The Consequences of Washington Marijuana Laws Since Legalization

washington marijuana laws

One of the advantages of seeing time as linear is that it makes hindsight possible. Knowledge of situations significantly, rapidly increases post-occurrence. When this phenomenon is applied to the budding legal marijuana industry, not only does the information tell a story, but it reports — if only preliminarily — the world through a looking glass, one fogged by prohibition and reflective all the same. In so doing, we are provided with a view into the cannabis-infused lives and rights of citizens, how they embrace such rights into the economy, and how public health and welfare are affected by a funny little plant that transcends culture and national borders: cannabis.



The consequences in Washington since marijuana laws were enacted are, therefore, subject to high amounts of public scrutiny. It is in situations like this where legalese, academia, and an angle to pivot from come together to form the way we collectively view the knowledge gained in hindsight. This is why reports, such as the one published in March 2016 by the Northwest High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (NWHIDTA), sometimes read at length — in order to convey the situation as objectively as possible.

Cannabis Concerns to Public Health & Social Welfare

The NWHIDTA report reads at 143 pages in length (from where I get most of my data). A separate report, published in September 2016 by the CATO Institute, an American think-tank armed with experts in policy and research from some of America’s top universities, conveys similar — though not entirely — analysis, reading only 36 total pages in length.

The criteria for defining public health outcomes and social welfare is certainly dependent upon what kind data you are working with. As we learned from Edward Snowden, you can collect large amounts of data — metadata — without it really telling you anything about anything specific. We have to apply the filters through which data becomes information. Measuring the consequences of marijuana laws in Washington since they were enacted, therefore, needs a filter to appropriately appraise the data.

In lieu of continued federal illegality, the Department of Justice has provided us with several lenses through which tangible knowledge can be distilled, in a series of memos sent by the Office of the Attorney General. If you’d like, you can review the Cole and Ogden memos here.

Washington Marijuana Laws: Consequences in Youth Populations

Ensuring that marijuana products only end up in the hands of adults and medical patients is paramount in states with recreational cultivation, distribution, and sales. This means that states are required to stem any potential effect on youth populations. This can be done two ways: through proactive regulation and legal penalties or reactive through analysis of research and data. Either way, the course is one meant for adjustment.

Since Washington enacted marijuana laws, the consequences on youth populations have varied. The NWHIDTA report breaks youth impacts down into three subcategories: rates of consumption, impact on schools, and changes in youth admission for cannabis-related drug treatment.

Youth Consumption, Access Steady while Changes in Perception Abound

Every six months, the Healthy Youth survey asks WA students in 6th, 8th, 10th, and 12th grade a battery of health-related questions. In regards to marijuana, the statewide survey disclosed that students haven’t experienced much of a change where consumption and access to marijuana are concerned, with 8th and 10th graders reporting less use in 2014, when retail access became available than in 2008. Students between 8th and 12th grade had between 2008 and 2014 all seen positive perception changes regarding harm/ health impacts associated with cannabis, meaning students are less likely to view the drug as criminal, bad for you.

Increase in Marijuana-Related Disciplinary Actions at Schools, Affecting Few

The Washington Office of Financial Management in 2015 produced a report based on the amount of students suspended, expelled during the 2013-14 school year. 96% of the students were not suspended. Of the 4% suspended, only 0.6% were ultimately expelled for a marijuana-related issue. 89% of the causes for suspension/ expulsion within the state were unrelated to marijuana. Of the 11% that were marijuana-related, 7% involved short-term suspension. Previous to 2013-14, the summary of behavioral occurrences sent to the Department of Education, marijuana was lumped in with the general category of illicit drugs.

Increase in Youth Calls to Poison Control

By 2015, youth marijuana-related calls to poison control made up 45% of the total marijuana calls received by statewide poison control officials, with infused products, such as edibles, seeing the greatest increase in the complaint. I believe a contributing factor to this highlight is a lack of public awareness, which is proving quite the prohibitive consequence in Washington since the marijuana laws were enacted. Additionally, youth communities have seen an increase of 4% in overall youth treatment admissions in 2015.

