The Effect Marijuana Legalization Would Have on Crime Raises Differing Opinions

In a time when many states have built massive budget deficits, politicians and economists are searching for new ways to increase revenue. Marijuana seems like an obvious choice. Its potential legalization has been centered on the positive economic benefits it would provide by increasing revenue and helping to balance both the state and federal budget.

During the last half century there has been a dramatic shift in America’s stance on marijuana. According to a survey conducted by the Gallup Organization, around 40% of Americans say marijuana should be legal today, which is up from just 15% forty years ago.

But the shrinking opposition still holds the majority opinion. This view comes mainly from older men and women, those that are religiously affiliated, and the politically conservative. One of their biggest worries regarding legalization is a potential spike in crime.

Besides the monetary and health aspects of legalization, crime is an important consequence that is often overlooked. How would the legalization of marijuana impact crime and the surrounding community in which it is sold? Opponents fear that it will create a more delinquent attitude, boost the crime rate, and contribute to less economic productivity.

Medical marijuana dispensaries are littered across the city of Los Angeles, and if the drug became fully legal it is clear that marijuana usage would increase. In fact, some estimates show consumption doubling after legalization.

Opponents claim an abundance of marijuana in a particular location has the potential to be very detrimental to society. Increased use among minors would be inevitable, which could lead to an increase in high school dropouts and an environment more conducive to criminal activity. If marijuana becomes socially accepted an increased propensity to experiment with hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin could ensue. In addition, traffic accidents would likely increase due to the impairing nature of pot. All of these possible scenarios would increase crime, which could have negative consequences on the economic well-being of a neighborhood.

The flip side to this claim is an intriguing one. If marijuana became legal then there wouldn’t be an incentive to commit a crime in order to acquire the drug. All the activity that occurred previously would now be legal and fewer people would be competing to make profits. This might act to decrease crime rates where the drug is regulated and traded legally.

In fact, as of yet, studies have not found any correlation between marijuana dispensaries and crime. If anything, it has been shown that crime has decreased in areas that are highly concentrated with dispensaries. Unfortunately, all of these reports fail to prove any definitive causal relationship between the legality of pot and an increase in crime, but they do help in providing a perspective on the issue at hand.

According to FBI statistical data, crime has decreased across California and in other states with large numbers of dispensaries. From 2007 to 2008 the western half of the United States was the region that saw the biggest fall in murders. Given that many of the states in this area of the country have legalized medical marijuana, this is an interesting relationship. While causality is not proven, it is a ubiquitous trend throughout the United States.

In Los Angeles, violent crime, aggravated assault, property crime, and vehicle theft all declined. When one considers that economic downturns usually produce an increase in crime, this finding lends credibility to the theory that legalization may actually decrease crime.

A small business owner situated one block away from a dispensary in south Los Angeles agrees with this sentiment. “So far, I think the economy more than anything has caused crimes to go up, like petty theft. I wouldn’t say the dispensary has had such a large impact on crime rates, but it’s difficult to tell.”

In another analysis, it was shown that some Denver neighborhoods with the highest number of dispensaries per capita saw larger decreases in crime in 2010 compared with neighborhoods without dispensaries. Additionally, Denver police stated that they hadn’t found any correlation between the almost 200 dispensaries within city limits and increased crime. While there is no clear causality, perhaps it’s true that when a crime disappears there are fewer criminals.

Norm Stamper, the former Seattle police chief, argues that if marijuana is legalized it will “free that state’s police officers to concentrate on crimes that inflict the deepest fear, pain and loss: burglaries, robberies, sexual assaults, domestic violence, stalking, child abuse, workplace and school shootings, [and] drunk driving.”

John King, a lieutenant who currently works narcotics for LAPD, admits heavy resources are being funneled to marijuana-related issues: “I have one whole squad of approximately ten investigators dedicated to enforcing medical marijuana dispensaries. For ten hours each day and four days a week my squad performs undercover work, books evidence, and anything else related to these dispensaries.”

According to other studies, the resources and associated costs of controlling marijuana described by King seem typical. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws estimates the costs of marijuana law enforcement in the United States at $7.6 billion annually. In addition, this huge police effort hasn’t been very effective, as marijuana use has stayed constant over the years. Legalization would allow police departments to better allocate their resources. This likely would permit law enforcement to focus their efforts on crimes that affect society more heavily than marijuana-related crimes.

Stephen Downing, a retired LAPD deputy chief of police, has a similar view: “By keeping marijuana illegal we aren’t preventing anyone from using it. The only results are billions of tax-free dollars being funneled into the pockets of bloodthirsty drug cartels and gangs who control the illegal market.”

As Downing mentions, domestic crime isn’t the only factor to consider. The rampant crime in Mexico is heavily facilitated by drug trafficking, and how these drug cartels react to this change in law is also important.

If history is any indication then marijuana legalization would act to mitigate the violence associated with the Mexican drug cartels. The sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol was banned during the prohibition era in the United States from 1920-1933. During this time organized crime flourished in a violent black market. In a study focusing on crime in thirty major cities during the first year of prohibition, it was found that crime increased 24%. Theft, homicides, assaults, and police department costs all rose by at least 9%.

