No, marijuana didn't give Washington state a 'violent crime problem'

click to enlarge Malcom Gladwell - KRIS KRÜG PHOTO
Kris Krüg photo
Malcom Gladwell

New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, a best-selling writer and podcast host, loves the counterintuitive take. And so it says something about the cultural shift on marijuana that Gladwell's take in a January issue of the New Yorker — where he argued that marijuana was dangerous — qualified as counterintuitive.

And for evidence that marijauana was making us more unsafe? Sure, there has been some research that suggested that marijuana use can activate existing psychosis in some people. But, citing journalist Alex Berenson's book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, Gladwell (right) suggests that violence in Washington may be linked to the state's vote to legalize marijuana in 2012.

"Between 2013 and 2017, the state's murder and aggravated assault rates rose 40 percent — twice the national homicide increase and four times the national aggravated assault increase," Gladwell wrote.

And, for Gladwell, that's reason enough to begin speculating.

"We don't know that an increase in cannabis use was responsible for that surge in violence," Gladwell acknowledged, before suggesting that when Washington legalized marijuana "its citizens began turning on one another with increased aggression."

But Gladwell completely botched the stat: When Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal ran the stats, he found that the state's murder rate rose 35 percent from 2013 to 2017 — not 40 percent — and that while our aggravated assaults appeared to rise faster than the national average, it wasn't anything close to what Gladwell claimed.

Today, Gladwell's New Yorker piece has a correction acknowledging he'd misstated the percentages. Yet Gladwell has continued to insist that "it is a little odd that they have a violent crime problem in the state of Washington."

But the premise is completely wrong: The state actually doesn't have a violent crime problem. Washington's violent crime rate in 2017 remained lower than its violent crime rate for every single year for three-decades between 1974 and 2010.

Even today, the nation's violent crime rate is 77 percent higher than the state's.

According to FBI data, there were about 369 violent crimes reported for every 100,000 people in the United States in 2013, while there were only about 290 in Washington. Yes, by 2017, the state's violent crime rate had increased to 304.5. But the national violent crime rate had climbed to over 382 per 100,000.

The number of violent crimes, murders and aggravated assaults per person in Washington increased by about the same margin as they had in the rest of the country. But because the state started with a much lower crime rate, the percentage increase looks high.

Let's put it in elementary school terms: Yesterday, Johnny ate one apple. Today, he ate two apples. Yesterday, Suzie ate 40 apples. Today, she ate 50 apples.

Now, if you were Malcolm Gladwell, you could write a New Yorker story with that information saying, "Holy cow, Johnny saw a 100 percent increase in apples, while Suzie only saw a 25 percent increase in apples. Is the fact that Johnny's classroom legalized chewing gum to blame?"

What Washington does have is a property crime problem — one of the worst in the nation. But, Gladwell can't use the property crime figures as evidence for the "marijuana-is-dangerous argument," because state's sky-high property crime rate has been falling ever since marijuana was legalized.

The rest of the country's property crime has been falling, too, but not as fast as Washington's. So should we credit marijuana? ♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...