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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
For a useful summation of many of Anslinger’s statements in his 1937 testimony to US Congress supporting Marihuana Tax Act, see https://fee.org/articles/the-racist-roots-of-marijuana-prohibition/.
In other states, the legal status of cannabis remains mixed.
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.
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.
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.
For an interview with Dr. Cooper about this subject, see Martin (2019).
There are exceptions. For example, a charge of cannabis-impaired driving would not be eligible because impaired driving is still illegal.
Alchian, Arman, and William Allen. (1967). Exchange and Production. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Becker, Howard S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. New York: Free Press.
Beckett, Katherine, and Steven Herbert. (2008). The Consequences and Costs of Marijuana Prohibition. ACLU of Washington, Seattle, WA, December 8. Retrieved on January 21, 2021, from https://www.aclu-wa.org/docs/consequences-and-costs-marijuana-prohibition.
Beletsky, Leo, and Corey S. Davis. (2017). Today’s Fentanyl Crisis: Prohibition’s Iron Law Revisited. International Journal of Drug Policy, 46(August), 156–159.
Berenson, Alex. (2019). Tell Your Children: The truth about marijuana, mental illness, and violence. New York: Free Press.
Best, Joel. (2001). Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling numbers from the media, politicians, and activists. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Blumstein, Alfred. (1982). On the Racial Disproportionality of United States’ Prison Populations. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 73(3), 1259–1281.
Blumstein, Alfred, and Joel Wallman. (2006). The Crime Drop in America. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Boeri, Miriam. (2017). Hurt: Chronicles of the Drug War Generation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Chang, Tom, and Mireille Jacobson. (2017). Going to pot? The impact of dispensary closures on crime. Journal of Urban Economics, 100(C), 120–136.
Contreras, Christopher. (2016). A Block-Level Analysis of Medical Marijuana Dispensaries and Crime in the City of Los Angeles. Justice Quarterly, 34(6), 1069–1095.
Cowan, Richard. (1986). How the Narcs Created Crack: A War Against Ourselves. National Review, 38(23), 26–34.
Cummings, William. (2019). Biden, lone top 2020 Democrat to oppose federal marijuana legalization, cites ‘gateway drug’ concern. USA Today, November 18. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2019/11/18/joe-biden-says-marijuana-may-gateway-drug-opposes-legalization/4226908002/
Currie, Elliott. (1999). Reflections on crime and criminology at the millennium. Western Criminology Review, 2(1), 1–13.
Di Forti, Marta, Diego Quattrone, Tom P. Freeman, Giada Tripoli, Charlotte Gayer-Anderson, Harriet Quigley, Victoria Rodriguez, Hannah E. Jongsma, Laura Ferraro, Caterina La Cascia, Daniele La Barbera, Ilaria Tarricone, Domenico Berardi, Andrei Szöke, Celso Arango, Andrea Tortelli, Eva Velthorst, Miguel Bernardo, Cristina Marta Del-Ben, Paulo Rossi Menezes, Jean-Paul Selten, Peter B. Jones, James B. Kirkbride, Bart P.F. Rutten, Lieuwe de Haan, Pak C. Sham, Jim van Os, Cathryn M. Lewis, Michael Lynskey, Craig Morgan, Robin M. Murray, and the EU-GEI WP2 Group. (2019). The contribution of cannabis use to variation in the incidence of psychotic disorder across Europe (EU-GEI): A multicentre case-control study. Lancet Psychiatry, 6(5), 427–436.
Dragone, Davide, Giovanni Prarolo, Paolo Vanin, and Giulio Zanella. (2017). Crime and the legalization of recreational marijuana. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 159(C), 488–501.
Drug Policy Alliance. (2019). 100 Scholars and Clinicians Refute Inaccurate Claims in New Book, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from http://www.drugpolicy.org/press-release/2019/02/100-scholars-and-clinicians-refute-inaccurate-claims-new-book-tell-your.
Farley, Erin J., and Stan Orchowsky. (2019). Measuring the Criminal Justice System Impacts of Marijuana Legalization and Decriminalization Using State Data NCJ Number 253137. National Criminal Justice Reference Services. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/253137.pdf.
