Violent crime rate rises in aftermath of Alaska's medical marijuana legalization

In yesterday's blog post, the potential effects of Alaska's full legalization of marijuana on violent crime in Anchorage were examined.  The results mimic what we generally see in other jurisdictions such as Colorado and Washington State that have legalized pot in recent years: after a period of stable or declining crime rates, marijuana legalization coincides nearly perfectly with a rapid and substantial rise in crime.

Extending the analysis statewide to look at what the possible effects of Alaska's medical marijuana experiment were only adds fuel to the fire.

On November 3, 1998, 58.7% of Alaskans voted yes on Measure 8 to "allow patients to use marijuana for certain medical purposes."  The law became effective on March 4, 1999.

Yet again, like clockwork, marijuana legalization coincided with a substantial – and otherwise anomalous – increase in violent crime, this time at the statewide level.

Between 1960 and 1999, Alaska's violent crime rate tracked closely with the national rate.  There were no major and sustained deviations.  Sometimes trend reversals at the state level trailed the national data by up to a few years, but we generally see a good correlation over time.

Then, starting in 1999, the year medical marijuana was legalized in Alaska, the state's violent crime rate stopped declining (while the national rate continued to decline) and then began to increase for a number of years, clearly doing the opposite of what was still taking place at the national level.

Since 1999, Alaska's violent crime has stayed far above the national rate, whereas for the 40 years before medical marijuana legalization, the state had effectively the same violent crime rate as the rest of the nation.

Unemployment rate differences cannot explain the break in the series. Alaska and the nation as a whole continued to have very similar unemployment rate trends in the years before and after 1999. Same applies to real per capita GDP. Nothing in the historical record to help explain why, all of a sudden, Alaska's violent crime rate broke from the national trend in 1999.

Except, possibly, the legalization of medical marijuana.

Alaska did legalize marijuana in 1975 and then recriminalized it in 1990.  But comparing legal pot's possible effects on crime from the 1970s with legalization impacts today is like comparing apples and oranges, or more accurately, apples and apple brandy.  In the 1970s, the average THC content of marijuana was less than 1%; today, it is 13%.  That is the same relative difference between non-alcoholic beer and a stronger commercial beer.  The latter gets you drunk; the former does not.

Pot in the 1970s and 1980s was like non-alcoholic beer compared to the average commercial weed on the market today.  With some strains now reaching 37% THC or higher, that equates to drinking equivalent volumes of non-alcoholic beer in the 1970s and a fortified wine or light liqueur today.

Try drinking two liters (approximate volume of a six-pack of beer) of non-alcoholic beer, and then two liters of port wine.  See which leads to greater inebriation, and then you appreciate the difference between today's higher strength pot and what used to be smoked in the 1970s.  This fact alone, never mind the very different socio-economic conditions, makes any comparison of legalization impacts on crime meaningless between the 1970s and the 2010s.

In yesterday's blog post, the potential effects of Alaska's full legalization of marijuana on violent crime in Anchorage were examined.  The results mimic what we generally see in other jurisdictions such as Colorado and Washington State that have legalized pot in recent years: after a period of stable or declining crime rates, marijuana legalization coincides nearly perfectly with a rapid and substantial rise in crime.

Extending the analysis statewide to look at what the possible effects of Alaska's medical marijuana experiment were only adds fuel to the fire.

On November 3, 1998, 58.7% of Alaskans voted yes on Measure 8 to "allow patients to use marijuana for certain medical purposes."  The law became effective on March 4, 1999.

Yet again, like clockwork, marijuana legalization coincided with a substantial – and otherwise anomalous – increase in violent crime, this time at the statewide level.

Between 1960 and 1999, Alaska's violent crime rate tracked closely with the national rate.  There were no major and sustained deviations.  Sometimes trend reversals at the state level trailed the national data by up to a few years, but we generally see a good correlation over time.

Then, starting in 1999, the year medical marijuana was legalized in Alaska, the state's violent crime rate stopped declining (while the national rate continued to decline) and then began to increase for a number of years, clearly doing the opposite of what was still taking place at the national level.

Since 1999, Alaska's violent crime has stayed far above the national rate, whereas for the 40 years before medical marijuana legalization, the state had effectively the same violent crime rate as the rest of the nation.

Unemployment rate differences cannot explain the break in the series. Alaska and the nation as a whole continued to have very similar unemployment rate trends in the years before and after 1999. Same applies to real per capita GDP. Nothing in the historical record to help explain why, all of a sudden, Alaska's violent crime rate broke from the national trend in 1999.

Except, possibly, the legalization of medical marijuana.

Alaska did legalize marijuana in 1975 and then recriminalized it in 1990.  But comparing legal pot's possible effects on crime from the 1970s with legalization impacts today is like comparing apples and oranges, or more accurately, apples and apple brandy.  In the 1970s, the average THC content of marijuana was less than 1%; today, it is 13%.  That is the same relative difference between non-alcoholic beer and a stronger commercial beer.  The latter gets you drunk; the former does not.

Pot in the 1970s and 1980s was like non-alcoholic beer compared to the average commercial weed on the market today.  With some strains now reaching 37% THC or higher, that equates to drinking equivalent volumes of non-alcoholic beer in the 1970s and a fortified wine or light liqueur today.

Try drinking two liters (approximate volume of a six-pack of beer) of non-alcoholic beer, and then two liters of port wine.  See which leads to greater inebriation, and then you appreciate the difference between today's higher strength pot and what used to be smoked in the 1970s.  This fact alone, never mind the very different socio-economic conditions, makes any comparison of legalization impacts on crime meaningless between the 1970s and the 2010s.