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Legal Marijuana’s Effect on Justice and Health


  • Many states have legalized marijuana, at odds with federal government.
  • Abt used various data sources to explore marijuana legalization’s effects.
  • Legalization has widespread and unintended consequences that require further investigation.
The Challenge

A major shift has occurred over the past two decades in public policies and attitudes toward marijuana use. Between 1996 and 2021, 37 states passed laws legalizing the medical use of marijuana, and 18 states legalized recreational use. However, marijuana remains illegal under federal law, where it is still classified under the Controlled Substances Act as an illicit Schedule I substance. Little is known about the justice system and public health outcomes related to changes to state laws and policies and the tension between these new laws and federal laws prohibiting use.

The Approach

To explore these questions, the Abt project team used a mixed methods approach, drawing from multiple primary and secondary data sources. First, we accessed criminal justice and public health data from publicly available sources, such as arrest data from cities in Washington State and SAMHSA’s Treatment Episodes Dataset (TEDS). Then we conducted in-depth interviews with criminal justice stakeholders with extensive experience working on marijuana trafficking cases. Finally, we coded narrative pre-sentence report data from the United States Sentencing Commission to explore how processing of marijuana-related trafficking cases changed from before legalization to after.

The Results

The study found:

  • A modest but statistically significant increase in property crimes in neighborhoods in Washington State where dispensaries were opened.
  • That use of marijuana (and other drugs, in certain age groups) increased significantly after legalization, as did demand for treatment beds for which marijuana was cited as among the top reasons for admission.
  • That drug trafficking organizations may have diversified post-legalization, according to an analysis of pre-sentence reports from drug cases.
  • That, according to most respondents, enforcement and prosecution of marijuana-related cases did not change much from pre- to post-legalization.