New research shows crime rates dropped substantially in areas with marijuana dispensaries, running counter to fears that pot shops drum up crime.
The study, published this month in the journal of Regional Science and Urban Economics, analyzed crime data from Denver between January 2013 and December 2016. Colorado, which legalized medical marijuana nearly two decades ago, kicked off sales of recreational pot in 2014.
”The results imply that an additional dispensary in a neighborhood leads to a reduction of 17 crimes per month per 10,000 residents, which corresponds to roughly a 19 percent decline relative to the average crime rate over the sample period,” the study states.
While those findings are highly localized, Illinois State University criminology professor Ralph Weisheit said the results could be “magnified in Illinois.” That’s because the state’s 610-page pot law prioritizes criminal justice and social equity and encourages the hiring of people from “economically-impoverished neighborhoods,” Weisheit said.
“More than any other state, the law is loaded with sections that encourage economic development and employment in areas that have high levels of poverty and a high level of previous marijuana arrests,” he added.
In Denver, researchers found the sharpest decrease in nonviolent crimes, like criminal trespassing, criminal mischief, simple assault and public-order crimes. The study also found a reduction in violent crime that was driven by a drop in aggravated assault, though those findings weren’t statistically significant.
Crime dropping locally appears to be consistent with an increased police or private security presence in or around pot shops. According to David Mok-Lamme, one of the study’s co-authors, private guards tasked with protecting dispensaries’ cash and product might have a “positive impact on crime rates” — but there’s not enough available data to know for sure.
Since the research shows that crime actually decreases “in a meaningful way,” Mok-Lamme said he hopes the study “causes people to rethink those thoughts they may have about where dispensaries choose to open.”
Westchester police chief Steven Stelter, president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said he’s concerned about an overall rise in crime after recreational pot is legalized but doesn’t know whether crime rates will be affected specifically around dispensaries.
“It depends where they put these dispensaries” and whether they attract visitors from elsewhere, Stelter said.
His main concerns include black market cannabis flooding into Illinois as well as increases in traffic crashes and marijuana use among children.
“We’re just gonna have to sit around and wait — and we’ll be able to say I told you so in a few years,” he said.
In Illinois, a growing number of municipalities are moving to ban sales of recreational pot. Naperville’s City Council voted earlier this month to do just that. Weisheit said he isn’t surprised.
“That’s just being cautious,” he said. “But I’m guessing that the mindset will gradually change over time. First of all, as money rolls in. And secondly, as they see that it’s not turned out to be the series of terrible events that they thought might happen with legalization.”
Still, another study, conducted between 2012 and 2015 and published earlier this year in the Justice Quarterly journal, found that crime rates around Denver pot shops initially increased when recreational marijuana was legalized, but it then declined. And the correlation between crime and the shops’ presence weakened significantly over time.
Lorine Hughes, a University of Colorado Denver professor who co-authored the study, said the slightly conflicting results of the studies were likely attributable to their differing methodologies. While Mok-Lamme’s study analyzed individual census tracts, Hughes said her research focused on smaller areas. Her study also looked at a shorter period of time after recreational pot was legalized. She said because crime was very low to begin with in some areas she analyzed, it’s difficult to jump to too many conclusions.
She also said her results likely won’t translate to other cities: “You can’t say because this is what we found in Denver, this is what you’re going to find in Chicago.”
Bruce Barcott, senior editor of the pot news website Leafly, said his review of other studies, by and large, shows that “crime rates in communities where cannabis stores have opened have been either unaffected or the crime rate generally decreases.”
He said marijuana legalization “frees up cops to do their job.”
“Any time that you can free up police resources from an activity that really is not a crime and is no longer a crime, that’s going to positively affect the police’s ability to do their job across all aspects,” he said.