Rand 2018 Study: Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Do Not Increase Crime

When California passed 2017's MAUCRSA (aka "SB94") establishing the state's regulatory framework for the commercial cannabis industry, it continued a tradition of letting local jurisdictions decide whether or not to allow such businesses in their communities and adopt whatever regulations they felt were appropriate. This policy meant that in essentially every city and county there would be battles between those for and against permitting commercial cannabis growers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers. Unfortunately the ensuing debates continued another tradition of the war on cannabis -- government leaders relying more on emotion and hearsay than on actual data in making decisions. This has allowed debunked myths, such as marijuana being a "gateway" to harder drugs, be stated as fact in justifying onerous restrictions and outright bans despite overwhelming support by California's voters. [Case in point, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger as late as 2017, in supporting the county's cannabis ban perpetuated the debunked "stepping stone" myth by stating, “I think we all know, and I would argue, this [cannabis] is a gateway drug.”].

Arguments about whether or not to allow dispensaries in a community often lead to the worst use of such misinformation. More often than not, whenever dispensary licensing is discussed, at least one cannabis opponent will state, as fact, a causal connection between dispensaries and increased violent crime. It's a persuasive argument for those who fear that allowing dispensaries will lead to an increase of crime in their neighborhoods (who wants that?). However, it's patently untrue, and we can thank the nonpartisan think tank RAND Corporation for debunking it via an exhaustive longitudinal study on the effects of legal marijuana dispensaries on violent, property and marijuana use crimes.

The RAND study found:

"...no relationship between county laws that legally permit dispensaries and reported violent crime. We find a negative and significant relationship between dispensary allowances and property crime rates, although event studies indicate these effects may be a result of pre-existing trends. These results are consistent with some recent studies suggesting that dispensaries help reduce crime by reducing vacant buildings and putting more security in these areas."

Furthermore:

"A recent study exploiting an exogenous shock that led to closings of dispensaries in Los Angeles County, though, found that these closures actually led to an increase in crime in the immediate vicinity (Chang and Jacobson 2017)."

With cannabis being allowed in various forms since 1996, why has it taken so long to debunk this myth? One reason cited by RAND is that other studies have looked at states as a whole when collecting data. This can lead to erroneous results since in virtually all instances, regardless of the legalization at the state level, it is the local communities that regulate supply and demand within their jurisdictions. Because of this, there are significant intrastate variations of effects between communities which skews results. Consequently, the RAND researchers used datasets that controlled for community differences resulting in a more accurate understanding of the effects on crime of allowing marijuana dispensaries versus closing or banning them.

Despite the soundness and relevance of the RAND study, cannabis opponents will continue to argue the deleterious effects of dispensaries on communities. In fact, shortly after the study was published, Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich lobbied RAND to withdraw the study saying that it countered the city's own (non-published, non-transparent) beliefs. Despite the expected blowback from prohibition-minded authorities, at least now cannabis supporters now have a strong data-focused study to counter the rhetoric that legal dispensaries increase crime.

Article contributed by Wesley