Do Citizens Know Whether Their State Has Decriminalized Marijuana?

Assessing the Perceptual Component of Deterrence Theory

Published In: Review of Law and Economics, v. 5, no. 1, Article 15, June 17, 2009, p. 347-371

Posted on RAND.org on December 31, 2008

by Robert J. MacCoun, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, Jamie F. Chriqui, Katherine M. Harris, Peter H. Reuter

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Deterrence theory proposes that legal compliance is influenced by the anticipated risk of legal sanctions. This implies that changes in law will produce corresponding changes in behavior, but the marijuana decriminalization literature finds only fragmentary support for this prediction. But few studies have directly assessed the accuracy of citizens' perceptions of legal sanctions. The heterogeneity in state statutory penalties for marijuana possession across the United States provides an opportunity to examine this issue. Using national survey data, we find that the percentages who believe they could be jailed for marijuana possession are quite similar in both states that have removed those penalties and those that have not. Our results help to clarify why statistical studies have found inconsistent support for an effect of decriminalization on marijuana possession.

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