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The Truth about Legalization: A View from the Cato Institute

The Cato Institute is a libertarian think-tank dedicated to limited government and personal freedom. They are widely recognized as an authority with many excellent scholars on staff that provide them with analysis and information.

In September, 2016, the Institute released a report that reviewed the effects of marijuana legalization in the four states where recreational marijuana is legal.

In this brief article, we’ll look at some of the specifics, but the conclusion that the researchers drew from their study is interesting.

“Our conclusion is that state marijuana legalizations have had minimal effect on marijuana use and related outcomes. We cannot rule out small effects of legalization, and insufficient time has elapsed since the four initial legalizations to allow strong inference. On the basis of available data, however, we find little support for the stronger claims made by either opponents or advocates of legalization. The absence of significant adverse consequences is especially striking given the sometimes dire predictions made by legalization opponents.” (emphasis added)

The Cato Institute report is important and telling in that the ‘sky is falling’ predictions of the anti-legalization front simply haven’t come true in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, or Alaska. In fact, there is a fair balance of good and bad news from all sides. Interestingly, when you use the four states to average each other out, in most cases, there is no discernible effect in any of the areas that the institute measured.

What follows is a decidedly unscientific homogenization of their report. We didn’t crunch numbers, but simply looked at the data presented and tried to draw a layman’s conclusion.

To read the report in its entirety, just click here. All of the references in this article come from this report.

Drug Use (Alcohol, Marijuana, Cocaine)

Colorado – The data doesn’t show a significant effect in any of these three drugs. There is a slight uptick in alcohol and marijuana, but it’s within historic norms.

Washington – Marijuana has risen for users 12+ years old, but alcohol and cocaine use are flat since legalization.

Oregon – Alcohol is down slightly, marijuana and cocaine haven’t changed.

Conclusion: The mixed bag of rising and falling across the three states doesn’t lend itself to any particular conclusion. To repeat the overall conclusion the researchers drew at the beginning, nothing really terrible happened.

Youth Risk Behavior – Marijuana Use in the Past Month

In this chart, both Colorado and Alaska have been showing a steady decline in the use of marijuana by young people since about 2009. There is no increase after legalization as was feared.

Perception of Risk

Since 2003, the perception of the risks of legalization have been steadily declining. After legalization that perception has been falling off even faster.

According to a survey by Public Policy Polling released on September 19, nearly 50% of Coloradans say that legalization has been good for the state. Another 9% say it hasn’t made a difference.

Fewer than 4 in 10 believe that marijuana legalization has been bad for the state.

The majority of Colorado voters would not vote to criminalize marijuana again if was on the next ballot.

In other words, a majority of Colorado voters see marijuana legalization as good or neutral. That’s just 2 years after the opening of the first recreational shops, but the doomsayers appear to be wrong about rising crime rates and underage age smoking

Other Factors

Some other points that were looked included suicide rates and marijuana prices have remained flat or inconclusive. Suicide rates among men 20 to 39 has increased in all four states very slightly, but there is no evidence that it has anything to do with marijuana.

Treatment Admissions

Admissions to treatment programs is one area with a significant trend. It can’t be concluded to be a long-term effect, but admission are down for both alcohol and marijuana in Colorado and Washington.

It remains to be seen if this trend will continue for a longer period, say five or ten years, but it would appear that the dire warnings of drug addicts overwhelming the system don’t appear to be coming true.

Crime Rate

This is another area where there’s mixed news. Denver’s crime rate rose slightly, Seattle’s stayed level, and Portland’s dropped significantly. There are too many factors that contribute to crime rates to pin anything, one way or the other, on legalized recreational marijuana.


If you’re interested in reading the complete report, it’s available free from the Cato Institute website:

The most important conclusion to draw is that there is no “end of the world” scenario going on. Crime rates haven’t gone through the roof, marijuana is not infecting the children, and there aren’t streets filled with stoned criminals and children.

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