Studies Link Marijuana Legalization to All Sorts of Positive Public Health Outcomes
Plus: San Francisco claims to have "significantly disrupted" sex trafficking, a nationwide injunction on abortion pills, and more...
Legalization linked to fewer suicides, traffic fatalities, and opioid deaths. A new paper on the public health effects of legalizing marijuana finds "little credible evidence to suggest that [medical marijuana] legalization promotes marijuana use among teenagers" and "convincing evidence that young adults consume less alcohol when medical marijuana is legalized." And that's just the start of the positive pot news contained in the paper, which was published this month in the Journal of Economic Literature.
The paper reviews previous research on the public health effects of legal weed, including studies published between 2013 and 2020.
These days, 36 states have legalized medical marijuana and 18 states have legalized recreational marijuana, study authors D. Mark Anderson and Daniel I. Rees note. This has spawned all sorts of concerns about potential public health issues, from promoting the use of marijuana—or other substances—among teenagers to worry about crime, traffic fatalities, and more. But across a range of measures, the evidence is inconclusive at worst and very often quite positive.
For instance: it becomes clear that medical marijuana laws aren't driving an epidemic of marijuana use among minors. In fact, some researchers have even "found a negative association between [medical marijuana laws] and youth marijuana use."
Likewise, a 2019 paper found recreational marijuana legalization associated "with an 8 percent decrease in the odds of any marijuana use among high school students and a 9 percent decrease in the odds of frequent marijuana use among high school students."
Anderson and Rees suggest one possible explanation for the decreased use findings is that "it is more difficult for teenagers to access marijuana when drug dealers are replaced by licensed dispensaries that require proof of age."
But some small studies have shown a correlation between recreational marijuana legalization and increased teen use. "Researchers will have to wait until more years of post-legalization data become available before drawing firm conclusions about the relationship between [recreational marijuana laws] and youth marijuana use," the authors say.
The effect of legalization on adult marijuana use is also inconclusive. Using surveys that asked adults about their use, one study found "no evidence of a relationship between [medical marijuana laws] and marijuana consumption among adults," while another found them associated with a 4–7 percent increase in past-month adult use and recreational legalization linked to a 30 percent increase in use.
Of course, data about the effect of legalization on adult use is complicated by the fact that legalization might make more people comfortable admitting marijuana use in surveys.
Anderson and Rees also say that it's "difficult to gauge" the effect of marijuana legalization on opioid deaths and on several other public health measures, including mental health, traffic fatalities, workplace health, and crime. Still, there are a lot of positive indicators in the research.
The authors note that "several studies have produced credible evidence" that medical marijuana legalization may reduce the number of opioid-related deaths. However, one 2019 study "confirmed the negative association between legalization and opioid-related mortality…for the period 1999–2010, but found that this association became positive when data for the years 2011–17 were added to the analysis." The authors suggest that this could be "due to the changing nature of the opioid epidemic. Perhaps marijuana and prescription pain medications are substitutes, but marijuana and heroin are not."
Recent research on recreational marijuana legalization and opioid deaths has been promising. Another 2019 study found recreational legalization associated with a 14 percent decline in opioid-related deaths, and a 2020 study "found that the legalization of recreational sales was associated with a 16–21 percent decrease in opioid-related mortality."
In addition, there is "strong evidence that legalizing marijuana discourages the use of alcohol, especially binge drinking."
Perhaps because of this link to less drinking, marijuana legalization has also been linked to a decrease in traffic fatalities:
Anderson, Hansen, and Rees (2013) were the first researchers to estimate the effects of [medical marijuana law] adoption on traffic fatality rates. These authors found that legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes was associated with a 9–10 percent reduction in traffic fatalities…with larger negative effects on traffic fatalities involving alcohol, traffic fatalities on the weekends, and traffic fatalities at night.
A 2020 study linked medical marijuana legalization with a 9 percent decrease in fatal car accidents, with the results of decriminalization of marijuana more unclear. Meanwhile, several studies failed to find a link between recreational legalization and traffic fatalities.
Some research has also shown a relationship between legal marijuana and decreased suicide rates. One 2014 study found medical marijuana legalization "associated with an 11 percent reduction in suicides among male 20–29-year-olds, and a 9 percent reduction in suicides among male 30–39-year-olds." (The data for female suicides was less clear.) And a 2020 study "found that [medical marijuana law] adoption was associated with fewer firearm-related suicides," though "its relationship with non-firearm-related suicides, although negative, was not statistically significant."
