Washington State University finds some unintended consequences of legalization

Washington State University finds some unintended consequences of legalization

We’ve talked about the intended consequences of legalization here a lot: Legalizing cannabis helps to sideline the black and grey markets (at least, it’s meant to), it helps create a legal option for people who want to or need to use the drug, and it can create tax revenue and add to the overall economy (in addition to helping those who have been most negatively affected by the unjust War on Drugs). But not all of the consequences of legalization are yet known — that’s just how it works when you change the law so drastically.

For example, researchers at Washington State University have found two unintended consequences of legalization that you might not expect. First, according to law enforcement, there’s had to be more turnover of K9 units than expected. The dogs trained to detect drugs in Washington were all trained to find the smell of cannabis, and now that the drug is legal, those dogs are no longer as helpful. They’re still dogs, though — some have found jobs working as school security, and hopefully any other early retirees have found good homes as well.

Another strange consequence: confidential informants are harder to find. In the past, law enforcement officers might have used cannabis convictions to turn would-be offenders into informants (because most people using cannabis probably weren’t hardened criminals in the first place). Now that cannabis is legal, however, police officers don’t have as much leverage over low level offenders. Which is just as well — there are probably better things for police officers to do besides hustling low level cannabis charges.

Researchers also found there was an increase in serious crimes in both Colorado and Washington, post-legalization. But there were also increases in serious crimes in states where legalization didn’t happen, so it’s hard to say what the exact factors are there. And it’s the same for driving under the influence — cannabis-impaired driving has gone up in some places where cannabis has legalized, but it’s not always clear when someone is driving while high, and if someone has been smoking cannabis and drinking, officers don’t always cite cannabis as the issue rather than just plain old alcohol.

In other words, the main takeaway here is that cannabis legalization is an in-progress social experiment — at this point, it’s about practice rather than theory. There’s much more research to be done as legalization continues to roll out. And whatever the consequences turn out to be, we’ll just have to take things one step at a time, and make the best decisions we can as we go forward.

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