Is there an association between legal cannabis and crime?
Public opinion of cannabis legalization is at an all-time “high.” As of October 2018, 66% of Americans are in favor of ending prohibition. If you are a cannabis enthusiast, it may be frustrating that anyone could oppose legalization considering the amount of damage caused by prohibition—racially-biased incarcerations, blocking access to cannabis medicine, and a major research slow down, etc. So, what gives?
Not everyone is a cannabis fan. Some don’t like how it makes them feel, some don’t like the smell or taste, and others are just simply not that into it. But old stereotypes die hard, bolstered by years of propaganda. Many still believe that cannabis causes laziness, unemployment, and even crime. Since cannabis has been illegal at the federal level since 1970, its use has indeed been a crime. However, many people believe that cannabis is associated with other types of crime like burglaries. This particular idea has spurred a “NIMBY” attitude.
NIMBY—not in my backyard—refers to people who live in states where cannabis use is legal and do not want to live near dispensaries. The opening of dispensaries in a newly legalized market brings many changes, including increased foot traffic and of course a parking situation that could cause frustration. But do dispensaries also bring more crime? Luckily researchers have looked into this issue and provided some answers.
Denver, Colorado, is a good place to start when studying the effects of legalization, as cannabis got taken off the state’s prohibition list in 2012 (let that sink in if you live in a non-legal state). One team of researchers analyzed data from 481 Census block groups in Denver from January 2013 to October 2015.  Since dispensaries opened for recreational sales in January 2014, they were able to do a comparable study of violent, property, and dispensary-specific crimes. Researchers found no difference in violent or local property crime over those time periods but did see an increase in dispensary-specific crimes. Why might that be?
Due to federal prohibition, setting up a bank account for a cannabis business is not possible (at least right now). Therefore, many dispensaries are cash only. A high-trafficked area with a lot of cash on hand is an easy target for crime. The authors also found higher rates of crime in areas with a lower population density and lower household incomes. 
Another study, however, looked at how dispensary closings in Los Angeles (prior to legalization) affected crime. In 2010, 70% of the city’s medical dispensaries were forced to close due to the unexpectedly rapid expansion of the industry. Researchers found that dispensary closures were associated with increased levels of crime.  The authors attributed these results decreased foot traffic in these areas, as many crimes are normally prevented by the presence of bystanders.
Additional studies have also found a lack of correlation between dispensaries and crime in Colorado and Washington.  In fact, a recently published study in Regional Science and Urban Economics conducted a year-by-year breakdown of crime in Denver with dispensary changes. 
This comprehensive analysis also took into effect socioeconomic factors and ethnicity of neighborhood makeup. Adding a dispensary to a given neighborhood of 10,000 people led to a reduction in crime of approximately 19% (or 17 events) per month, with 93% of these crimes being nonviolent. Researchers also found that dispensaries were more likely to open in neighborhoods with higher poverty, higher Hispanic populations, and greater employment rates, which tend to have higher initial crime rates. 
Cannabis may not be for everyone, but dispensaries are not bringing crime into your neighborhood.[Image Source]
- Freisthler, B., et al. “From Medical to Recreational Marijuana Sales: Marijuana Outlets and Crime in an Era of Changing Marijuana Legislation.” J Prim Prev, vol.38, no.3, 2017, pp. 249-263. (impact factor: 1.451; cited by: 11)
- Chang, T. & Jacobson, M. “Going to Pot? The Impact of Dispensary Closures on Crime.” J Urban Econ, vol.100, 2017, pp. 120-136. (impact factor: 2.447; cited by: 13)
- Lu, R., et al. “The Cannabis Effect on Crime: Time-Series Analysis of Crime in Colorado and Washington State.” Justice Quarterly, 2019, pp. 1-32. (impact factor: 3.214; cited by: N/A)
- Brinkman, J. & Mok-Lamme, D. “Not In My Backyard? Not So Fast. The Effect of Marijuana Legalization on Neighborhood Crime.” Regional Science and Urban Economics, vol.78, 2019, pp. 1-23. (impact factor: 2.092; cited by: 7)