The Minneapolis Police Department is in a no-win situation with respect to enforcement of marijuana laws, and Mayor Jacob Frey’s decision to ask the department to stop enforcing laws against marijuana sales will have a deleterious effect on public safety in the city.
Criminalization of marijuana has not worked. Marijuana use is widespread: a Yahoo News/Marist college poll conducted in 2017 concluded that more than half of American adults have used marijuana and that 55 million Americans use marijuana at least once a year. A number of polls show that marijuana legalization is supported by more than half of Americans. It is also clear that the criminalization of marijuana has led to disproportionate levels of arrests of people of color. These arrests further strain the relationship between the police and the community they serve.
At first blush, Frey’s decision to ask the Police Department to stop enforcing low-level marijuana sales seems like a good one: Indeed, it will likely reduce negative interactions between the police and a community that often feels overpoliced; it will save the cost of processing prosecution and arrests of some people whose arrest and prosecution serves little purpose in increasing public safety overall; and it will potentially free police resources to address more serious crime. While all of those things are good, the net effect on public safety may actually be a negative one.
Marijuana is a popular product. The de facto decriminalization of marijuana — decreasing the likelihood of being arrested for its use or for the sale of small amounts of marijuana — makes it more popular. Because there is not currently a legal manner to bring this popular product to market, we have created a situation in which a highly lucrative commodity is often produced and always distributed by organizations that are, by necessity, criminal in nature. We have a long, sad history of violence in this country generated by criminal groups fighting for control of black markets. Decriminalization is likely to increase that violence by increasing the market demand and profit while still not providing a means for legal production and distribution.
It is perhaps too early to tell if legalization of marijuana, where the sale can be regulated and taxed appropriately, will reduce violent crime, but the earliest research seems to suggest it will. One study shows a decrease in violent crime in Mexican border states that have legalized recreational marijuana. Legalization of marijuana will not necessarily eliminate the black-market production, distribution and sale of the commodity, but evidence suggests that it will greatly reduce it — and it certainly creates a more compelling government interest in the enforcement against black-market sales and distribution.
There are, of course, other considerations to be weighed before legalizing marijuana. There is legitimate concern about whether legalization will have a negative effect on traffic safety by introducing more impaired drivers on the road. Early research indicates that (a) either more research is needed, or (b) there is not a significant difference between the amount of marijuana-impaired driving in states where marijuana is legal and those in which it is not. There is also legitimate concern about whether legalization of marijuana will increase use of marijuana among adolescents; like access to alcohol, cigarettes and prescription medication, education and prevention campaigns would be needed to address youth access to marijuana. What is clear, though, from numerous public health studies is that adult use of marijuana is not more harmful than cigarettes, alcohol or opiates, and is almost certainly less addictive than any of those legal substances.
If we are truly interested in public safety by reducing violent crime, decriminalization may be the worst policy alternative: It increases the market for marijuana by reducing the disincentives to use it without providing a legal means for production and distribution. The risk of violence among black-marketeers certainly remains and may increase. Legalization through controlled distribution is a far safer policy alternative.
Robert Allen, a retired police officer, commanded the First Precinct in downtown from Minneapolis for five years and served as deputy chief for six years.