Politicians who are against the legalization of recreational or medical marijuana sometimes argue that these measures should be prohibited, or in some states reversed, because Cannabis use increases the level of violence in society.
However, the reality is that studies on this subject have yielded mixed findings, which tend to contradict anti-Cannabis claims. While experiences using Cannabis are subjective and varied, most people report feelings of increased relaxation, tranquility, contentment, and drowsiness – qualities that aren’t normally conducive to aggression. Does marijuana increase violent behavior? In short, no.
Studies Show Decreased Violent Crime, Arrests in States with Medical Marijuana Laws
Cannabis opponents often claim that marijuana increases violence and aggression, notably U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who in February 2017 told officials from the Department of Justice, “I don’t think America is going to be a better place when people of all ages, and particularly young people, are smoking pot. I believe it’s an unhealthy practice, and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago, and we’re seeing real violence around that.”
He added, “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved,” explaining, “You can’t sue somebody for drug debt; the only way to get your money is through strong-arm tactics, and violence tends to follow that.”
To begin with, it’s a flawed premise – after all, if Cannabis were legalized, delinquent “drug debts” could be resolved through legal means of debt collection like liens and garnishments, not through violence. But even more importantly, scientific research doesn’t exactly line up with this reasoning.
For example, in January 2016, a study published in the Journal of Drug Issues set out to find whether the legalization of medical marijuana had increased violent crime and/or property crime in 11 states located in the western half of the U.S. The study, which controlled “for state-specific factors,” was clear in its conclusions: “There is no evidence of negative spillover effects from medical marijuana laws (MMLs) on violent or property crime.”
But the authors’ findings didn’t stop there. They went a step further, showing, “Instead, we find significant drops in rates of violent crime associated with state medical marijuana laws.”
In other words, the legalization of medical marijuana had a neutral effect on property crime, which neither increased nor decreased, and a positive effect on violent crime, which decreased.
Echoing this research, public policy reports have reached similar conclusions when approaching the same issue from a law enforcement perspective. A 2015 presentation for the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM) – an organization which describes itself as a “non-profit dedicated to improving public policy and management by fostering excellence in research, analysis and education” – revealed the following:
“Using state-level data from the 1994 to 2012 Uniform Crime Reports, this study… estimate[s] the effect of MMLs on arrest rates…. Preliminary results suggest medical marijuana laws lead to a significant decrease in arrest rates for violent crimes among both juveniles and adults. Initial estimates also point to a reduction in arrest rates for property crime, which is likely driven by a decrease in burglary and theft arrests among juveniles.”
Although the analysis failed to definitively explain why these trends occurred, researchers put forth several theories: “Potential mechanisms to explain the decline in arrest rates include increased security at dispensaries and homes, the decreased level of alcohol consumption that accompanies the implementation of medical marijuana laws, and the role of law enforcement.”
None of these findings are particularly surprising. On the contrary, they are common sense. For obvious reasons, threatened or actual violence is less likely to occur in a climate where Cannabis transactions take place out in the open and are controlled by rigid, orderly regulations, rather than being left to a black market where anything can happen.
Does Marijuana Make People More Aggressive?
As to whether Cannabis intoxication increases aggression in the individual user, findings are again inconclusive. Some studies have suggested an increase in violence among certain segments of the population, such as a 2015 study from the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, in which “initiating marijuana use after treatment was associated with worse PTSD symptoms [and] more violent behavior.” However, this may be attributable to high doses of THC (and other cannabinoids), which are more likely to cause paranoia and agitation than low to moderate doses. Additionally, the study did not examine members of the general population – only participants with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Another study published the same year, which focused specifically on the connection between Cannabis use and intimate partner aggression (IPA), stated that “TLFB and daily report studies have all failed to find evidence consistent with an acute effect of marijuana use on IPA…” (For reference, TLFB stands for “TimeLine Follow Back,” and simply “involves using a calendar as a guide to recall episodes of substance use and of IPA occurring over the previous time period.”)
Like the PTSD study, the IPA study focused on a narrow subset of the population, and failed to conclusively demonstrate that using marijuana made people more aggressive toward their romantic or sexual partners.
The article is written by Dr. Jordan Tishler, the CEO of inhaleMD, a cannabis medicine clinic in Massachusetts. The article first appeared on inhaleMD’s website. Through his training in Internal Medicine and years of practice as an Emergency Physician, Dr. Tishler brings his knowledge, reason, and caring to patients at inhaleMD, and through his advocacy work at the local and national levels.