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Maria M. Orsini

Ohio State University (OSU) – Department of Sociology

December 5, 2022


After decades of criminalization, cannabis policy has liberalized rapidly throughout the U.S. in the 21st century. Following cannabis legalization in Colorado and Washington, legalization has gained momentum in many other U.S. states. While some states have fully legalized recreational cannabis for adult use, others have only decriminalized or legalized medical use. These reforms may have significant effects on public safety and public health, and therefore have become a topic of considerable academic interest. This review summarizes extant literature on the effect of drug policy liberalization on crime, traffic safety, law enforcement, and racial disparities. Overall, the literature suggests that cannabis legalization has resulted in some benefits to public health and public safety, even while some studies have produced mixed findings with regard to particular outcomes. Much of the literature regarding the impact of marijuana legalization on crime shows promising effects, including decreases in violent and property crime, reductions in drug-related arrests, and an improvement in crime clearance rates. Research on the relationship between cannabis policy liberalization and changes in traffic safety has produced mixed results, and while drug policy liberalization has the potential to reduce racial disparities, further changes are needed for those benefits to be achieved. Finally, all-drug decriminalization is associated with reductions in problematic drug use and criminal justice overcrowding, declines in youth drug use, and other health and social benefits, as evidenced by evaluations of Portugal’s policy and preliminary evidence in Oregon following decriminalization in 2020.