppliers and users, and allow law enforcers to focus on genuine social issues. Labour MP David Lammy recently expressed concerns that many young people experience their first arrests through cannabis possession, acting as a gateway to violent crime. An early criminal record can also damage future prospects, tying young people into situations where further involvement with crime can be the only option. By contrast, in states like Canada where cannabis is legal and regulated, that early criminalisation can be avoided. 

Correlation, of course, is a very different thing to causation, and studies on the matter are resoundingly inconclusive. For every link drawn between cannabis and mental health issues, there is a response emphasising its benefits. If prescribed for the wrong condition it can, like many over-the-counter products, be harmful, but it has also been shown to have positive impacts on many conditions such as depression and PTSD at the forefront of modern medical research. In a similar vein, researchers at the University of British Columbia have theorised that it may have potential in the fight against opioid addiction, providing an effective substitute in order to reduce the harm caused by more dangerous substances. 

It is therefore clear to see that far from being a conduit to violent crime, legalising cannabis would help reduce it on several counts. It would also allow for the UK’s world-leading drugs industry to explore its potential in treating mental illness, as well as allowing police to work with affected communities and tackle violent crime at its source. Legalisation and regulation would turn cannabis from a gateway to crime into a crucial tool to prevent it, not only disassociating it from violent crime but turning it into one of our most powerful assets for prosperity and wellbeing. The naysayers should take note.