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Is Marijuana Decriminalization Leading to Increased Murder Rates?

Maryland police chief blames state’s decriminalization law on increased violence.

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While many law enforcement agencies believe marijuana decriminalization laws have made their jobs easier, one of Maryland’s finest is of the opinion that the elimination of criminal penalties associated with minor pot possession has caused the murder rate to skyrocket in his jurisdiction.

Prince George’s County Police Chief Hank Stawinski recently told NBC News that local homicides have multiplied since marijuana was decriminalized a few years ago.

In 2014, there were 54 murders, increasing to 77 in 2015, and increasing again up to nearly 100 last year.

Stawinski says the majority of these senseless killings are the result of a powerful black market drug trade brought on by decriminalization.

“There seems to be more demand for it right now,” he said. “And it’s causing a struggling between people and we’re seeing that play out in violence in Prince Georges County.”

This is not the first time a Maryland official has suggested that marijuana possession now being a citable offense is contributing to higher murder rates.

In 2015, Maryland State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks said an increase in murders throughout Prince George’s County was likely due to the state’s marijuana decriminalization law. She told WAMU’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show that local gangs had waged a brutal turf war to gain control over the illegal pot market, going as far as to insist that street disputes are being settled with more gun violence now that police are unable to conduct random searches.

"The decriminalization of marijuana has really driven the violence we have seen this year in Prince George's.” Alsobrooks said. "What we're seeing is they're fighting for turf. The marijuana dealers are fighting."

"I have seen too many lives destroyed by marijuana,” she continued. “I may as well go ahead and say it. I'm so concerned about what I see with young people who are using marijuana and who are in our courtrooms for violent offenses because they are selling it, they are killing each other because of it but they are also dropping out of school. It is a very big problem that we have to address as a community."

Shortly after the interview, the Prince George’s County Police Department issued a statement in support of Alsobrook’s decriminalization/murder hypothesis, but did not elaborate on the situation. A spokesperson for the department did say that Alsobrook’s opinion was simply a “theory” and in no way supported by hard facts.

Nevertheless, Police Chief Stawinski said that while he does not blame the state legislature for the problem, decriminalization has created a whole new set of issues for his police force. The department is asking for help from the community -- in the form of anonymous tips and other tactics -- to put the leashes on the uptick in drug-related murders.

Interestingly, Police Chief Cathy Lanier in neighboring District of Columbia, which has since fully legalized the herb, said back in 2015 that marijuana decriminalization was working -- giving no indication that she had seen any increase in violence as a result of the new law.

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