MYTH: Dispensaries cause crime

If you’ve ever been inside of a cannabis dispensary (and considering what you’re reading, you probably have) you know that they are uneventful places.

They can be exciting, but usually in the way a tackle shop is exciting to a dedicated angler: lots of fascinating goods and gear to spend too much money on, lots of other enthusiasts to swap tips and fish stories with.

But do cannabis dispensaries generate or attract crime to the neighborhoods they’re based in? Unsurprisingly, legalization opponents say yes.

In 2013, Denver’s district attorney, Mitch Morrissey, stood before the Denver City Council and said that his office was dealing with a violent crime wave rooted in Colorado’s regulated cannabis industry.

“We have had 12 homicides related directly to medical marijuana,” he said. “We have had over 100 aggravated robberies and home invasions. Many of you probably didn’t read about the double-execution-style homicide that we had here in Denver, where people were laid down on the floor and executed because they were running a medical marijuana outlet.”

The shocking statement inspired outrage from much of the public — and skepticism from local media.

When pressed on the matter, Morrissey backpedaled substantially, calling the numbers he cited “loose figures,” but stood by the claim.

Ultimately, his office only provided The Denver Post with news accounts of nine homicides. The double murder? It was “unclear” if what those victims were doing was legal, according to the Post.

Here in California, San Francisco police still repeat the cannabis equals crime lie, but the Pinocchio prize goes to L.A.

Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department echoed Morrissey’s anti-dispensary sentiment in only slightly less sensationalist terms.

“Every time we shut down a dispensary, the crime and the disorder decrease,” he told reporters.

However, nearly every organized, systemic study of crime trends surrounding licensed cannabis dispensaries finds no association between legal weed and crime.

One such study, commissioned by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and carried out by UCLA researchers, suggested that the presence of security measures common at dispensaries might actually deter crime in the immediate area.

“There were no observed cross-sectional associations between the density of medical marijuana dispensaries and either violent or property crime rates,” according to the study. “Other factors, such as measures dispensaries take to reduce crime (i.e., doormen, video cameras), may increase guardianship such that it deters possible motivated offenders.”

So, do dispensaries cause crime? Only to the extent that banks or armored cars do. As bank robber Willie Sutton (apocryphally) said when asked why he robbed banks, “that’s where the money is.”

Certain kinds of people (the ones who commit strong-arm robberies) will always see cash-heavy businesses as targets. Add to that the enticement of the street value for some ostensibly high-quality cannabis, and you can easily see why there are guards and cameras at your local pot shop.

Nobody calls for a shutdown of all banks when there’s a robbery at one, and it doesn’t make any more sense to use that logic when it comes to dispensaries.

Photo by Mike Koozmin