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What actually happened to violent crime after Washington legalized marijuana

An upcoming report from a U.S. Department of Justice task force is expected to link marijuana use to violent crime, which some fear might signal the start of a Trump administration crackdown on weed.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been quick to tie marijuana use to violent crime in recent months, fueling some advocates’ concerns about what might come out of this week’s report from the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.

In April, Sessions promised the task force would “undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing and marijuana to ensure consistency with the department's overall strategy on reducing violent crime.”

That was after Sessions told reporters in February that the nation was seeing “real violence” around the “unhealthy practice” of marijuana use, according to POLITICO.

“Experts are telling me there's more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved,” Sessions said.

But those statements run contrary to the experience in Washington state, which became one of the first two U.S. states to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults in 2012.

Since voters approved Initiative 502, FBI crime statistics show lower rates of violent crime in Washington than before legalization. According to the FBI data, in 2011 there were 295.6 violent offenses reported per 100,000 Washington residents. In 2015, the most recent full year of data available, that rate had fallen to 284.4 violent offenses per 100,000 people.

Other data compiled by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs showed some fluctuations in violent crime rates but still found no statistically significant increase. According to those reports, in 2012 there were 3.6 violent offenses per 1,000 state residents. In 2016, the state’s violent crime rate was 3.3 offenses per 1,000 people.

The downturn in violent crime in Washington is in line with national trends. A Pew Research Center analysis of the FBI data found that nationwide, the rate of reported violent crimes in 2015 was roughly half what it was in 1993.

Still, Washington’s violent crime rate in 2015 was substantially lower than the national rate, according to the FBI data.

Neither the FBI data nor the data from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs specifically tracks violent crime that might be related to marijuana. A spokeswoman for the Tacoma Police Department said her agency doesn’t track offenses that way, either.

“In Washington state, I think it would be a strain to correlate violent crime with marijuana usage,” said Mitch Barker, the executive director of the sheriff and police chiefs group. “I would struggle to believe that the legalization of marijuana or more legalization relates to violent crime — somebody would have to make that case to me.”

State Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma and the chairman of the House committee that deals with marijuana, said some state officials initially expected crime to go up with marijuana legalization, especially since the state’s weed stores run entirely on cash.

That didn’t happen, Sawyer said.

“As far as I’m aware there is no credible study linking violent crime and marijuana,” he said. “I think what more people are realizing is violent crime is linked to keeping marijuana illegal.”

“In general, legalization takes money out of the hands of criminals,” he said, referring to drug cartels.

State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center and the Senate GOP’s leader on marijuana policy, agreed.

She noted Washington is expecting to rake in about $730 million in tax revenue from marijuana sales in the next two years — and not all of that is from people who just discovered the drug.

“I did not vote for the initiative, but I will tell you this: That revenue, that’s not coming from people who woke up one day and said, ‘Oh, it’s legal now, I think I’ll go buy some.’

“The bulk of that is from people who were supporting El Chapo or whoever before.”

Rivers said she still thinks it would be too costly and difficult for the federal government to try rein in states that have legalized recreational and medical marijuana. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, eight states plus Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational use of pot, while 29 states have legalized medical-marijuana use.

Yet in May, Sessions asked Congress to lift a restriction that prevents the Justice Department from using federal money to interfere with states that have legalized medical marijuana. Sessions called the restriction on federal prosecutions “unwise... particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” according to reports by and The Washington Post.

Sawyer said he remains concerned that Washington’s system could be at risk.

“I think it’s a very real possibility,” Sawyer said. “But we’re going to see what the administration chooses to do.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

Violent crime rates in the state

The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports violent crime rate in Washington has declined since voters here legalized recreational marijuana use in November 2012. The FBI numbers are based on crimes reported to law enforcement agencies.

2010: 313.5 offenses per 100,000 city inhabitants

2011: 294.6 offenses per 100,000 city inhabitants

2012: 295.6 offenses per 100,000 city inhabitants

2013: 289.1 offenses per 100,000 city inhabitants

2014: 285.8 offenses per 100,000 city inhabitants

2015: 284.4 offenses per 100,000 city inhabitants

The state’s rate of violent crime in 2015, the most recent year of data available, also was substantially lower than the national average, according to the FBI. Nationally, the estimated rate of violent crime was 372.6 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015.

Source: FBI, Crime in the United States reports, 2010-2015

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