Enemies of marijuana use have warned that legalizing the drug for recreational use would incite a crime epidemic, turning users into drug addicts and morphing dispensaries into malevolent drug dens. A new report, though, seems to debunk that rhetoric.
Medical cannabis was first legalized in 1996, other west coast states in 1998, and since then has become commonplace throughout the US, with many of the states where medical marijuana is still illegal currently considering legislation that would make it so.
When it became clear that making the drug available for patients stricken with cancer, glaucoma, and dozens of other maladies would not lead to rioting in the streets, cannabis advocates began pressuring state lawmakers to make it legal for recreational use.
Opponents have long maintained that would be a mistake, claiming that marijuana is a “gateway” drug which exposes users to harder drugs like cocaine, heroin, and the like. The rationale is that those people will eventually become so strung out that they spend all of their money on the drugs and eventually resort to criminal behavior to feed their habit. Drug War proponents have also said that medical dispensaries will attract criminals hoping to take advantage of petty cash supplies from both the business and its customers.
An analysis of crime data in states where medical cannabis has been legalized has found that none of those apocalyptic premonitions have come true.
The journal PLOS One published a nationwide study Wednesday which, upon examining data recorded between 1990 and 2006, determined that crime throughout the US dropped. In fact, the eleven states that authorized medical cannabis during that time saw no major increase in any of the following categories: homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, or vehicle theft.
There may even be cause for excitement in the findings. Robert G. Morris, Michael TenEyck, JC Barnes, Tomislav V. Kovandzic – researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas who compiled their results from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report data – wrote that declines in homicide and assault could be a sign of things to come as marijuana becomes more pervasive.
“While it is important to remain cautious when interpreting these findings as evidence that MML reduces crime, these results do fall in line with recent evidence and they conform to the longstanding notion that marijuana legalization may lead to a reduction in alcohol use due to individuals substituting marijuana for alcohol,” the wrote, as quoted by Emily Badger of the Washington Post. “Given the relationship between alcohol and violent crime, it may turn out that substituting marijuana for alcohol leads to minor reductions in violent crimes that can be detected at state level.”
The researchers controlled for other societal factors that could have an effect on crime numbers, including employment, education, poverty rates and other possible influences. They admitted that the data is merely that: data, and does not point to medicinal cannabis as a definitive answer to crime.
“Perhaps the more likely explanation of the current findings is that the [medical marijuana] laws reflect behaviors and attitudes that have been established in those societies,” they wrote. “If their attitudes and behaviors reflect a more tolerant populace that is less likely to infringe on one another’s personal rights, we are unlikely to expect an increase in crime and might even anticipate a slight reduction in personal crimes.”
While there is not a comprehensive set of data covering the years since 2006, Colorado authorities are not sure what to anticipate in the future now that marijuana has been legalized for recreational use in their state. A number of cannabis dispensaries have been burglarized since the new law went into effect.
“Everyone in the industry is having nightmares,” Michael Elliot, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, a Colorado lobby group, told NBC News. “It’s only a matter of time before someone gets shot.”
The Denver Police Department estimated that approximately 17 percent of marijuana retail stores were robbed in 2009. It’s too early to tell if that number has grown or shrunk in the time since, but at the time 20 percent of liquor stores and 34 percent of banks had been robbed.