Crime and collectives

A new study—one conducted by a right-wing think tank, no less—argues that medical-cannabis dispensaries actually deter crime

Here in Sacramento, there’s a split.

In one corner, Sacramento County, whose sheriff, Scott Jones, says that medical-cannabis dispensaries foster quality-of-life crimes in the region and should be shuttered.

And then, in the other corner, there’s the city of Sacramento, whose representatives in the police department and on the city council have gone on the record arguing that dispensaries do not increase crimes in neighborhoods.

And now, a new report—by right-wing think tank RAND Corporation, of all things—is saying that medical-cannabis dispensaries do not increase crime.

The RAND study zeroes in on Los Angeles, where it argues that closing medical-cannabis dispensaries is actually associated with an increase in neighborhood crime. Researchers at RAND looked at 21 days of crime reports for 600 L.A. dispensaries around the time the city ordered the clubs closed, on June 7, 2010. The city blamed the clubs for nuisances and crime, but RAND study lead author Mireille Jacobson said that, after looking at the data, “it’s pretty clear we don’t find evidence for the crime-magnet hypothesis.”

According to RAND, total crime “increased almost 60 percent in the blocks surrounding closed clinics in the 10 days following their closing.” RAND noted that the closures’ effects are “concentrated on crimes, such as breaking and entering, and assault,” which arguably are deterred by the presence of security at most cannabis clubs.

When Los Angeles ordered clubs closed last year, 170 stayed open while 430 shutdown. The L.A. city attorney’s office provided club addresses for the study, while the public-crime data site CrimeReports offered block-by-block information on incidents. RAND tracked what happened in dispensary neighborhoods day by day from 10 days before until 10 days after the orders to close.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s a good Petri dish,” Jacobson said.

The RAND study is “the first systematic, independent analysis of” the claim that dispensaries are crime magnets. Its validity, however, is limited by the length of time studied—just 21 days—and the “noise” in the data. That’s because crime on any given block is actually pretty rare, Jacobson said. Tiny changes like one or two incidents can make the numbers look bigger than they are.

“The estimated increase should be interpreted with some caution,” the paper stated.

RAND is broadening the study to include several weeks of data and wrestling with the fact that some clubs closed, and then reopened in the complex, fast-moving legal environment of L.A. pot dispensaries.

Kris Hermes, spokesperson for the cannabis-patient lobby group Americans for Safe Access, said the RAND study buttresses a 2009 analysis by L.A.’s Police Chief Charlie Beck, who found that crime around banks was dwarfed by alleged dispensary crime. According to a report by Americans for Safe Access, 71 robberies occurred at more than 350 banks, compared with 47 robberies at the more than 500 unregulated medical-marijuana shops.

“Chief Beck observed that ‘Banks are more likely to get robbed than medical marijuana dispensaries, and that the claim that dispensaries attract crime doesn’t really bear out,’” Hermes said.

Two studies by law enforcement in Colorado also concluded in 2010 that dispensaries had no effect on crime, Jacobson noted.

Hermes said the crime-magnet theory is a still a myth widely perpetuated by law-enforcement groups, such as the California Narcotic Officers’ Association and the California Police Chiefs Association. The RAND study is “really an affirmation of what we’ve been saying all along,” he said.

The CNOA did not answer a request for comment. “There is no justification for using marijuana as medicine,” the association has stated. “The overriding objective behind [the medical marijuana] movement is to allow a minority (less than five percent) of our society to get ‘stoned’ with impunity.”

Jacobson said the study doesn’t account for nuisance reports like bad traffic, double-parking, litter, public smoking and loitering—many of which fuel neighbors’ complaints regarding unregulated clubs. City permitting usually mitigates such business nuisances, Jacobson noted. However, Los Angeles has refused for years to properly permit dispensaries.

Just like Sacramento County—which is finally working on crafting a medical-pot dispensary ordinance for early next year.