Many critics of drug legalization worry that lifting the prohibition on illegal drugs like marijuana will increase crime and make our streets less safe. A recent study released this month, however, indicates that just the opposite might be true. Counter-intuitively, stricter drug policies might actually lead to an increase in crime.
The study, conducted by the prestigious nonprofit, RAND Corp. found “that when hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries were closed last year in Los Angeles crime rates rose in surrounding neighborhoods.” This calls into question the notion that medical marijuana dispensaries are magnets for crime, or that the legal and regulated sale of the plant and products made from it lead to an increase in criminal activity.
The study’s methodology was to review crime reports for the ten days leading up to the mass closing of Los Angeles area dispensaries last summer, and the ten days following the closings. Compared to dispensaries that remained open, the study found that there was a sixty percent increase in crime within three blocks of the ones that closed. Mireille Jacobson, a RAND senior economist and the study’s lead author concludes:
“If medical marijuana dispensaries are causing crime, then there should be a drop in crime when they close. Individual dispensaries may attract crime or create a neighborhood nuisance, but we found no evidence that medical marijuana dispensaries in general cause crime to rise.”
Crime was one of the reasons cited by the city council in passing an ordinance to severely curtail the activities of medical marijuana dispensaries, causing many of them to close down. The new study calls that reason into question, though it shouldn’t be interpreted as proof that legal drug activity doesn’t attract crime. Correlation, of course, does not necessarily prove causation, and the relatively short period of time reviewed in the study makes it more likely that outliers, coincidences, and other factors might be responsible for the higher crime rates, not necessarily the mere absence of medicial marijauna dispensaries.
Still, the study does shed doubt on the notion that legalizing the market for illegal drugs like marijuana will lead to an increase in crime. It just might not be that simple, and if it is, the results of this RAND study would certainly be puzzling and would demand further inquiry. In the end, both sides may have to admit the issue is more complicated than either side would like it to be.