Sunday, January 19, 2020

Journalists can always find a cop or prosecutor to contradict good-news data on marijuana decrim, but should they?

Society in general, and Texas in particular, is in such a weird place right now when it comes to marijuana policy. A remarkable debate is emerging which really only appears to exist in the minds of reporters and law enforcement types but, in terms of evidence and data, is a one-sided argument.

A recent article in The New Yorker by Matthew Hutson has earned praise for rightly articulating in a publicly accessible way the differences between the two main measurements of crime in the United States and the difficulties of judging crime trends. It's a useful analysis, I recommend you read his article for that alone.

But setting his data discussion aside, the article was framed in what Grits considered an especially odd and unhelpful way. Hutson posed the question of whether legalizing marijuana causes crime to rise or fall, centering his discussion on a study out of Washington state showing that both rapes and thefts decreased in the aftermath of that state legalizing marijuana.

Hutson offered no data from other states showing that legalizing pot caused crime to increase (the studies mostly say the opposite), but instead, to offer counterpoints, he:
reached out to more than seventy-five county sheriffs in California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington—states where recreational marijuana is legal. (It’s also legal in Alaska.) Of the twenty-five sheriffs who got back to me, half said they hadn’t noticed a trend, and the rest were certain that legalizing marijuana had made crime go up.
For some reason, Hutson valued the opinion of the half of sheriffs who said crime went up over the half who hadn't noticed a trend. (What's half of 25, again?) Regardless, he's asking law-enforcement folks whose professional careers have centered around marijuana enforcement to give their views on a politicized question. Placing that on a scale alongside reported-crime trends and pretending it balances strikes me as more of a (weak) journalist's construction than a true debate.

Ask someone in the coal industry whether power plants should use gas or coal and what do you think they'll tell you? That's essentially what you're asking these sheriffs. If Hutson were to investigate further, Grits would bet dollars to donuts the violent-crime data in their counties wouldn't support their claims. It's just the kind of thing cops say to the press. 

I feel like Texans can say with some certainty that the sky won't fall when police stop making marijuana arrests because, after the Legislature legalized hemp and accidentally made marijuana laws de-facto un-enforceable last year, enforcement plummeted and there's been no massive violent crime wave in response. It's just not happened.

We don't yet have any academic study of this odd, natural experiment, but as a practical matter, the end of marijuana enforcement in most of Texas has been a big nothingburger in terms of its impact on public safety. If anything, the change has freed up police officers to focus on other things. But that hasn't stopped local law enforcement from playing their perfunctory Chicken Little roles, nor local journalists from providing them a megaphone. 

Pleased with the less-arrests, less-wasted-police-time, no-effect-on-crime, happier-constituents dynamic the new policy generated, the Austin City Council announced plans to codify the results of this natural experiment by directing Austin police to stop making user-level pot possession arrests altogether.

In response, District Attorney Margaret Moore went on Fox News in Austin and declared, with no evidence whatsoever, that "what we've seen that is alarming is an increase in violent crime that goes along with marijuana or THC distribution." Really? We've seen that? Let's see her data. And doesn't she have an asset-forfeiture fund from which she could pay for testing in cases where she truly believes public safety at grave risk? Methinks Chicken Little doth protest too much.

Anyway, the city council isn't recommending police stop enforcing laws against distribution, only penny-ante misdemeanor possession cases that Moore's office doesn't handle anyway. So this is just demagoguery, using the platform afforded by her office to spread misinformation. 

This is a dilemma facing journalists at both the national and local level. If Hutson had called Margaret Moore, she'd happily have joined the Sheriffs claiming reduced pot enforcement increased violent crime. 

Highlighting statements from public officials that contradict the data their own agencies report promotes a false equivalency, exploiting a weakness in the traditional journalism model. The data should be used to debunk official pronouncements that don't match observable facts, not to balance against them and pretend we just can't know.


Chris H said...

Wouldn't the empirical experience of law enforcement post legalization be that they spend more of their time on violent crime once they stop spending their time stoners? That has nothing to do with an increase in violent crime, but entirely a reflection of use of resources and new time managment.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That could explain it, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

I've read some of the studies and they've essentially said that more studies need to be conducted before drawing conclusions, big surprise there huh? Even before pot legalization or decriminalization was a factor, crimes trends showed decreases for a long time so maybe the experts in academia can use their statistical models to get to just what impact in either direction is due to changes in pot laws and make all of us happy. I think asking sheriffs for their opinion is a useless exercise if only because they are often so biased and/or have a personal stake while at the same time usually lacking the credentials to answer the question intelligently. That being said Scott, you keep mentioning there's been a decrease in VIOLENT crimes where the laws have been changed. Does that mean non-violent crimes have increased, excluding pot related crimes, and has any study credibly addressed causation instead of correlation? It might well be that pot laws do not impact other crimes at all.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That would be my assumption, 11:40, that the crime trends downward are unrelated to pot enforcement. IMO this is one of those cases where performing regression can't really get us to causal factors. But the result certainly belies claims that reduce pot enforcement makes crime increase! We can say that's wrong, even if one can't prove cause-and-effect for the decreases.

To your other question, property crime has been declining everywhere in the country and I'm sure in those states, too. Theft and rape examples were just the ones highlighted in the media coverage surrounding the linked Washington study.