KELLY: Marijuana misinformation

Those opposed to legalizing medicinal marijuana have likely been misled by inaccurate, anecdotal evidence

With the debate over legalization of medical marijuana heating up in Virginia, many arguments will be presented against its legalization. The argument that legalizing the drug for medicinal purposes might somehow lead to higher crime, however, should not receive serious consideration. Despite a recent poll showing 84 percent of Virginians now favor the legalization of medicinal marijuana, opponents of such a move have been vehement in their resistance.

Some in the anti-medicinal marijuana camp argue the increased accessibility of marijuana will lead to more people using it as a gateway to other, “hard” drugs. In order to sustain those habits, so the reasoning goes, people will commit crime or engage in violent acts. Furthermore, opponents have argued that even if medical marijuana does not lead to a rise in overall marijuana use, the presence of medical marijuana dispensaries could provide criminals with highly attractive targets.

The actual evidence for such claims, however, is paltry at best. In the modern political environment, it has become relatively easy to pull particular studies from the broad pool of available research to support one’s own convictions, in much the same way it is effectively possible to defend just about any policy initiative by citing a poll of one’s own choosing. Though this gateway hypothesis is largely based on dubious anecdotal evidence, opponents of medical marijuana legalization also seem to have cherry-picked research in order to support their assertions. Anti-medical marijuana theories seem to originate in a 2001 study in the Journal of Addictive Disease that found a link between heavy marijuana use and serious crimes such as homicide and assault. However, for such a critical issue, one isolated study should not have so much weight in the public dialogue.

First, interpretations of this study in the popular media have been fatally flawed. Though it has since been used to argue there is a causal link between marijuana use and violent crime, the study itself found merely a correlation. Conflating causation with correlation is a frequent tactic used by those aiming to advance a particular agenda. Recent findings, moreover, undermine arguments suggesting the legalization of medical marijuana would increase violent crime. Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas published a nationwide study that found in states where medical marijuana was legalized there was no appreciable increases in crime rates and noticeable decreases in the rates of homicide and assault. Although this does not constitute evidence that legalization of medical marijuana would directly reduce crime, it does cast doubt on claims that legalization increases crime rates.

The study also suggests medical marijuana legalization leads to a reduction in alcohol use by serving as a substitute. A reduction in alcohol consumption will likely lead to a decrease in crime, since it is much more likely that alcohol, not marijuana, serves as a gateway “drug” to violent crime. After all, federal research by the Department of Justice has shown that alcohol is a factor in nearly 40 percent of all violent crimes today.

Oddly enough, however, policymakers fixate on the idea that medical marijuana may induce higher crime rates, despite the lack of meaningful evidence to support such a claim. If marijuana actually serves as a substitute for alcohol, as many have contended, it is likely that there will be relevant effects on certain crimes such as drunk driving and on most violent crimes. The use of marijuana compared to alcohol produces drastically milder behaviors such as more cautious driving and less aggressive behavior.

Moreover, the results of the prior study suggest that anti-medicinal marijuana arguments are largely based on anecdotal evidence. To base policy decisions on subjective interpretations of a policy’s potential impacts cheapens our political discourse. Though it may be difficult to understand or implement the complex conclusions of policy research, the natural alternative should not be to propagate arguments that rely principally on anecdotal support. Furthermore, arguments of this sort ignore the many legitimate uses of medicinal marijuana. For many cases of multiple sclerosis and some extreme cases of Parkinson’s disease, medicinal marijuana is one of the few effective methods of treatment.

As the debate continues, we must remember that the origins of crime are be difficult to attribute to singular, isolated factors. To even suggest that medical marijuana can be linked to high crime is severely misguided.

Conor Kelly is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at

Published April 8, 2014 in Opinion

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