Farrell, Graham. (2013). Five Tests for a Theory of the Crime Drop. Crime Science, 2(5), 1–8.
Farrell, Graham, Nick Tilley, and Andromachi Tseloni. (2014). Why Crime Drop? Crime and Justice, 43(1), 421–490.
Feeley, Malcolm M., and Jonathan Simon. (1992). The New Penology: Notes on the Emerging Strategy of Corrections and Its Implications. Criminology, 30(4), 449–474.
Gage, Suzanne H., Stanley Zammit, and Matthew Hickman. (2013). Stronger evidence is needed before accepting that cannabis plays an important role in the aetiology of schizophrenia in the population. F1000 Medicine Reports, 5(2). https://doi.org/10.3410/M5-2. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from https://facultyopinions.com/prime/reports/m/5/2/.
Garland, David. (2001). Culture of control: Crime and social order in contemporary society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Gladwell, Malcolm. (2019). Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think? The New Yorker, January 14. Retrieved on December 12, 2020, from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/01/14/is-marijuana-as-safe-as-we-think
Golub, Andrew, and Bruce D. Johnson. (2001). Drug of Choice Among Youthful Adult Arrestees. National Institute of Justice Research Briefs (July). US Department of Justice. Retrieved December 12, 2020, from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/187490.pdf
Henry, Stuart, and Dragan Milovanovic. (1996). Constitutive Criminology: Beyond Postmodernism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Hunt, Priscilla, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, and Gabriel Weinberger. (2018). High on crime: Exploring the effects of dispensary laws on California counties. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.
Isaacs, Caroline. (2014). TREATMENT INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: How For-Profit Prison Corporations are Undermining Efforts to Treat and Rehabilitate Prisoners for Corporate Gain. Philadelphia, PA: The American Friends Service Committee.
Ksir, Charles, and Carl Hart. (2016). Cannabis and Psychosis: A Critical Overview of the Relationship. Current Psychiatry Reports, 18(2), 12–23.
Lewis, Marc. (2015). The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is Not a Disease. Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada.
Ligaya, Armina. (2019). Six months after legalization, high prices and supply issues boost illicit pot market. Global News, April 20. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from https://www.thestar.com/business/2019/04/20/six-months-after-legalization-high-prices-and-supply-issues-boost-illicit-pot-market.html.
Lu, Ruibin, Dale Willits, Mary K. Stohr, David Makin, John Snyder, Nicholas Lovrich , Mikala Meize, Duane Stanton, Guangzhen Wu, and Craig Hemmens. (2019). The Cannabis Effect on Crime: Time-Series Analysis of Crime in Colorado and Washington State. Justice Quarterly https://doi.org/10.1080/07418825.2019.1666903
Martin, Alyson. (2019). A conversation with Ziva Cooper. Cannabis Wire, February 1. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from https://cannabiswire.com/2019/02/01/a-conversation-with-ziva-cooper/.
Morris, Julian. (2018). Does Legalizing Marijuana Reduce Crime? Reason Foundation, September. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from https://reason.org/wp-content/uploads/does-legalizing-marijuana-reduce-crime.pdf.
Murray, Robin M., Amir Englund, Anissa Abi-Dargham, David A. Lewis, Marta Di Forti, Cathy Davies, M. Sherif, Philip McGuire, and Deepak C. D'Souza. (2017). Cannabis-associated psychosis: neural substrate and clinical impact. Neuropharmacology, 124(15), 89–104.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). (2017). The health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids: The current state of evidence and recommendations for research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Nussbaum, Abraham M., Christian Thurstone, Laurel McGarry, Brendan Walker, and Allison L Sabel. (2015). Use and diversion of medical marijuana among adults admitted to inpatient psychiatry. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 41(2), 166–172.
Parker, Herbert. (2005). Normalization as a barometer: Recreational drug use and the consumption of leisure by younger Britons. Addiction Research and Theory, 13(3), 205–215.
