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Data, Damn Lies, and Cannabis Policy: Reefer Madness and the Methodological Crimes of the New Prohibitionists


The rapid pace of cannabis legalization in North America has provoked a backlash that is predictable and discouraging. The New Prohibitionists, distinct but related to their predecessors, the Old Prohibitionsists, have offered scholarship rife with conceptual errors, methodological flaws, and practical oversights. While their advice would likely hasten that which they seek to decrease, they overlook the costs of returning to practices associated with prohibition. To counter simplistic research interpretations and ill-considered policy, we present a critically informed research program on cannabis and crime based on previous scholarship. Our work is designed to apply replacement discourse and refocus research to withstand the tendency for justice systems to subvert, rather than embrace, reform. Cannabis legalization has been decades in the making and serious questions remain for proponents, opponents, and policymakers. Society, however, will be far worse off if the mistakes of reefer madness are repeated.

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  1. 1.

    For a useful summation of many of Anslinger’s statements in his 1937 testimony to US Congress supporting Marihuana Tax Act, see

  2. 2.

    In other states, the legal status of cannabis remains mixed.

  3. 3.

    Parker (2005) suggested that the use of drugs had become the norm especially among young people. He argued that if current trends continued, non-drug-trying adolescents would be in the minority, as opposed to the “normal” adolescents who had used drugs.

  4. 4.

    Schedule I chemicals, drugs, or substances, are those with no currently accepted medical use and with a high potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs face the strictest regulations and are effectively illegal for anything outside of research.

  5. 5.

    For more, see Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) ( and Clear the Air Now (

  6. 6.

    We have included a small sample of their recent research. Their entire catalog of studies would be impossible to document here because a great deal of their careers has been spent attempting to uncover a link between cannabis use and mental illness. So far, proving such a link exists has been stubbornly elusive.

  7. 7.

    For an interview with Dr. Cooper about this subject, see Martin (2019).

  8. 8.

    For example, a review of the leading research in this area (e.g., Blumstein and Wallman 2006; Farrell 2013; Farrell, Tilley, and Tseloni, 2014; Tcherni-Buzzeo 2019; Zimring 2007) reveals very little mention of less cannabis use (or drug use) as a factor related to the decline in crime.

  9. 9.

    There are exceptions. For example, a charge of cannabis-impaired driving would not be eligible because impaired driving is still illegal.


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The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers who provided helpful comments, suggestions, and advice. They have significantly improved the final manuscript. We are also grateful to Raegan Heidt, Dr. Hayli Millar, and Jeffrey Thomas Wagner for their assistance with editing and feedback provided during the writing process

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Heidt, J., Wheeldon, J. Data, Damn Lies, and Cannabis Policy: Reefer Madness and the Methodological Crimes of the New Prohibitionists. Crit Crim (2021).

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