You’d think a local Los Angeles pot shop would be a mecca for would-be criminals looking to get rich or get high. But this may not be the case.
A new study released by the RAND Corporation reveals that crime in communities surrounding open medical marijuana dispensaries is, in fact, lower compared with crime rates in areas where dispensaries have been forced to close.
The study comes on the heels of a 15-month-old ordinance that shut down more than 70% of the city’s unlicensed medical marijuana dispensaries.
These dispensaries were linked by law enforcement to rising crime rates in their respective areas.
When the mass-closing of dispensaries in Los Angeles began, Mireille Jacobson, the study’s lead author and a senior economist at RAND, jumped on the opportunity to study the issue.
"We’d been reading about it and heard a lot of rhetoric on both sides," Jacobson said. "But there was no real systematic evidence on the topic."
The study examines 21 days of crime reports for 600 dispensaries 10 days before the city's medical marijuana ordiance was implemented, and 10 days after.
The study compares crime reports in the areas surroundings 430 dispensaries that closed and 170 that were allowed to stay open.
On the blocks with closed dispensaries, crime was 60% greater within a three-block radius, and 25% greater within a six-block radius than on the blocks with open dispensaries, according to the study.
"What our study says is that on average, the dispensaries may not be as much of a crime concern as some would lead us to believe," Jacobson said.
But Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, disagrees. He says contrary to the RAND study, his agency has found that as dispensaries are shut down, serious crime in the area drops.
"There have been some very serious strong-arm robberies. Once we shut those dispensaries down, those crimes go away."
Two high-profile incidents of violence at medical marijuana dispensaries have fueled the perception that they are a magnet for crime.
In June of 2010 an employee of an Echo Park dispensary was shot and killed while on the job. Two days later an employee at a dispensary in Hollywood was stabbed to death.
"We question the findings," Whitmore said. "We don’t think they’re accurate. We want to know where exactly they’re talking about and how they’re coming to these conclusions because we’ve had some very dangerous crimes that have happened at these dispensaries."
Jacobson acknowledged that there are limitations to the study, but disagrees that its conclusions should be dismissed. She said she would welcome the opportunity to review any data kept by the sheriff that contradicts the findings in the RAND study.
"We’re just capturing a short period of time," she said. "Show us the data, we’ll take a look and see if we agree."
Kris Hermes, media specialist for Americans for Safe Access, a pro-pot dispensary non-profit, said he hopes the RAND report will lead to more cities adopting sensible regulations toward dispensaries.
"Over time, we hope that this report and other reports like it will ease some of the fear that’s occurring around not just California, but the rest of the country, in regard to these facilities," Hermes said.