Pedersen, Willy and Skardhamar, Torbjørn. (2009). Cannabis and crime: findings from a longitudinal study. Addiction, 105(1), 109–118.
Ponto, Laura L. Boles. (2006). Challenges of marijuana research. Brain, 129(5), 1081–1083.
Reinarman Craig. (2014). Criminal Law and Cultural Lag: Drug Prohibition as Anachronism. In Henning Schmidt-Semisch and Henner Hess (Eds.), Die Sinnprovinz der Kriminalität (pp. 67–78). Wiesbaden, DE: Springer VS.
Reinarman, Craig, Peter D.A. Cohen, and Hendrien L. Kaal. (2004). The limited relevance of drug policy: Cannabis in Amsterdam and in San Francisco. American Journal of Public Health, 94(5), 836–842.
Robinson, Matthew B., and Rebecca Scherlen. (2014). Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Savelsberg, Joachim J., Laura L. Cleveland, and Ryan D. King. (2004). Institutional Environmentsand Scholarly Work: American Criminology, 1951–1993. Social Forces, 82(4), 1275–1302.
Scott, James G., Lori Matuschka, Solja Niemelä, Jouko Miettunen, Brett Emmerson, and Antti Mustonen. (2018). Evidence of a Causal Relationship Between Smoking Tobacco and Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorders. Frontiers of Psychiatry, 9 [November 20]: 607 https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00607.
Schwabe, Anna L., Connor J. Hansen, Richard M. Hyslop, and Mitchell E. McGlaughlin. (2019). Research grade marijuana supplied by the National Institute on Drug Abuse is genetically divergent from commercially available Cannabis. BioRxiv, March 28. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from https://doi.org/10.1101/592725.
Smart, Amy. (2019). Trend of low potency products expected in Canadian legal recreational market. CBC News, October 7. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/trend-of-low-potency-products-expected-in-legal-recreational-cannabis-market-1.4853981.
Tcherni-Buzzeo, Maria. (2019). The “Great American Crime Decline”: Possible explanations. In Marvin D. Krohn, Nicole Hendrix, Gina Penly Hall, and Alan J. Lizotte (Eds.), Handbook on Crime and Deviance (2nd ed.) (pp. 309–335). New York: Springer.
Thornton, Mark. (1998). Perfect Drug Legalization. In Jefferson Fish (Ed.), How to Legalize Drugs: Public Health, Social Science, and Civil Liberties Perspectives (pp. 638–660). Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson.
Tonry, Michael. (2011). Punishing race: A continuing American dilemma. New York: Oxford University Press.
Tosh, Sarah. (2019). Drugs, Crime, and Aggravated Felony Deportations: Moral Panic Theory and the Legal Construction of the ‘Criminal Alien’. Critical Criminology: An International Journal, 27(3), 329–345. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-019-09446-8.
Ward, Rachel. (2019). Alberta squeaks out title as Canada’s top cannabis market with $123.6M sold. CBC News, August 26. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/alberta-cannabis-sales-1.5259452.
Western, Bruce. (2006). Punishment and Inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Wheeldon, Johannes, and Jon Heidt. (2007). Bridging the Gap: A Pragmatic Approach to Understanding Critical Criminologies and Policy Influence. Critical Criminology: An International Journal, 15(4), 313–325. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-007-9041-5
Wheeldon, Johannes, and Jon Heidt. (2012). Contesting Evidence through a Comparative Research Program (or Understanding and Implementing Criminal Justice Reform in an Era of Dumb on Crime). International Journal of Criminology and Sociological Theory, 5(2), 922–935.
Wheeldon, Johannes, Jon Heidt, and Brendan Dooley. (2014). The Troubles with Unification: Debating Assumptions, Methods, and Expertise in Criminology. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Criminology, 6(2), 111–128.
Zimring, Franklin. (2007). The Great American Crime Decline. New York: Oxford University Press.
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
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Heidt, J., Wheeldon, J. Data, Damn Lies, and Cannabis Policy: Reefer Madness and the Methodological Crimes of the New Prohibitionists. Crit Crim (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-020-09548-8