Every time a state legalizes cannabis — or even considers legalizing it — opponents chime in with a familiar refrain: It’s going to ruin the neighborhood.
Usually, these arguments draw on cannabis myths straight out of the Reagan-era War on Drugs. First, the plant is dangerous and highly addictive. According to former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it’s “only slightly less awful” than heroin, which seems like a bit of an understatement considering that heroin was linked to 15,000 fatal overdoses in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while cannabis was linked with zero.
Regardless of what the statistics (or the science) say, opponents insist that cannabis is therefore a “gateway drug” (a point that has been debunked by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, which states that, “There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs”). In their view, any attempt to make cannabis more accessible could lead to roving gangs of hoodlums shooting up once-tranquil communities in a manic frenzy for their next hit and/or piles of drug money.
Despite the fact that outdated stereotypes about cannabis users are fading and the plant is more popular in America than ever, the argument that legal cannabis dispensaries will make cities less safe has proven to be an effective one. Even in states with legal cannabis, many communities have banned dispensaries within their borders.
In Illinois, which recently legalized recreational cannabis with one of the most progressive platforms in the nation, wealthy suburbs like Bloomingdale, Napierville, and Libertyville voted over the summer to keep dispensaries out, as reported by Crain’s Chicago Business. In Michigan, another recent legalizer of recreational cannabis, almost 800 municipalities have outlawed dispensaries, per data from the state’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency. Even in California, which has the longest tradition of legal cannabis of any state in the country, around 75 percent of communities ban cannabis dispensaries — despite the fact that 63 percent of the state’s citizens are in favor of them, according to the Los Angeles Times.
But according to the data, if these towns and cities were really serious about decreasing drug-related crimes, they’d be welcoming cannabis dispensaries with open arms.
The most recent evidence that cannabis dispensaries have a positive effect on crime rates comes from a study published last month in the journal Regional Science and Urban Economics, which showed that crime rates dropped “substantially” in the areas around Denver dispensaries between 2013 and 2016 (for context, Colorado legalized recreational cannabis in 2014).
According to the study’s authors, “an additional dispensary in a neighborhood leads to a reduction of 17 crimes per month per 10,000 residents, which corresponds to roughly a 19 percent decline relative to the average crime rate over the sample period.”
Similar conclusions have been reached by many other studies. In 2018, a collaborative review between the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research and Leafly examined 42 previous studies and found that “crime near licensed dispensaries has generally stayed flat or decreased.”
These results might be surprising to those who remember another study that examined crime rates around Denver dispensaries, which was published in early 2019 by the journal Justice Quarterly. This one found that areas with cannabis dispensaries experienced “crime rates that were between 26 and 1,452 percent higher than in neighborhoods without any commercial marijuana activity,” according to the study’s co-author, Prof. Lorine Hughes of the University of Colorado-Denver.
However, even Hughes conceded that this study wasn’t as rigorous as the more recent one, since it examined a far smaller batch of data over a shorter time period. Her co-author, Dr. Lonnie M. Schaible, said that, “Although our results indicate that both medical and recreational marijuana dispensaries are associated with increases in most major crime types, the weak strength typical of these relationships suggests that, if Denver’s experience is representative, major spikes in crime are unlikely to occur in other places following legalization.”
But if cannabis dispensaries really do lead to lower crime rates, the next obvious question is: Why?
One potential explanation is that cannabis dispensaries have a lot in common with banks — i.e. they’re extremely well-guarded. Since cannabis dispensaries have to deal solely in cash, they’re typically bristling with cameras and security guards. As such, they’re much less likely to be robbed than cannabis opponents would believe. In fact, according to former Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck, “I have tried to verify that [cannabis dispensaries are crime magnets] because, of course, that is the mantra. It really doesn’t bear out. … Banks are more likely to get robbed than medical marijuana dispensaries,” as he told the Marijuana Policy Project.
Another theory has less to do with the dispensaries’ security measures and more to do with its staff and customers. Since many dispensaries are located in previously-abandoned buildings, increasing the number of smartphone-wielding passersby could be a bulwark against petty vandalism and other types of crime common to derelict areas. According to a 2018 study in the Journal of Urban Economics, it’s actually the closing of cannabis dispensaries that leads to increases in crime, since “eyes upon the street” deter some types of crime.
Cannabis dispensaries won’t singlehandedly turn your city into a nicer place to live — and the proliferation of illegal ones is certainly cause for concern — but today it seems clear that they won’t ruin it, either.