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As policymakers and the American public grow increasingly weary of the War on Drugs, marijuana reforms are gaining traction across the nation. A new analysis sheds light on the strengths and weaknesses of two approaches to marijuana law reform: decriminalization for all ages, versus legalization for people 21 and over.

The analysis compares five states that implemented major marijuana reforms over the last five years, evaluating the reforms' impacts on marijuana arrests, racial disparities, and various health and safety outcomes. California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts have decriminalized small quantities of marijuana for all ages, while Colorado and Washington have legalized small quantities of the substance for people 21 and older.

Legalize Marijuana Use

Key findings:

  • All five states experienced substantial declines in marijuana possession arrests. The four states with available data also showed unexpected drops in marijuana felony arrests.
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  • States that decriminalized marijuana for all ages experienced the largest decreases in marijuana arrests or cases, led by drops among young people and for low-level possession.
  • Staggering racial disparities remain — and in some cases are exacerbated —following marijuana reforms. African Americans are still more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses after reform than all other races and ethnicities were before reform.
  • Marijuana decriminalization in California has not resulted in harmful consequences for teenagers, such as increased crime, drug overdose, driving under the influence, or school dropout. In fact, California teenagers showed improvements in all risk areas after reform.

Given the consequences of marijuana arrest, including fines, jail time, a criminal record, loss of student loans and other federal aid, and court costs, getting arrested for marijuana use may be more harmful than the drug itself — at any age.

The report recommends adopting the best of both approaches and moving toward full legalization. Further reforms, beyond marijuana policies, will be necessary to address egregious and persistent racial disparities.

Mike A Males

Mike Males and Lizzie Buchen
Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice