Marijuana, Crime & Dishonesty

During our first attempt to develop an honesty test, I was surprised to discover that the single best predictor of employee theft was the frequency of marijuana use. The second best predictor of dishonesty was the use of other illegal drugs. These two variables had the highest correlations with self-reported levels of theft and they were also significant predictors of dishonesty in our other validity studies. I speculated at the time that since marijuana use was illegal anyone who admitted to using it could easily rationalize other forms of dishonesty. This was 1983 and marijuana use was illegal.

Today, marijuana use is no longer universally illegal in the United States. More than a dozen states have decriminalized the possession of marijuana and several have sanctioned its use for medical purposes. In 2012, voters in the states of Colorado and Washington approved marijuana for recreational purposes. This raises an interesting question: if marijuana use is no longer illegal, will that change the correlation between marijuana use and employee theft?

I think the correlation still holds. For the past five years we have tried to help people on probation or parole avoid going back to prison by providing training and automated cell phone calls. After tracking them for a year, we conduct exit interviews to learn how much our program has helped them. As I review these exit interviews, I am surprised to learn that virtually every participant claims that alcohol or illegal drugs contributed importantly to the reason they were arrested. In some cases they committed crimes because alcohol or drugs impaired their thinking, and in other cases they committed crimes to support their drug habits. None of these people said anything to suggest that drug use was safe. Most said that helping them break their drug habits was the best part of our program even though that was not the focus of the program.

An editorial in The Wall Street titled “Legalizing Pot Won’t Make it any Safer” by a child psychiatrist, Dr. Mitchell S. Rosenthal, makes the point that the harmful effects of marijuana cannot be changed by federal legislation [17 January 2013, A15]. He explains that smoking marijuana “puts the user at risk of psychosis, changes in the anatomy of the brain, and damage to the heart and lungs. It retards maturation and impairs learning, memory and judgment – no small matters during the adolescent years.” As the founder of the Phoenix House, the nation’s largest non-profit substance-abuse treatment center, Dr. Rosenthal describes how he has treated thousands of youth over four decades and watched as drug use has permanently damaged their lives through suicides, car accidents, drownings, interrupted education, chronic depression, and joblessness.

Dr. Rosenthal says that laws prohibiting marijuana make it easier for parents to prevent their children from using it, but the absence of a law does not diminish the parents’ familial obligations. Indeed, extensive social science research has shown that effective parenting and family supportiveness are the greatest deterrents to drug use. Ultimately, the decision to avoid harmful drugs is an individual decision; people, and especially children, must learn the dangers of marijuana use and resolve not to use it. Children need to hear a consistent message and receive clear encouragement from parents and other voices in society.

Much can be learned from the experience of other countries. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drug use, including marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Drug trafficking continues to be prosecuted as a criminal offense, but drug possession for personal use and drug usage itself are considered administrative violations. This was a bold move by the Portuguese legislators because of Portugal’s location in Western Europe. Many predicted that Portugal would become the drug capital of the world.

After a decade of experience with the new law, the people in Portugal have observed the following changes in their society:
• Drug use has declined among adolescents and problematic drug users.
• A very small increase in illicit drug use has occurred among adults.
• The burden of prosecuting drug users in the criminal justice system has been substantially reduced, which has allowed law enforcement to focus on other problems.
• The number of people seeking treatment for drug dependencies has increased significantly.
• The number of deaths due to opiates and infectious diseases, especially sexually transmitted diseases, has declined.
• There has been a significant increase in the seizure of illicit drugs that pass through Portugal intended for other European countries.
• The percent of prisoners incarcerated for offences committed under the influence of drugs has dropped (from 44 to 21 percent). [G. Greenwald, “Drug decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for creating fair and successful drug policies.” Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2009.]

The prime reason for decriminalizing drugs was to provide treatment for people who are dependent on them. When people are caught using drugs, they are referred to a regional panel of three people, (comprised of lawyers, social workers, and medical professionals) who are part of the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction. These panels evaluate each drug user’s degree of dependency and then recommend treatment and education programs appropriate to their needs. They can be required to attend training at police stations, pay fines, and receive psychiatric evaluations. These efforts to identify users and help them quit are apparently producing positive benefits for Portugal.

While legalizing marijuana will eliminate the crime of possessing it, it will not eliminate the crimes caused by using it. The natural consequences of marijuana use, including the loss of memory, motivation, and moral inhibition, will not disappear. Consequently, parents, teachers, and social leaders will have to do more to eliminate the demand for drugs. The war on drugs can be waged more effectively by eliminating the demand than by restricting the supply. $

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