WA Marijuana Laws: Adult Impacts

As adults are the primary consumer base and economic driver, monitoring the health impacts are vital to growth and revenue. As the government is concerned with both public health and the economy, it makes sense to reflect what we’ve observed thus far, fleshing out negative and positive consequences since marijuana laws were enacted in Washington. Here’s what we know:

Adults Admit to Driving within Three Hours of Consumption

One of the key findings that are a potential place of concern for state and federal authorities: 49% of surveyed adults age 18-25 expressed they have driven within three hours of consumption.

Adult Consumption is More Prevalent in WA than the National Average

Duh, or: where laws feel like liberties, people are more likely to report and discuss than withhold and distrust. On average, King county residents age 25-44 report almost double the national average of cannabis use per month. For those reporting use within the last year, the 2012-13 national average was 9%, where in WA it was 14% (note: this is prior to retail business opening doors).

Consumer Growth Focused in Different Demographics

The largest age segments of sales growth are reported in 18-24 (presumably more 21+) and 44-64 years of age. While this data, compiled by the Office of Financial Management, only shows changes immediate retail sales, it will be interesting to see what we learn in years to come regarding age demographics. Men that were surveyed by the King County Department of Community and Health Services indicated excessive use (8%) more frequently than women (5%). Of those in poverty, 11% indicated excessive use, compared to the County average of 5%.

WA Marijuana Laws: Crime and Economic Impacts

As the last and final place of analysis, one of the more obvious and concerning criminal behaviors that still exist for cannabis consuming adults are limitations to driving under the influence. In 2015, Washington State Patrol reported increases of 15% in adult driving cases where cannabis had been consumed since 2012, when legalization occurred. When asked about cannabis and driving, over 60% of those surveyed by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission in 2014 didn’t believe marijuana affects driving. This is just one of the few notable consequences since Washington enacted its marijuana laws. Check out some of these other impacts, both civil and economic.

Theft, Vehicular, and Other Crimes on the Rise

Theft, such as robbery or burglary, has seen increases since legalization. Whether from people trying to rob cash-rich dispensaries or kids trying to hijack backyard greenhouses. Possession charges continue to occur in youth populations and in adults who carry above the allowed possession quantity. Public consumption remains an issue, with those aged between 21-29 receiving the largest number of public consumption citations. Other crimes, such as dumpster diving behind dispensaries, have seen a general increase since legalization, up from zero to five incidents in 2015.

Overall Violations and Convictions are Down

Despite the emergence of more marijuana-related DUIs and theft, the overall volume of violations and convictions have seen incredible decreases. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, between 2000 and 2010, WA spent $200 million pursuing marijuana charges. Since legalization, marijuana-related violations have seen a 98% decrease in 2015 for low-level fillings. In general, all levels of cannabis-centric violation have dropped over 60% in the state, with an overall drop of 81% in convictions between 2011 and 2013, when legalization had taken effect.

Sales Continue to Climb

Washington saw sales in excess of $1.1 billion in 2016, creating over $250 million in excise tax revenues. In the three years since retail business opened doors, one of the many consequences since marijuana laws were enacted in Washington is that sales continue to grow. In 2015, for instance, the state only collected $486 million in sales, a figured more than doubled a year later. While the entire US West Coast currently allows adults age 21 to consume and possess cannabis, interstate trafficking remains a chief concern.

More Jobs and Economic Development

Legalization had a small migratory effect, which are suspected to be involved in rising housing prices within marijuana markets. While this probably has some credence, the economic effect of adding jobs has a tangible effect on both community and state GDP. However, it is too soon to differentiate marijuana legalization from general economic changes and unemployment levels therein.

Regardless of which side of the legalization world-view you find yourself, change is exciting. Since Washington enacted marijuana laws, the consequences have been, as the Drug Policy Alliance puts it “So Far, So Good“, and, well, can you disagree?