Legalizing cannabis leads to skyrocketing prices and potency of other illegal drugs

NEW YORK — As more states across America consider legalizing recreational marijuana, much of the debate focuses on how many people use the illegal drug and how much governments can tax its legal sale. Now, a new study is revealing a much different consequence of cannabis legalization — the impact on the illegal drug market. Researchers say states adopting new recreational cannabis laws (RCLs) not only send the price of drugs like heroin soaring, but also increase the strength of illegal narcotics.

Dr. Angélica Meinhofer from Weill Cornell Medicine says, as of 2021, 17 states and the District of Columbia all have new policies regarding the enforcement and sale of recreational marijuana. These laws allow people over 21 years-old to possess, use, and supply small amounts of cannabis for non-medical purposes.

To see how this impacts other drugs, researchers looked at the staggered implementation of RCLs across 11 states. They then compared the illegal drug markets in states with and without these laws in effect.

Results show that while illegal marijuana sales drop as intended, the market for other substances takes a concerning turn. Study authors discovered states with RCLs see a 9.2 percent drop in street prices for cannabis. The price for low-quality weed also drops by nearly 20 percent.

However, the study finds the fallout from legalizing marijuana caused heroin prices to soar by 64 percent. At the same time, the potency of illegal heroin jumped by a staggering 54 percent. According to the CDC, nearly 30 percent of all opioid overdose deaths in 2019 involved heroin use.

Researchers add that the street prices for drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone increased as well in RCL states. The team used crowdsourced data from Price of Weed and StreetRx to determine the current street value of these substances.

Cannabis laws result in a surprising shift by law enforcement

With local governments embracing recreational cannabis, it turns out these policies are also impacting law enforcement practices as a whole. Researchers discovered a dramatic move away from drug enforcement actions of any kind, even involving still-illegal substances.

The study reveals a 93 percent drop in law enforcement seizures of street cannabis within RCL states. When it comes to heroin and other opioids, researchers report police seizures dropped by over 50 percent.

“Our exploratory findings suggest that markets for illegal drugs may not be independent of legal cannabis market regulation. As more states move towards legalization and additional post-RCL implementation data become available, we’ll need to do more research to determine whether recreational cannabis laws cause those changes in the illegal market and what happens in the long-term,” Dr. Meinhofer says in a media release.

In 2019 alone, more than 70,000 people in the United States died of a drug overdose. Over 70 percent of those deaths involved the use of opioids.

The study appears in the journal Addiction.