A new study has found that legalizing cannabis doesn’t carry the same impacts for youth that it does adults. In fact, youth still face arrest and incarceration in states that only legalize without a proper decriminalization policy.
Published in JAMA Pediatrics Monday, the study analyzed arrest data from 38 states in 2000 to 2016 between adult and youth younger than 18 to learn how the varying policies across states impacted each group’s arrest numbers over time.
The researchers found that states with a decriminalization policy saw their arrest rates among adults decrease by more than 131 per 100,000 people. For youth, the rate dropped by 60 per 100,000 people. When it comes to legalization, however, youth barely saw anything change: the rate dropped by just 7 per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, adults saw a higher reduction with legalization than decriminalization: more than 168 per 100,000 people.
The authors—from Eastern Virginia Medical School and Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis—wanted to see how legalization policies fare up to decriminalization policies. Decriminalization doesn’t make weed legal, but it does reduce the consequences when police catch a person with some. Instead of facing jail time, you may have to pay a small fine that won’t tarnish your record.
Legalization usually involves that and allowing people to purchase cannabis without a problem. However, legalization involves people 21 and older, so youth aren’t always included in the policy. That means they may continue to face criminalization under these. In total, the study includes seven states that have decriminalization policies and four with legalization. The rest were used as controls.
Most states that legalized cannabis had their own individualized policy for youth. For instance, Alaska, Colorado, and Washington still treated possession for underage users as a crime after their legalization policies took hold. They slowly grew more lenient, but some stayed the same.
The results aren’t all that surprising, the authors note. After all, legalizing weed is for adults. But its also been a response to the mass criminalization of people of color, especially youth, have faced at the hands of the war on drugs. As the Drug Policy Alliance notes, nearly 80 percent of the people incarcerated for drug offenses are black or Latino.
“However, focusing on adults to the exclusion of youths also runs counter to the spirit of legalization, which is motivated by the desire to reduce criminal penalties for cannabis use,” the authors write in the study.
Kids are the future, and an arrest record for pot possession could threaten their future opportunities for a job or college. This new study highlights the way so-called progressive cannabis policy may have left our next generation behind. The authors speculate that legalization for adults may even have a side effect on police behavior; perhaps they shift their focus to kids if they don’t have to worry about adults anymore. That requires further examination, of course. The study goes on:
This possibility is consistent with prior research suggesting that police interact with youths and adults differently and that arrest is the preferred strategy of officers when interacting with juvenile suspects.
All that being said, the authors note some limitations, including the assumption that policy change is to blame for this shift in the arrest rate. The rate changes occur after the new policies take effect, but it’s worth noting for transparency. What the study makes clear, however, is that young people in the U.S. are getting the short end of the stick. With cannabis exploding into a multibillion-dollar industry, should young people still be going to jail for it?