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Do Marijuana Dispensaries Attract More Crime?

Do marijuana dispensaries attract more crime to a neighborhood?   A recent study by the researchers at Ohio State University and Prevention Research Center of the Pacific Institute Research and Evaluation was designed to answer this question. The study examines whether the density of marijuana dispensaries in Long Beach, California, USA, in 2012–13 was related to violent and property crimes, both locally and in adjacent areas.

Medical marijuana dispensaries continue to attract attention by the popular press for their perceived effects on local communities. As cities and countries decriminalize, legalize or consider whether or not to change policies around marijuana use and availability, one lingering concern is whether greater availability of marijuana through storefront dispensaries will increase crime. Law enforcement officials regularly point to crimes that occur in and around dispensaries as one of the reasons they should be regulated or banned. However, assessments conducted by local police departments in Los Angeles, Denver and Colorado Springs suggest that areas in which dispensaries are located do not have more crime than banks, liquor stores or other businesses. The current study was designed to investigate this issue more systematically.

According to routine activities theory of criminal behavior, the necessary conditions for crime to occur are a motivated offender, a suitable target and an absence of capable guardians, such as security or enforcement personnel, who may deter violent or criminal behaviors. Motivated offenders might choose dispensaries or their customers as targets of crime because dispensaries continue to be primarily cash businesses, and carry an attractive illicit substance (marijuana) which can be re-sold fairly easily. Suitable targets may be the dispensaries or patients who use dispensaries who may be carrying large amounts of cash before the purchase and marijuana products after their purchase. Because it appears that dispensaries are located in higher poverty areas and areas with a higher percentage of retail employment, crimes may be more likely to occur in these areas. Crime also may occur along edges of neighborhood areas as they transition from commercial to residential. As it appears that dispensaries are located adjacent to residential areas, crimes in those nearby areas may be more frequent, especially property crimes associated with residential areas.

Data regarding locations of crimes and medical marijuana dispensaries as well as other variables were collected for a sample of 333 Census block group in Long Beach, California, USA from January 2012 to December 2013. Other data collected included alcohol availability as well as area demographic and economic characteristics.

After adjustment for the other variables, density of medical marijuana dispensaries was unrelated to property and violent crimes in local areas but related positively to crime in the adjacent areas. Across local and adjacent areas, an increase of one dispensary per square mile was related to a 1.5–4.8% increase in violent crime. However, local medical marijuana dispensaries (within a Census block group) were unrelated to rates of violent crime while densities of dispensaries in adjacent block groups were related to a 2.5% increase of violent crime. For property crime, an increase of one dispensary per square mile was related to a 0.4–2.6% increase in property crime. Densities of dispensaries in adjacent block groups were related to a 1.7% increase in property crime.

One explanation for the increase in crime in areas adjacent to dispensaries may be that dispensaries tend to use security measures, thus deterring crime in the immediate area. Thus, those wishing to prey on users of medical marijuana dispensaries may be going outside the watch area of these security measures. A related possibility is that dispensaries’ own security efforts may cause police to shift their enforcement activities, leading to more crimes detected in nearby areas.

Study authors conclude, in light of these findings, that it may be better to for enforcement efforts and patrols by police to focus in those neighborhoods next to where dispensaries are, rather than where the dispensaries are located, given the security measures taken by these businesses.

The full article can be seen in: Addiction, 111, 1027 –1035, A micro-temporal geospatial analysis of medical marijuana dispensaries and crime in Long Beach, California, by Bridget Freisthler, William R. Ponicki, Andrew Gaidus & Paul J. Gruenewald, June 2016.