Marijuana Legalization: The Sky Hasn't Fallen in Washington State

Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of retail marijuana sales in Washington, and, amazingly enough, the state seems to not only have survived legalization, but to have actually benefited from it.

Voters in both Washington and Colorado gave the green light to legalization on election day 2012, and marijuana became legal in Washington on December 6, 2012, 30 days after the election. But Washington trailed Colorado in getting retail sales up and running—its first legal pot shop opened July 8, 2014.

To mark the date, the Drug Policy Alliance has issued a report on what has happened since legalization arrived, and it likes what it sees: "Since adult possession of marijuana became legal eighteen months ago, the state has benefitted from a dramatic decrease in marijuana arrests and convictions, as well as increased tax revenues. During the same period, the state has experienced a decrease in violent crime rates. In addition, rates of youth marijuana use and traffic fatalities have remained stable."

The report’s key findings include:

  • Filings for low-level marijuana offenses are down 98% for adults 21 and older. All categories of marijuana law violations are down 63% and marijuana-related convictions are down 81%.
  • The state is now saving millions of dollars in law enforcement resources that were previously used to enforce marijuana laws.
  • Violent crime has decreased in Washington and other crime rates have remained stable since the passage of I-502.
  • Washington has collected nearly $83 million in marijuana tax revenues. These revenues are funding substance abuse prevention and treatment programs, youth and adult drug education, community health care services, and academic research and evaluation on the effects of marijuana legalization in the state.
  • The number of traffic fatalities remained stable in the first year that adult possession was legalized.
  • Youth marijuana use has not increased since the passage of I-502.
  • Washington voters continue to support marijuana legalization. Fifty-six percent continue to approve of the state’s marijuana law – about the same as when it was approved in 2012 – while only 37% oppose, a decrease of 7 points since the election of 2012.  More than three-quarters (77%) believe the law has had either a positive impact or no effect on their lives.

"Marijuana prohibition has been a costly failure—to individuals, communities, and the entire country,” said Tamar Todd, DPA director of marijuana law and policy. “Washington should be praised for developing a smarter, more responsible approach to marijuana. By shifting away from unnecessary marijuana arrests and focusing instead on public health, Washington is better positioned to address the potential harms of marijuana use, while also diminishing many of the worst harms of the war on drugs," added Todd.

It's not just Washington. Similar results have been reported from Colorado. It is becoming increasingly clear that the dire warnings of crime, delinquency, car wrecks, moral decay, and social collapse heard from legalization foes have not happened. In fact, life seems to pretty much go on as before, except with fewer pot busts and criminal justice system costs, more jobs and economic growth, and more tax revenues.

We're now seen the early takeaways from marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington, and soon there will be data from Alaska and Oregon, the states that legalized it last year and are just preparing to come online with retail sales. There's little reason to believe their experience is going to be much different.

As voters in more states—including Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, and Ohio—contemplate voting on marijuana legalization next year (or, in the case of Ohio, this November), they are likely to be eying the early legalization states with envy more than anything else. 

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