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What happens to crime rates when recreational marijuana is legalized?

As states move towards legalizing recreational marijuana, many questions arise about potential impacts.  Twenty-six states currently allow access to medical marijuana and seven of these states have now included legal access to recreational marijuana. More states are likely to loosen current laws in the near future.  A recent study by Ohio State University, the Prevention Research Center of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation and the University of California (Berkeley) examined the effects of legalizing recreational use on crime in Denver, Colorado.

The researchers based their study on previous findings that changes in the availability of substances can change use patterns and related problems.   They collected data on which marijuana outlets began selling marijuana for recreational, and not just medical, use. They also collected data on locations of crimes and marijuana for 481 Census block groups in Denver between January 2013 and October 2015.  This includes the period of transition from when marijuana could only be sold to medical users to when it could also be sold to those who use it recreationally.  They included crime related to violence, property, and crimes directed specifically at marijuana outlets (for example, burglary of an outlet).

The results showed that densities of marijuana outlets were unrelated to violent crimes.  Densities were also unrelated to property crime in local areas – but there were higher rates of property crimes in areas neighboring the high-density areas.

It is worth noting that the density of alcohol outlets, including on-premise outlets (such as bars) and off-premise outlets (such as liquor stores) were related to both violent and property crime.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that having higher densities of marijuana outlets within the Census block group and in neighboring areas was related to higher rates of marijuana specific crime.

Lead author, Bridget Freisthler concluded “Across the United States, individual states are debating and considering legislation that would legalize medical or recreational marijuana use.  We don’t yet know the long term consequences of these changes. It appears that property crime might increase as well as crime directed at marijuana outlets themselves. It is important to take these findings into account when selecting sites for marijuana outlets and when regulating how they do business.”

The full paper can be seen at:

Freisthler, B., Gaidus, A., Tam, C., Ponicki, W.R., & Gruenewald, P.J. From medical to recreational marijuana sales: Marijuana outlets and crime in an era of changing marijuana legislation. Available online April 2017, Journal of Primary Prevention. doi: 10.1007/s10935-017-0472-9