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What happened to crime under Washington’s legal marijuana?

Here’s the situation: An officer pulls over a driver. They are suspicious that the driver is impaired and they have a DUI on their hands. Specifically, a marijuana DUI.

But proving this is not as simple as breath test, or asking if their names are Cheech, Chong, or Lebowski. Washington state has a 5 nanogram limit, which is determined through a blood test. It’s similar to blowing a .08 on a breath test for alcohol.

Dale Willits.

“We mostly interviewed law enforcement officers, but we also interviewed prosecutors throughout the state,” said Washington State University Professor Dale Willits. “Some of them, not all of them, but some of them express dismay at the nanogram limit, because now they will go to trial and juries will expect to see this 5 nanogram blood test. But blood tests aren’t ordered for each DUI stop.”

Not only that, there is a time limit to the test. If a driver refuses to take one, then the cops have to wait for a judge to issue a warrant, and then there’s the trip to the hospital for the blood draw. It all takes time, during which the level of marijuana in the driver’s blood can go down. And who knows if it was high enough for a conviction earlier?

This is why there is a looming snafu with Washington’s DUI laws when it comes to marijuana. Willits uncovered the issue during a study for WSU, which largely looked at crime rates under legal marijuana.

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Study finds minimal effect on major crime from legal marijuana sales

Legalizing recreational marijuana has had minimal effect on violent or property crime rates in Washington and Colorado, a WSU study funded by the National Institute of Justice has found.

Dale Willits.

“As the nationwide debate about legalization, the federal classification of cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act, and the consequences of legalization for crime continues, it is essential to center that discussion on studies that use contextualized and robust research designs with as few limitations as possible,” Dale W. Willits, an assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at WSU and a study co-authortold the Crime & Justice Research Alliance“This is but one study and legalization of marijuana is still relatively new, but by replicating our findings, policymakers can answer the question of how legalization affects crime.” 

Previous studies have reported mixed and inconclusive results. But the new research, published today in the journal Justice Quarterlyuses what are described as more rigorous methods in the evaluation of monthly crime rates as compiled in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports from 1999 to 2016. 

The researchers focused on Washington and Colorado, the first two states in the nation to legalize the growing, processing and commercial sale of cannabis for recreational use, and compared monthly crime rates to those in 21 states where recreational and medicinal marijuana use remains illegal. 

The study found no statistically significant long-term effects of recreational cannabis laws, or the initiation of legal retail sales, on violent or property crime rates in either state, though Washington saw a decline in burglary rates. The findings suggest legalization and sales of marijuana have had minimal effect on major crimes in both states. 

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Criminal justice faculty help non-violent offenders take first step

Two Washington State University criminal justice faculty members are playing key roles in a national effort to free thousands of non-violent prisoners and help them transition smoothly to civilian life.

Zach Hamilton and Alex Kigerl.
Hamilton and Kigerl

The First Step Act was signed into law by President Trump late last year. The legislation was designed to create a path to release for prisoners convicted of non-violent drug offenses. The prisoners earn credit for good behavior and are issued a risk profile based on a number of factors. That’s where WSU’s Zach Hamilton and Alex Kigerl come in.

Hamilton received a phone call earlier this year from the National Institute of Justice, requesting his expertise for one of the key components of the First Step Act’s implementation.

“The FSA recognized there is a population in prison that is non-violent,” said Hamilton, an associate professor. “The goal is to release non-violent offenders to communities in ways that are as safe as possible. We created a risk assessment that increases credit given for good behavior and other factors that predict they would be successful in re-engaging (in communities).”

Hamilton says the FSA was necessary due to the fallout from the “war on drugs,” which led to prison populations quadrupling over the past 30 years. The bill had been under consideration for several years before gaining traction last year thanks to bipartisan support.

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Outstanding criminal justice student chosen to carry CAS gonfalon

Outstanding senior in criminal justice and criminology Jordan Sykes will carry the gonfalon for the College of Arts and Sciences during Washington State University graduation ceremonies on Saturday, May 4, in Beasley Coliseum.

“When I arrived at WSU, I made it my mission to make a meaningful impact,” Sykes said. “While I have attempted to accomplish this mission, I feel that, in turn, the University and the Pullman community have had such a profound impact on me that I will be forever indebted to this amazing community.”

The honor of being selected gonfalon bearer recognizes Sykes’s outstanding achievement during his undergraduate career. Gonfalons are the shield-shaped banners that represent WSU’s 11 colleges at commencement events.

Described by one of his professors as “a powerful student role model,” Sykes has demonstrated his commitment to excellence in an array of scholarly and service activities.

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Student plans app to reduce DUI rates

A WSU student created a concept for an app in response to an increase in rates of drunk driving in Washington.

Savannah Obernberger.

Savanna Obernberger, junior criminal justice major, said she worked with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission and four classmates in a crime prevention strategies course.

She said they evaluated policies regarding DUIs and developed recommendations for police departments, insurance companies and bartenders. The course ended in fall 2018, but she said she wanted to continue finding solutions to reduce DUI rates.

The app would allow people to keep track of when they are drinking at bars, how much their blood alcohol content is, and how they decide to get home, she said.

“I think our criminal justice system can improve in so many ways,” Obernberger said. “If there is any way we can approach that as students or young people, we definitely should.”

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