A recently released study out of the University of Mississippi draws a correlation between cannabis legalization and foster care placements. According to the researchers, states with legal recreational cannabis demonstrate fewer foster care placements. Furthermore, foster care placements seem to decrease in the years following recreational legalization.
Does this mean legalizing cannabis keeps more children out of foster care? That is the supposition put forth by researchers John Gardner and Bright Osei. However, as with nearly every study of this type, correlation does not guarantee causation.
The numbers are significant enough to give the topic further attention. Gardner and Osei could be absolutely correct in their conclusions. And if that’s the case, subsequent research should prove it. As for why they found a correlation, the two researchers offer a number of possibilities in the text of their study.
1. Extensive Research Data
For the record, Gardner and Osei studied 18 years of adoption and foster care data from 2000 to 2017. Among other things, they carefully noted foster care placement trends in states with legal recreational cannabis, both before and after legalization took place.
The differences between states were insignificant prior to legalization. But in those states that legalized recreational cannabis, foster care placements declined by some 10%. Furthermore, declines were commensurate with the number of years since legalization. In other words, the further you get out from legalization, the fewer foster care placements you find.
2. A Correlation with Medical Cannabis
It would be interesting to see if a similar correlation exists between foster care placement and medical cannabis. In Utah, people can legally use cannabis only with a valid medical cannabis card. They can only purchase cannabis from a licensed pharmacy like Payson’s Pure Utah.
One of the possible reasons for the correlation cited by Gardner and Osei is a change in attitude toward cannabis once it is legalized in a state. In Utah, attitudes are certainly more liberal than they were a few years ago. But they are still more conservative than neighboring states.
Has Utah seen a decline in foster care placements since legalizing medical cannabis in 2019? And if so, how does that decrease compare with the numbers in Gardner and Osei’s research?
3. Suggested Reasons
Gardner and Osei offered a number of reasons that could explain what their research uncovered. First of all, cannabis legalization could steer people away from other drugs that tend to be more destructive. Their data does show a decrease in parental neglect and mistreatment related to alcohol consumption.
Another possibility is that legalization reduces the number of drug crime prosecutions, thus reducing the need for foster care by reducing the number of parents sent to jail for drug-related offenses. The research did uncover data suggesting lower incarceration rates after cannabis legalization.
The researchers even noted that some states, when legalizing cannabis, included in their rules special protections designed to enhance parental rights. Those enhanced rights apply to both recreational and medical users. Increased parental rights could reduce foster care placements by not allowing social services agencies to take children from homes as easily as they did prior to legalization.
4. Calling for More Research
Gardner and Osei are calling for more research to verify their findings. What they have learned is both interesting and compelling at the same time. If it turns out that cannabis legalization really does reduce foster care placements, we have yet another reason to reconsider whether cannabis should remain a Schedule I controlled substance. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Correlation does not equal causation; we need more data before we can make an informed decision.