Study Finds No Link Between Medical Marijuana Dispensaries and Crime


Of all the spurious arguments against medical marijuana dispensaries, the spurious-est may be the claim that they somehow drive up crime in neighborhoods in which they locate. The premise, of course, is that dispensaries attract an undesirable element that purchases its quota of soothing, medicinal weed, then goes about harassing aged matriarchs, breaking windows, and otherwise causing the ghost of James Q. Wilson to rise up and demand the restoration of public order. There's little evidence that marijuana dispensaries attract such a uniformly disruptive element, and now there's a study suggesting that crime rates and dispensaries aren't correlated in any way.

Published in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, "Exploring the Ecological Association Between Crime and Medical Marijuana Dispensaries," (PDF) by Nancy J. Kepple and Bridget Freisthler, of the University of California, Los Angeles, Luskin School of Public Affairs, boldly tests the theory that lots of low-and-order types have simply assumed was true — that dispensaries are "a breeding ground for criminal networks, attracting individuals prone to crime and increasing potential for crime around these locations." They looked at the density of medical marijuana dispensaries in Sacramento, California, in 2009, and compared that density to crime rates. They also, separately, adjusted the figures to see if there was a correlation once you allowed for variables such as unemployment rates, population density, one-person households and the like, within the neighborhoods examined. They found that some of those variables were relevant, but the presence of dispensaries plays no detectable role.

Percentage of a census tract that was commercially zoned, percentage of housing units in a census tract that were one-person households, and unemployment rate were positively related to violent and property crime rates. However, no cross-sectional associations were observed between the density of medical marijuana dispensaries and violent or property crime rates, controlling for ecological variables traditionally associated with routine activity theory.

These findings suggest two possible conclusions. First, the density of medical marijuana dispensaries may not be associated with neighborhood-level crime rates. For example, dispensaries may be associated with crime, but no more than any other facility in a commercially zoned area with conditions that facilitate crime.

Good social scientists that they are, Kepple and Freisthler allow that dispensaries' impact on crime rates could be "more complex than measured here" — which just means that their study might not be exhaustive and they could have missed something. They also say that security measures at dispensaries may be suppressing crime that would otherwise be elevated by the presence of the dispensaries. Well … yes, and 7-11s might get knocked over more often if they didn't have locked safes and video cameras. Suppressing crime is, after all, the whole point of security.

All of which suggests that medical marijuana dispensaries function like any other business in a neighborhood, with no special, sinister impact.

This isn't the first study to say that medical marijuana dispensaries don't necessarily have "there goes the neighborhood" effects. Last year, as Tim Cavanaugh told us, the RAND Corporation released a paper that said closing dispensaries drove crime up. But that study was withdrawn so that it could be reworked using more-complete information about crime rates (the authors originally used statistics from the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, but missed important data from the LAPD). So the UCLA paper currently stands alone in suggesting that you need not feel driven to brave the rocky real estate market if a dispensary opens its doors around the corner from your house.

Don't miss Brian Doherty's 2010 cover story on "L.A.'s Pot Revolution."