folder Filed in Health, Policy
Cannabis and Violence
Emily Earlenbaugh

A recent study published the news that cannabis use is correlated with increased violent behavior. The researchers followed young males from the ages of 8 to 56, and found that those who used cannabis were more likely to commit violent offenses. This may be a surprise to many in the cannabis community.

As a cannabis user myself, I was initially shocked by the findings because it so out of keeping with my own experience of cannabis and it’s effects. Gatherings of cannabis smokers tend to be relaxed and laid back affairs. People from all walks of life come together for cannabis cups with little to no violent interactions, which is a stark contrast to events which are predominated by alcohol. The idea that cannabis could cause violence seems absurd. And yet, the statistical correlation remains.

This latest study isn’t the first to show a correlation between cannabis use and violence, but it is the first longitudinal study to track cannabis users before their first use. With previous studies, it could be argued that those prone to violence might be more likely to use cannabis, rather than the other way around.

R. Douglas Fields of Psychology Today discussed this recently, saying that “what makes this new study more compelling than previous studies is that the researchers followed the same individuals for over 50 years from a young age to adulthood.  This is precisely what one needs to solve the chicken or egg riddle with respect to cannabis and violence:  just look and see which one happens first.”

In this case, the cannabis use came first and then came the violence. The study also controlled other factors, like alcohol, cigarette or other drug use, mental illnesses, antisocial traits, and family history. Even with these factors accounted for, cannabis use increased the subsequent violent offenses compared to the control group. Given all of this damning evidence, you might think, like it’s the study’s authors, that this shows that cannabis in some way chemically induces violent behavior. But what if the association between cannabis and violence has less to do with cannabis’ chemical properties, and more to do with its legal status?

Despite the impressive list of factors the study controlled for, we are forgetting an important one; being involved in criminal activity. Cannabis users in areas where cannabis is illegal (like England where this study was done) are necessarily engaging in criminal behavior. Because the plant is outlawed, anyone who grows, sells, purchases or consumes the plant is technically a criminal. Violence arises out of criminal activity for a variety of reasons including association with other types of criminals, lack of protection from the police, increased financial burden of paying for medicine not covered by insurance, and limited job and educational options. These are real and ongoing problems for cannabis users all over the world.

Consider the plight of a young male using cannabis in an urban area. He is unable to share with most people that he uses cannabis and might find himself more likely to spend time with those who also use cannabis so he won’t have to face the social stigma or risk of being found out. In addition, as a chronic cannabis user, it may be difficult for him to hold down normal employment because of drug testing, and the inability to use his medicine during work or school hours.

Since his medicine is expensive, and employment is difficult to find, he is likely to start growing and/or selling cannabis. This brings him into contact with all kinds of people, and since this is all illegal activity, some may be involved in other types of illegal activity.  

Once he is involved in growing or selling cannabis, he becomes vulnerable to violent robbery attempts. Since banking is not an option, he needs to hold large amounts of cash. If someone does try to rob him, he can’t call the police, so he either needs to use violence to protect himself or he has to be ok with letting anyone just walk in and take everything. In that situation many choose to get a gun, or to get involved with criminal organizations who might be able to defend them. It’s a situation that breeds violence, but the world is a lot more dangerous for those that can’t call on a police force for defence.

This is unfortunately an all too common story. And criminal activity is not a factor that can be controlled for until cannabis use is fully legalized, destigmatized and protected in the population being studied. While cannabis is illegal, all cannabis users are criminals under the law and many have to find ways to handle situations on their own that would otherwise be handled by law enforcement.  We sanction violent acts from the police when they are acting to protect people and property from attack. When this protection is absent, violence is likely to increase.  

With this in mind, the fact that cannabis use is associated with violence is no longer so surprising. It just has more to do with legal factors than chemical ones. When cannabis is treated as a medicine, covered by insurance, and those who use it are protected rather than persecuted by their local police force, we can start to untangle the social effects from the physical. When we are able to make those changes, we may also see a change in the association between cannabis use and violence.