NM: Decriminalizing Cannabis Reduces Harm

Photo Credit: Eva Russo

Science says that decriminalizing cannabis benefits youth and stops criminal records from preventing success later in life.

Decriminalization does not mean that cannabis is legal, just that getting caught with it no longer results in jail time or a criminal record. Decriminalization means that a state or city has repealed or amended its laws to make certain acts criminal, but no longer subject to prosecution.

In the cannabis context, this means individuals caught with small amounts of cannabis for personal consumption won’t be prosecuted and won’t subsequently receive a criminal record or a jail sentence. In many states, possession of small amounts of cannabis is treated like a minor traffic violation.

A new study, on the Social Science Research Network website, offers new insight into whether cannabis decriminalization leads to an increase in arrests and cannabis use among youth. According to the study, it doesn’t.

The study examines five states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maryland — that decriminalized cannabis between 2008 and 2014. The arrests and youth cannabis use in these five states were compared to other states that did not pass similar decriminalization policies in those years. The study found a strong association between cannabis decriminalization and a decrease in drug-related youth arrests, while cannabis use among youth either stayed the same or, in some cases, declined. The study found similar results for adults.

Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized small amounts of cannabis, along with more than 54 cities like Santa Fe, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans and Orlando, Fla. Just recently, the Albuquerque City Council also passed an ordinance to decriminalize cannabis.

This generally means certain small, personal-consumption amounts are a civil or local infraction, not a state crime (or are a lowest misdemeanor with no possibility of jail time). Decriminalization measures are written and enforced slightly differently depending on what state you’re in but generally result in a system where cannabis possession is treated similarly to a speeding ticket.

The Committee on Substance Abuse and Adolescence of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians also support less-punitive measures for youth cannabis use.

Additionally, the American Academy of Family Physicians supports a reclassification of cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act to ease research efforts, as well as decriminalization.

For policymakers, whether locally or in the Roundhouse, the clear priority should be removing the public health risks of cannabis prohibition. Those public health risks include putting people in jail for victimless crimes, jeopardizing people’s access to financial aid for higher education, jeopardizing people’s employment, and exposing people to an underground market that would increase their potential to access more harmful drugs.

All of those areas of harm reduction are ones where communities can see a public health improvement through the decriminalization of cannabis. And all of those issues can be achieved with a logical approach to decriminalization.

Form follows function, and policymakers in New Mexico need to stop using the debate surrounding legalization of cannabis for recreational use to obscure the science and policy regarding the harm reduction achievements of decriminalizing cannabis and the medical use of cannabis. Today, considering the spread of legalization, cannabis taxation and financial profits, the distinction matters. Policymakers must seek to achieve the greatest harm reduction.