As more states have legalized marijuana, drug analysis labs are reporting “significantly” reduced testing of seized cannabis, a new report from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says.
DEA’s National Forensic Laboratory Information System (NFLIS) compiles local, state and federal drug testing data, and the division’s latest report looks at data collected in 2022. The results are partly a reflection of law enforcement trends, as seized drugs are typically submitted to labs for testing.
According to the report, cannabis remains one of the top five most commonly identified drugs in testing analyses—but it’s consistently declined in recent years amid the state-level legalization movement.
Advocates have long argued that legalizing marijuana would translate into a diminished illicit market, with adults and patients more likely to buy from regulated shops than from remaining unlicensed operators. The gradual decline in seized cannabis that’s being tested as more states end prohibition seems to support that argument.
“Cannabis/THC reports slightly increased from 2008 to 2009, then decreased through 2022,” it found. From 2021 to 2022, marijuana reports “decreased significantly” along with methamphetamine, heroin, alprazolam and buprenorphine.
The 2022 numbers represent a major decline compared to 2001, when NFLIS first started publishing data on drug testing trends. However, the division noted that the data “may not include all drug items seized at the State and county levels,” as it only accounts for drugs submitted by states and tested by NFLIS forensic laboratories. Some labs in several states are not currently reporting their cases, which could further skew estimates.
In any case, a regional breakdown shows that marijuana reports were “considerably higher” in the Midwest compared to other areas of the country in 2008. But by 2019, “numbers of cannabis/THC reports were similar in the Midwest, Northeast, and South.” While DEA’s forensic lab division doesn’t attempt to explain the trends, this could be partially explained by cannabis reform developments in key Midwestern states, with Illinois and Michigan both enacting legalization in the late 2010s.
“The West had the lowest number of reports from 2008 through 2022,” the report says. Again, in the context of marijuana policy reform, states in the West like Colorado, Oregon and Washington State have historically led on legalization.
Overall, the analysis offers yet another data point that appears to support the idea that state-level cannabis legalization is contributing significantly to decreased enforcement that seems to be tied to a diminished illicit market.
For example, the number of people in federal prison over marijuana dropped 61 percent from 2013 to 2018—a greater reduction than any other drug type—as the first states enacted legalization, according to a July report from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
The U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) also tracked federal drug trafficking cases up through 2022 in a report that was released in March, and it did show an ongoing decline for marijuana.
Meanwhile, federal data from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that was released in January shows that cannabis seizures fell to a record low in Fiscal Year 2022, continuing an enforcement trend that advocates attribute to the state-level legalization movement.
A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that was released last year also paints a clearer picture of who is getting caught up in its enforcement activities. At checkpoints across the country, agents are mostly taking small amounts of marijuana from American citizens, rather than making large busts of international cartels like some might assume.
Also, consistent with other studies and federal reports, the analysis revealed a significant decline in cannabis seizures at checkpoints overall since 2016. In 2016, there were 70,058 pounds of marijuana seized at checkpoints by Border Patrol, compared to 30,828 pounds in 2020.
In another report from last year, the Congressional Research Service said that the spread of legal cannabis states domestically, combined with international reform efforts, has reduced demand for illicit marijuana from Mexico.
As part of its Fiscal Year 2023 performance budget summary submitted to Congress last year, DEA also acknowledged that as more marijuana is being produced domestically in the U.S., it’s undermining illicit cannabis trafficking across the southern border.
A study released by the Cato Institute in 2018 found that “state-level marijuana legalization has significantly undercut marijuana smuggling.”
Federal prosecutions of drug-related crimes overall increased in 2019, but cases involving marijuana dropped by more than a quarter, according to an end-of-year report released by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in December.
Rates of criminal legal referrals to treatment for cannabis use disorder (CUD) among young adults “declined significantly more rapidly” following adult-use legalization of marijuana, according to a study published last month, and the authors said that’s “likely due to falling cannabis-related arrests” among people 18 to 24 years old.
In a separate study published in August, researchers found that referrals to foster care also fell after marijuana legalization—but only following the adoption of medical cannabis laws.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
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