by David Downs
Closing medical cannabis dispensaries in Los Angeles is associated with an increase in neighborhood crime, according to a unexpected new study released by the RAND Corporation today.
Researchers there looked at 21 days of crime reports for 600 L.A. dispensaries around the time the city ordered the clubs closed 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.”
“Overall crime increased almost 60 percent in the blocks surrounding closed clinics in the ten days following their closing,” RAND states. “The effects are concentrated on crimes, such as breaking and entering, and assault, that may be particularly sensitive to the presence of security.
“Incidents of breaking and entering increase by about 50 percent within four blocks, and assaults increase by about 90 percents after the dispensaries are closed.”
A dispensary operator in Los Angeles said the study's theory that a secure business makes a neighborhood safer jibes with him.
He declined to be identified for fear of political retribution during the city's ongoing permitting process, which may go to a lottery for 120 permits this fall.
“I can see how crime would go up once there's not eyes on the street,” the operator said. “We have to patrol these areas so hard. We have cameras around our entire facility and I got security guards that are doing checks randomly every 20 minutes. There's nobody allowed in our neighborhood smoking on the street or selling drugs. We're very proactive here. If people are smoking, or gathering in large groups, we make them disperse.”
Despite vociferous rhetoric by NIMBYs, police chiefs, and city leaders, Jacobson said the RAND study is “the first systematic, independent analysis of” the claim that dispensaries are crime magnets.
When the city of L.A. ordered them closed June 7, 2010 — 170 stayed open while 430 shut their doors — public crime data site crimereports.org offered block by block information on incidents, and the L.A. city attorney's office provided club addresses. RAND could track what happened in dispensary neighborhoods day by day from ten days before until ten days after the orders to close.
“It's not perfect but it's a good petri dish,” she said.
The study's validity 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, so 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 states.
RAND is broadening the study to include several weeks of data, and trying to wrestle with the fact that some clubs closed, then re-opened in the complex, fast-moving legal environment that is the L.A. basin.
Patient lobby group Americans for Safe Access supports regulated dispensaries. Spokesperson Kris Hermes said the RAND study buttresses a 2009 analysis by L.A.'s own Chief of Police Charley Beck, who found crime around banks dwarfed alleged dispensary crime. According to ASA reports, 71 robberies occurred at more than 350 banks, compared to 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.'”
(Two studies by law enforcement in Colorado also concluded in 2010 dispensaries had no effect on crime, Jacobson notes.)
Hermes said the crime magnet theory is a still a myth widely perpetuated by law enforcement groups the California Narcotic Officers' Association and the California Police Chiefs Association, backed by federal drug warriors and funding.
The RAND study is “really an affirmation of what we've been saying all along,” he said.
The California Narcotics Officers' Association did not return request for comment. “There is no justification for using marijuana as medicine,” the CNOA states (.pdf). “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.”
Get a copy of the study here.