WSU researchers investigate effects of cannabis legalization

Benjamin Benschneider

Bethan Rose Jenkins, Cannabis News Writer/Editorial

What effect has cannabis legalization had on society? This is a question that Washington State University researchers have delved into with a recent study.

WSU researchers analyzed data to determine what effect legalization had on the way law enforcement officials do their job, crime rates and cannabis-impaired driving incidents.

Although they couldn’t quite determine whether or not cannabis has contributed to higher or lower crime rates, they did glean some interesting insights into the effects of cannabis legalization on law enforcement.

Law enforcement officials say that cannabis legalization has impacted their work

The WSU researchers who carried out the investigation were told by law-enforcement officers that cannabis legalization has impacted the way in which they interact with informants and canines.

In certain departments, some drug detection dogs were forced to retire; due to them having been trained to detect cannabis with their sensitive noses. Many of the canines that were no longer required to sniff out cannabis plants were instead placed with school security officers following legalization.

Based on the results of the research carried out by WSU investigators, various drug units struggled to gain confidential informants (CIs) after cannabis was legalized. This is according to David Makin, who is a part of the university’s Criminal Justice Department. Makin was also one of the lead researchers who partook in this investigation into the effects of cannabis legalization.

Individuals who face cannabis-related charges may be encouraged to act as a CI; this helps police officials to track down cartels that supply illicit drugs to black market buyers. CI’s are a credible tool for law enforcement officers, since they disclose information that may lead to an arrest.

“They said, ‘[cannabis] was how we got CIs,’ ” Makin announced while presenting his team’s findings. In many instances, CI’s will receive monetary rewards for providing valuable information to law enforcement officers, who can then execute a strategic arrest.

WSU researchers investigated the effect of cannabis legalization on crime rates

In order to conduct their investigation, the WSU researchers accepted a grant from the National Institute of Justice. Although they were lucky to receive funding, their task wasn’t straightforward. According to the team, they lacked essential information to clarify their results.

“You can’t get the data you want, all of the time,” said lead investigator and member of the Department of Criminal Justice, Dale Willits. “This is not a true experiment. It’s a social experiment, not a lab experiment.”

During their investigation into the effects of cannabis legalization, WSU researchers compared crime rates in Colorado and Washington to those in states that have not passed cannabis laws. Colorado and Washington legalized recreational cannabis in 2012.

Although the data suggests that higher crime rates occurred following legalization in Colorado and Washington, the researchers say that the effects of cannabis legalization on crime rates were not overly drastic. It should also be noted that crime rates increased in states that have not legalized cannabis.

“There was no substantial effect of legalization on crime rates. That doesn’t mean legalization had no effect,” stated Willits. Members of law enforcement did not agree with the researchers’ conclusion that the data doesn’t demonstrate a link between cannabis legalization and crime rates; more research is needed to clarify a link.

Cannabis-related road accidents have soared in many jurisdictions

In regards to road accidents caused by cannabis impairment, the researchers also struggled to obtain accurate data. Willits says that cases of cannabis impairment may also involve alcohol, since people are more commonly convicted of alcohol-related DUI charges than they are cannabis-related DUI charges.

Why? Currently, no testing equipment exists to determine whether or not a motorist is impaired by cannabis while driving. Blood alcohol content testing equipment, however, is much easier for law enforcement officers to obtain. This could change in the future, what with recent news announcing that THC breathalyzer are devices expected to hit the market by 2020.

WSU researchers have applied for grants to expand research into the effects of cannabis legalization

In spite of the hazy results that were gleaned by WSU, the researchers are adamant that they will get a clear representation of the effects of cannabis legalization by carrying out future research efforts.

WSU researchers revealed that they would like to conduct a wider field of research to determine cannabis consumption rates, the effects of legal weed on the illicit market, as well as how many complaint calls are received by police departments each day in regards to the plant’s broader use.

Additionally, Makin’s team in Washington want to closely monitor body camera footage recordings as a way of ascertaining the most effective methods of stopping motorists.

“We’d like to have other states come to Washington to learn,” Makin concluded.