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What Happens When Penalties for Pot Smoking Are Reduced? Hardly Anything

At least, that has been the experience in Great Britain, according to a new analysis.
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As Washington becomes the second American state to legalize recreational use of marijuana, and Washington, D.C., moves toward decriminalization of the drug, critics worry that these changes in the law will alter people's behavior. As pot becomes less stigmatized, they argue, more people will be tempted to start lighting up.

California Governor Jerry Brown put these concerns in the form of a (presumably) rhetorical question this past spring, asking: “How many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?”

Recently published research from the U.K. suggests the governor can chill. It finds the 2004 “declassification” of marijuana in that nation, in which penalties for possession were drastically reduced, apparently had very little effect on people’s behavior.

"Our findings suggest essentially no increases in either cannabis consumption, consumption of other drugs, crime, and other forms of risky behavior."

“Our findings suggest essentially no increases in either cannabis consumption, consumption of other drugs, crime, and other forms of risky behavior,” writes economist Nils Braakmann of Newcastle University and his co-author, Simon Jones. Their research is published in the August issue of the journal Social Science and Medicine.

In 2004, cannabis was declassified from a Class B to a Class C drug in the U.K. This “led to a large reduction in the potential punishment for cannabis possession,” lowering the maximum penalty from five years to two, and also reducing fines.

Due to the structure of the U.K. criminal code, an 18-year-old marijuana user “experienced a larger reduction in expected punishment through the 2004 declassification than a 15-year-old,” the researchers write. With that in mind, they looked at rates of various behaviors by members of various age groups before and after the change in the law.

“The overall picture that emerges from these estimates suggest that, following the declassification, there do not appear to have been any increases in cannabis consumption in the groups that should have benefited from the declassification,” the researchers write.

“There appears to have been a slight increase in occasional (but not regular) cannabis consumption among 15- to 17-year-olds, although this result might very well be due to chance. In the same group, there has also been an increase in property crimes, driven by relatively low-level offenses such as criminal damage and other theft. There does not appear to have been an increase in violent crime, drug crime, or more serious property crime in any of the groups.”

These results are in line with previous research, “in the sense of not finding very much evidence that decriminalization of cannabis leads to large increases in consumption,” the researchers conclude. Simply put, their findings “do not suggest that individuals react very strongly to reductions in penalties associated with cannabis consumption.”