Correlation is Not Causation, Part I Don’t Even Know Which: Marijuana and Crime

Medical marijuana dispensaries occupy a strange legal limbo. They are, in the most technical sense, illegal under federal law. