The researchers also determined that expanding adult-use cannabis legalization nationally could have significant impacts on the foster care system, including potential savings of hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars every year.
“Our findings imply that legalization may have important consequences for child welfare, and that substitution toward marijuana from other substances can be an important part of how legalization affects admissions,”
The study, “Recreational marijuana legalization and admission to the foster-care system,” was conducted by researchers affiliated with the University of Mississippi, who analyzed data from several sources including the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System. The information collected was compared to identify trends in foster care placements between states with legal adult-use cannabis and others that have not yet legalized recreational cannabis.
Using data from 2000 through 2017, the researchers did not find significant differences in foster care placements before cannabis legalization. However, in states that enacted recreational cannabis legalization, foster care placements decreased gradually over time.
“Our most conservative estimates imply that legalization causes at least a 10 percent decrease in total admissions to foster care, with larger effects in years further after legalization and for admissions into foster care due to specific child-welfare concerns,” the authors wrote,
Study Identifies Cost Savings Associated with Cannabis Legalization
The researchers noted in their study that if cannabis were legalized for use by adults nationwide, governments could save hundreds of millions of dollars now spent on placing children in foster care. Using existing data that estimates the cost of placing one child with alternate caregivers at $25,000, the researchers determined that legalizing recreational marijuana could potentially “reduce the financial burden of the foster-care system by about $675 million, annually.”
The authors of the study also identified several potential reasons for the difference in foster care placements associated with recreational marijuana legalization.
“Legalization may impact foster-care admissions directly by changing the welfare of children or indirectly by changing policies and attitudes towards marijuana use in the home,” they wrote. “Direct effects may arise because marijuana use itself causes behaviors that affect child welfare, or because it changes the likelihood of using other drugs.”
Previous research using online data including search engine trends and engagement with web advertising has shown that legalizing cannabis can reduce interest in alcohol. The data suggests that cannabis may be used by some people as a replacement for alcohol.
“We also find that placements due to physical abuse, parental neglect, and parental incarceration decrease after legalization, providing evidence that legalization reduces substantive threats to child welfare, although the precise mechanism behind these effects is unclear,” the study says.
The authors of the University of Mississippi study called for further research on the subject, writing that additional data is needed to “understand whether the short- to medium-run effects that we estimate also operate in the long run.”
The study, “Recreational marijuana legalization and admission to the foster-care system,” was published online on April 1 by the peer-reviewed journal Economic Inquiry.