Cannabis decriminalization: A study of recent policy change in five U.S. states

Int J Drug Policy. 2018 Sep;59:67-75. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2018.06.016. Epub 2018 Jul 17.


Background: A number of public health professional organizations support the decriminalization of cannabis due to adverse effects of cannabis-related arrests and legal consequences, particularly on youth. We sought to examine the associations between cannabis decriminalization and both arrests and youth cannabis use in five states that passed decriminalization measures between the years 2008 and 2014: Massachusetts (decriminalized in 2008), Connecticut (2011), Rhode Island (2013), Vermont (2013), and Maryland (2014).

Methods: Data on cannabis possession arrests were obtained from federal crime statistics; data on cannabis use were obtained from state Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) surveys, years 2007-2015. Using a "difference in difference" regression framework, we contrasted trends in decriminalization states with those from states that did not adopt major policy changes during the observation period.

Results: Decriminalization was associated with a 75% reduction in the rate of drug-related arrests for youth (95% CI: 44%, 89%) with similar effects observed for adult arrests. Decriminalization was not associated with any increase in the past-30 day prevalence of cannabis use overall (relative change=-0.2%; 95% CI: -4.5%, 4.3%) or in any of the individual decriminalization states.

Conclusions: Decriminalization of cannabis in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Maryland resulted in large decreases in cannabis possession arrests for both youth and adults, suggesting that the policy change had its intended consequence. Our analysis did not find any increase in the prevalence of youth cannabis use during the observation period.

Keywords: Arrest; Cannabis; Decriminalization; Drug; Policy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Crime / statistics & numerical data
  • Drug and Narcotic Control / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Marijuana Abuse / epidemiology
  • Marijuana Abuse / prevention & control
  • Marijuana Use / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Public Policy / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Young Adult