The 2016 ballot initiative that legalized marijuana in California let local governments decide whether to allow growers, manufacturers, and retailers within their jurisdictions, and the claim that such businesses are magnets for crime has figured prominently in those decisions. Last September, for instance, San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman warned the city council that the "negative consequences and secondary effects" of tolerating recreational cannabusinesses would be "enormous." To back up that claim, Zimmerman said medical marijuana dispensaries in San Diego had generated 272 police calls related to "burglaries, robberies, thefts, assaults and shootings, just to name a few," in less than three years.
That number seemed suspect to Diane Goldstein, a retired Redondo Beach police lieutenant who chairs the board of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (formerly Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a.k.a. LEAP). After digging into the San Diego Police Department's call records, Goldstein says in an email, she found that Zimmerman's claim was "a gross distortion of crime related to the licensed medical marijuana dispensaries." So did Voice of San Diego's Jesse Marx, who reports that Zimmerman's figure includes "dozens of crank payphone calls to 911 operators made in the parking lot of complexes that house dispensaries and other businesses, dozens of false security alarms and even a couple requests to tow automobiles."
Even when the calls involved more serious incidents, their connection to dispensaries was often tenuous. On May 1, 2017, for instance, police got a call about a woman who had fallen in a parking lot, possibly as a result of a stroke. Zimmerman blamed that incident on a dispensary called The Healing Center San Diego, Marx says, despite the fact that "the address on the report belonged to a nearby pain management center." A February 27, 2017, call about a reckless truck driver made Zimmerman's list because police happened to meet the caller on the same block as a dispensary. Zimmerman also counted an August 30, 2016, report about "a man digging through a dumpster behind a shopping center in San Ysidro" who had threatened to shoot someone, which she pinned on the Southwest Patient Group because it was one of the shopping center's tenants.
Marx found that just one-fifth of the calls cited by Zimmerman "actually cite a dispensary as the location of a potential crime." They include serious incidents such as an armed robbery of a dispensary employee, a fight that was broken up by a dispensary security guard, and a guard who "appears to have fired at a group of burglars in the middle of the night." They also include "things like graffiti and vandalism complaints, water leaks and men being refused service because they couldn't bring a dog inside the shop."
Zimmerman has since retired, and her bogus number did not actually sway the San Diego City Council, which voted to allow marijuana businesses that serve the recreational market. But her fake figure lives on in debates playing out across California.
"Earlier this month," Marx notes, "Zimmerman's stats appeared in a memo written by Oceanside Police Chief Frank McCoy to the City Council, which decided—against the recommendations of a subcommittee—not to allow retail shops. Her remarks were also cited by anti-pot activists in Imperial Beach who helped slow down marijuana regulations there."
Marx called Zimmerman to ask about those 272 calls that supposedly demonstrated the cannabis industry's criminogenic culpability. She hung up on him.