Since California passed the first medical cannabis law in the United States in 1996, the therapeutic benefits of cannabis have provided a lot of momentum in the now breakneck-speed growth of the country’s cannabis industry. This piece of legislation, with the added support of the now-30 states that have followed suit set the framework for legalization as we know it today. What used to be a significantly smaller fraction of the US population now has exploded into well over 80% of Americans supporting legal medicinal cannabis.
And now, more and more states are jumping onto the legalization bandwagon-and not just for medicine. Nine US states have legalized recreational, adult-use cannabis markets in recent years so far, and many (like Michigan, for example) are pushing to have their states added to that list.
None of this would be reality if not for medical cannabis legalization. And while this fact certainly warrants our attention, research and activism toward further progress, cannabis’ use as medicine is not the only society-wide effect of legality. States with well-written and well-regulated legalized cannabis markets are seeing a decrease in crime and arrests that is not being observed elsewhere.
So, legalized cannabis could be a catalyst for further reform within the justice system.
Let’s take a look at traffic stops, something that we’ve all likely gone through or will go through as a part of our driving experiences. Every year, law enforcement throughout the United States makes 20 million traffic stops.
These kinds of stops are easily the most common police interaction in the country, and the suspicion of cannabis possession (usually the smell) aroused during one of these stops can lead to vehicular searches. This, in turn, results in more arrests being made for possession-tying up millions of dollars and thousands of hours that could be better spent on protecting our communities from real threats.
In legalizing states, cannabis isn’t necessarily a justifiable reason to search a civilian’s car anymore. This means that there are fewer arrests made-and fewer resources spent-on enforcing drug prohibition. When Washington DC legalized recreational cannabis, they saw a tremendous decline in possession arrests. A 99% decline, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.
All of this isn’t to say that cannabis legalization will be the key to fixing all that’s wrong with the justice system. Some aspects of what needs fixing will take substantially longer and need far more cooperative minds and innovative leaders to bring about real change in ways that cannabis legalization just cannot. But the proof is in the numbers: Less searches equals less arrests, which equals fewer citizens being jailed for cannabis, which then leads to a decrease in taxpayer funds and valuable hours used to combat the failed War on Drugs.
The medical benefits of cannabis certainly deserve their place in the spotlight when we talk about how legalization improves various conditions across the United States. But some room should be made, and some more attention given, to how legalization can play a starting role in criminal justice reform.