Links between marijuana legalization and crime were also hard to find. None of 10 studies the authors looked at produce evidence that medical weed legalization drove up crime rates. And some research showed a link between legalization and fewer robberies, burglaries, homicides, and assaults. One study found legal dispensary openings linked to an increase in nearby vehicle break-ins, while another study found dispensary closures linked to more break-ins.
Taken altogether, the studies suggest that medical and recreational legalization "reduces nondrug crimes," the authors conclude.
Next time folks start fearmongering about all the public health and social ills supposedly associated with marijuana legalization, you may want to point them to this study for a healthy dose of reality.
Operation Better Pathways is another prostitution sting disguised as a rescue mission. The California attorney general is touting the fact that the state's Human Trafficking Task Force arrested 48 people through "Operation Better Pathways," a month-long sting operation conducted in conjunction with the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations. But the vast majority of these arrests were for misdemeanors, per reporting from CBS San Francisco.
Some of the arrests had nothing to do with sex at all. Two people were arrested for probation violations, including one man who was arrested merely for having alcohol, since the terms of his probation don't allow it.
Meanwhile, 38 of the arrests were for misdemeanor prostitution charges.
At a late-February press conference, San Francisco District Attorney Summer Stephan said the operation "significantly disrupted" human trafficking in the city. Yet just four of those arrested in Operation Better Pathways were charged with sex trafficking, and at least two such cases were not discovered by law enforcement's sting operations. In one case, a 16-year-old victim called 911 saying that she was a runaway who was now being forced to sell sex. In another, an 18-year-old reached out directly to the San Diego Police Department to say she was being forced into prostitution.
Helping stop cases like these seems like exactly what police should be focusing on. But the 40 other arrests in "Operation Better Pathways" were not necessary in order to do that, and in fact may detract from focusing resources on situations where help is actually needed.
A nationwide injunction on abortion pills? An abortion pill case in Texas "demonstrates the troublingly outsized power of low-level federal courts to effectively write policy for the entire country via a practice called 'nationwide injunctions,'" suggests Kimberly Wehle at The Bulwark. Plaintiffs in the case are seeking a preliminary injunction to immediately suspend approvals of abortion-inducing drugs. They allege that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's 2000 approval of an abortion pill regimen involving mifepristone and misoprostol was unauthorized. From Wehle:
On the merits, the plaintiffs allege that FDA relied on bad science, which included clinical trials and data on adverse side effects. Under the FDAAA, Congress authorized the FDA to require a "risk evaluation and mitigation strategy" before approving a drug in order to ensure that the benefits outweigh the risks. The government argues (rightly) that the court must apply a deferential standard here—it's not empowered to substitute its judgment for the FDA, whom Congress deputized to make these decisions. So long as the FDA's decision that the risks of the drug were outweighed by the benefits was "reasonable and reasonably explained," it should be upheld. At a minimum, the extraordinary relief of a preliminary injunction—which is generally reserved for immediate emergencies—should be denied.
Nonetheless, two procedural wallops make it virtually certain that opponents of abortion will score with this lawsuit: first, the assignment of the case to U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee who sits in the Amarillo Division of the Northern District of Texas; and second, Kacsmaryk's willingness to employ a constitutionally controversial tactic known as a "nationwide injunction" to mandate policy for the country.
• Wyoming's House and Senate have both cleared a measure banning abortion-inducing drugs.
• Lie detectors are junk science. Why do we keep using them?
• Vinyl chloride isn't as scary as some are making it out to be, Josh Bloom writes.
• Conservatives who want to weaken defamation standards may regret opening that can of worms, Reason's Jacob Sullum suggests.
• There's a decent idea buried in Trump's goofy "freedom cities" plan.
• The Washington state Senate has passed a bill 42–6 in favor of allowing backyard cottages and other accessory dwelling units "in most urban areas and prohibit[ing] certain regulations on the units," Pluribus News reports.
• "Inflammatory comments about gender identity may have gotten a warm reception at CPAC," but "opinion polling on the subject reveals a more complex picture," notes Emma Camp.