In the early 20th century, banning a perceived harmful substance actually resulted in more social unrest and increased crime. If marijuana were to be legalized, perhaps Mexican drug trafficking organizations would find it more difficult to operate without the violent black market that exists today.

But a report conducted by the RAND Drug Policy Research Center on how revenue and violence would change within Mexican drug trafficking organizations if marijuana were to be legalized produced negligible results. It was found that traffic revenues and related violence would only be affected slightly.

Peter Reuter, a professor of public policy and criminology at the University of Maryland and co-author of the study, also commented on the ambiguity of the situation. “Projections about the effect of a large revenue decrease on violence in Mexico are particularly uncertain, but there are some scenarios that suggest a large decline in revenues might provoke increased violence in the short run and a decline after some years.”

This study doesn’t shed much light on the situation, as it doesn’t seem like the violence and crime in Mexico would be subject to a great degree of fluctuation as a result of a change in United States drug policy.

But some people hold very strong reservations regarding the presence of dispensaries and the potential legalization of pot. Pepe’s Sports is a small sports shop that has been in the same south Los Angeles location for many years. Just recently the KKC Collective dispensary moved to the lot adjacent to Pepe’s and has seemingly brought crime and unwanted baggage with it.

An employee who asked not to be named emphasized the negative economic influence the dispensary has had on the store. She said there are constantly “cholos” and black people that loiter outside and it’s not uncommon for fights to break out. She also expressed worry about the constant smell of pot.

“We get a lot of people complaining when they come inside the store that it smells a lot like weed. We have a soccer league for kids so that’s something that is a problem for us because kids start asking questions, especially when they’re 14 or 15, which for us is not cool.”

She also feels that the strong smell has resulted in lost customers because of the assumption that marijuana is being used by employees at Pepe’s. But she reiterated, “We try not to get involved or be associated with the dispensary at all.”

In a report by Charles Stimson, who works in the Center for Legal & Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation, on the cons of legalization of marijuana, he also mentions this odor problem. “The nuisance caused by the powerful odor of mature marijuana plants is already striking California municipalities. The City Council of Chico, California, has released a report detailing the situation and describing how citizens living near marijuana cultivators are disturbed by the incredible stink emanating from the plants.”

In addition, Pepe’s Sports has been the victim of a few break-ins, one of which occurred a few months ago. The employee was reluctant to say with certainty it was due to the dispensary, but she didn’t hesitate to conjecture.

“Somebody broke the doors in the back and came inside our store and the shoe store next to us. They took shoes, a camera, and other electronics probably to resell and get money for weed. Maybe [the suspect] was watching us from outside because they come by very often to go to the dispensary. They could have seen our store and thought it was an easy target to get money.”

King, the LAPD officer, is also particularly wary of dispensaries and the potential legalization of marijuana: “Marijuana dispensaries and the things they offer, in our opinion, are narcotics. They attract a seedier crowd. I’ve never seen a person that actually looked ill going into dispensary. Healthy looking younger men and women in their teens and twenties are visiting these dispensaries and buying. When you get a seedier crowd going into these otherwise normal neighborhoods criminal stuff does happen. Loitering, urination, fighting, and smoking in front of homes all contribute to increases in crime.

If marijuana is legalized, the cost of purchasing the drug would still be high. If people crave it they would still resort to crime to obtain it. Marijuana is a gateway drug that could lead to other narcotic use. Legalization is not the answer. Police, in general, are dead set against marijuana being sold anywhere. Only the genuinely sick that could reap benefits from the drug should be able to acquire it in pill form via a legitimate prescription.”

King also weighs in on the like direct effects of marijuana legalization: “I believe legalization would lead to a more sedated society. I don’t think that’s good. I think we would have additional criminal behavior because it’s a commodity that people still really want. It’s the same with any other narcotic. I wouldn’t condone drug use in any form.”

In his report, Stimson also looks at how Amsterdam, which has a relaxed attitude towards drugs, is faring. “Amsterdam is one of Europe’s most violent cities and…officials are in the process of closing marijuana dispensaries, or ‘coffee shops’, because of the crime associated with their operation.”

Pepe’s business is just one of many businesses that have surely been negatively impacted economically by the surge in marijuana dispensaries and the crime they may tend to attract. Weed is a drug that doesn’t usually attract the most stand-up citizens, and it being legalized won’t change this.

What legalization would do is remove the social stigma surrounding marijuana, which will change and expand the demographic of pot users. But a more widely used drug could act to further worsen the situation by sending the signal to the younger generations that marijuana use is acceptable.

Unfortunately, the effect legalization has on crime isn’t likely to be definitively answered until legalization actually occurs. There are too many variables in place to accurately predict how legalization would impact crime. This is especially true because the recent rise in dispensaries across the nation coincided with the recession, which could act to skew crime data.

From our range of broad and speculative conclusions, it’s hard to say concerns regarding a rise in crime should be reason enough to oppose the legalization of marijuana. It’s very difficult to adamantly claim that crime would either rise or fall along with legalization.

Because the relationship between marijuana, crime, and the quality of a community is based mainly on conjecture, our focuses should lie more with what we can take as fact. While crime rates might adjust slightly in response to legalization, without a doubt marijuana can be used as an effective tool to raise money through taxes if properly researched and executed. With so many municipalities in debt marijuana legalization may just be the answer.


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