Opponents of medical marijuana dispensaries have long argued that they are magnets for criminality, but a study released last week by the RAND Corporation does not support that contention. The RAND study found that crime rates rose in surrounding neighborhoods when dispensaries were shut down when compared to areas where dispensaries were allowed to stay open.
In the immediate blocks surrounding closed dispensaries, crime increased 60% more than in the blocks surrounding dispensaries that were allowed to stay open. Those effects in the immediate vicinity were not apparent across a wider area.
"If medical marijuana dispensaries are causing crime, then there should be a drop in crime when they close," said Mireille Jacobson, the study's lead author and a senior economist at RAND. "Individual dispensaries may attract crime or create a neighborhood nuisance, but we found no evidence that medical marijuana dispensaries in general cause crime to rise."
The expansion of medical marijuana dispensaries in states such as California and Colorado have given rise to oft-voiced concerns by law enforcement and some neighborhood activists that the outlets are a public nuisance that create crime, but such concerns have not previously been subject to rigorous evaluation. The RAND study is the first systematic analysis of the link between medical marijuana dispensaries and crime.
Researchers suggested that the crime increase near closed dispensaries could be caused by factors such as the loss of foot traffic, the loss of on-site security provided by dispensaries, an increase in outdoor drug activity, or changes in police practices, such as fewer nearby patrols.
RAND said that because of the limited data and the short period of time in its study, the study's results should be viewed as preliminary, but that they could inform policy makers' decision-making process.
UCLA researcher Bridget Freisthler, who is studying crime around dispensaries in Sacramento, criticized the RAND study as "deeply flawed" for precisely the reasons RAND noted above. Still, Freisthler's own research results so far tend to dove-tail with the RAND findings. Last year, she examined 31 Sacramento dispensaries and found that those with security cameras, guards, and signs announcing that buyers needed cards had lower crime rates in the immediate vicinity than those that didn't.
But it is too simple even from her own research to just say "pot clubs don't cause crime," she said. "I suspect what's going on, although we don't know for sure, is that those areas that already had a strong illegal drug market aren't really seeing a lot of dispensaries because access to marijuana is already easy," she told UCLA's news department. "The dispensaries are finding a market among people who aren't willing to buy on the street. Whether people in charge of the drug markets in dispensary-free areas are actively trying to keep the dispensaries out, I don't know."
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was also critical of the RAND findings, citing a small number of high-profile crimes committed against dispensaries. In one incident last year, a dispensary employee was shot to death on the job, and in another, two days later, a dispensary employee was shot to death.
"We question the findings," sheriff's department spokesman Steven Whitmore told NBC Los Angeles. "We don't think they're accurate. We want to know where exactly they're talking about and how they're coming to these conclusions because we’ve had some very dangerous crimes that have happened at these dispensaries."
But he didn't cite any hard data. And the only hard data so far suggests that, law enforcement claims notwithstanding, there is little support for the notion that dispensaries are crime magnets.