Marijuana Legalization and Crime Clearance Rates: Testing Proponent Assertions in Colorado and Washington State

Date01 March 2019
Published date01 March 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Marijuana Legalization
and Crime Clearance
Rates: Testing
Proponent Assertions
in Colorado and
Washington State
David A. Makin
, Dale W. Willits
Guangzhen Wu
Kathryn O. DuBois
, Ruibin Lu
Mary K. Stohr
, Wendy Koslicki
Duane Stanton
, Craig Hemmens
John Snyder
, and
Nicholas P. Lovrich
The legalization of recreational cannabis in Washington state (I-502) and Colorado
(A-64) created a natural experiment with ancillary unknowns. Of these unknowns,
one of the more heavily debated is that of the potential effects on public health and
safety. Specific to public safety, advocates of legalization expected improvements in
police effectiveness through the reduction in police time and attention to cannabis
offenses, thus allowing them to reallocate resources to more serious offenses.
Using 2010 to 2015 Uniform Crime Reports data, the research undertakes inter-
rupted time-series analysis on the offenses known to be cleared by arrest to create
Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA
Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Washington State University Vancouver, WA, USA
Division of Governmental Studies and Services, Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA
School of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA
Corresponding Author:
David A. Makin, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Washington State University, P.O. Box
644872, Pullman, WA 99164, USA.
Police Quarterly
2019, Vol. 22(1) 31–55
!The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611118786255
monthly counts of violent and property crime clearance rate as well as disaggre-
gated counts by crime type. Findings suggest no negative effects of legalization on
crime clearance rates. Moreover, evidence suggests some crime clearance rates
have improved. Our findi ngs suggest leg alization has res ulted in improveme nts in
some clearance rates.
legalization of marijuana, I-502, A-64, crime clearance rates, resource reallocation,
interrupted time-series analysis
Proponents of marijuana legalization assert that legalization will allow the
police to reallocate resources away from possession arrests to the prevention
of property and violent crimes (Trilling, 2016). This “resource reallocation,”
they argue, will improve the effectiveness and eff‌iciency of police operations.
In fact, legalization proponents made this argument in every one of the 12 states
where citizens voted directly on marijuana legalization ballot measures predict-
ing that legalization would improve clearance rates.
However, despite the widespread use of this argument, little research
exists showing the relationship between the legalization of either recreational
or medical marijuana and the ability of agencies to reallocate resources. As an
example, over the last decade, many municipalities have passed city ordinances
and implemented initiatives mandating that police agencies treat minor mari-
juana possession as a low-priority offense (Ross & Walker, 2016). However, as
Ross and Walker (2016) demonstrate with their research on deprioritization,
there is limited understanding of how police prioritization has inf‌luenced police
outcomes, specif‌ically with respect to clearance rates.
As Cullen (2016) highlights in his broader discussion of the relationship
between resource allocations and crime, there is much we do not know.
Traditional research on resource allocation and crime has primarily concerned
case-level management (i.e., specialized units and deployment of off‌icers), orga-
nizational factors (agency size and centralization or decentralization), and con-
textual or environmental factors (Doerner & Doerner, 2012). Yet, there is also
evidence that legal changes and political decisions can affect police outcomes
(White, 2003), in addition to standard case and organizational explanations.
However, few studies have been able to examine the relationship between
substantial policy changes and the potential for agencies to reallocate resources.
In fact, the most analogous policy change commensurate with the legalization of
recreational marijuana would be the repeal of alcohol prohibition in 1933. While
research has examined the relationship between marijuana deprioritization
32 Police Quarterly 22(1)

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