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New Study Reveals Recreational Market’s Impact on the Illicit Drug Market

The journal Addiction recently published the most thorough study yet on the association between adult-use cannabis laws in US states and the impact on illegal markets for cannabis, heroin and other substances in those states.

The study found the following responses in the illegal drug market where recreational cannabis has been legalized:

  • A 9.2 percent reduction in street/illegal cannabis prices.
  • A 19.5 percent reduction in low-quality street/illegal cannabis prices.
  • A 64 percent growth in heroin prices.
  • A 54 percent growth in heroin potency.
  • A 7.3 percent growth in street/illegal oxycodone prices.
  • A 5.1 percent growth in street/illegal hydrocodone prices.
  • A 93 percent reduction in law enforcement seizures of street/illegal cannabis.
  • A >50 percent reduction in law enforcement seizures of heroin, oxycodone and hydrocodone.

“Our exploratory findings suggest that markets for illegal drugs may not be independent of legal cannabis market regulation,” said Dr. Angélica Meinhofer, lead author of the study. “As more states move towards legalization and additional post-RCL [recreational cannabis laws] 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.”

This is the biggest difficulty with the data—there’s no way to determine the long-term effects of the recreational market, as we simply haven’t had enough time to observe these changes.

However, in accordance with the study, it seems as though there are plenty of legal benefits when it comes to RCL. Similar trends were seen in Portugal when all drugs were decriminalized. The country saw:

  • Drug-related deaths fall below the European Union (EU) average.
  • Proportion of prisoners with a drug crime fell from 40 percent to 15 percent.
  • Rate of drug use fell below the EU average.

Still, the study also did shine light on some negatives that have come with RCL. For example, while heroin prices skyrocketed, the potency of heroin also saw an increase, potentially making it easier for overdoses and fueling the already-crippling opioid epidemic.

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