Marijuana Dispensaries Associated with Rise, Then Decline in Some Neighborhood Crime

Credit: Metropolitan Wellness Center, D.C.

Ten states and the District of Columbia now allow the sale, possession, and use of marijuana for recreational purposes, and 33 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana. Critics argue that marijuana dispensaries are magnets for crime. A new study found an association between marijuana dispensaries and increases in rates of crime and disorder in neighborhoods in Denver, Colorado, shortly after Colorado commenced legal retail sales of marijuana.

The study, by researchers at the University of Colorado Denver, appears in Justice Quarterly, a publication of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.

“We found that neighborhoods with one or more medical or recreational dispensary saw increased crime rates that were between 26 and 1,452% higher than in neighborhoods without any commercial marijuana activity,” notes Lorine A. Hughes, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, who led the study. “But we also found that the strongest associations between dispensaries and crime weakened significantly over time.”

In their study, the researchers looked at both medical and recreational dispensaries from 2012 to 2015 (Colorado legalized marijuana in 2014). They examined the extent to which dispensaries were associated with neighborhood crime and disorder independently of other characteristics of the neighborhoods (e.g., socioeconomic disadvantage, concentration of high-risk commercial establishments such as check-cashing stores and tattoo shops).

Measures of crime and disorder were drawn from the Denver Police Department and included aggravated assault, auto theft, burglary, drug and alcohol offences, murder, public disorder, robbery, and theft from a car. Measures of other neighborhood characteristics were based on 2013 estimates of characteristics of Census block groups, which researchers applied to 3,981 equally distributed geographic areas in Denver. Information about marijuana dispensaries was obtained from government agencies.

The study found that except for murder, the presence of at least one medical marijuana dispensary was associated with a statistically significant increase in neighborhood crime and disorder, including robbery and aggravated assault. The study also found a relatively strong association between medical marijuana dispensaries and drug and alcohol offenses, with a decline in the strength of the link after recreational marijuana was legalized.

The pattern of results was similar for recreational marijuana dispensaries, though the study found no direct relation to auto theft.

The authors caution that the results of the study, based only on information from Denver immediately after legalization and before market saturation, may not be generalizable to other geographic areas. They also note that because the study relied on official police data to measure crime and disorder, it’s possible that police targeted neighborhoods with marijuana dispensaries, which would over-estimate the association between these facilities and crime and disorder.

“Our findings have important implications for the marijuana industry in Denver and the liberalization of marijuana laws nationwide,” suggests Lonnie M. Schaible, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, who coauthored the study. “Although our results indicate that both medical and recreational marijuana dispensaries are associated with increases in most major crime types, the weak strength typical of these relationships suggests that, if Denver’s experience is representative, major spikes in crime are unlikely to occur in other places following legalization.”

The authors suggest that, rather than fighting to oppose legalized marijuana, which has become a multibillion-dollar industry and is expected to create more than a quarter of a million jobs by 2020, it may be more expedient to develop and support secure and legal ways for dispensaries to engage in financial transactions.

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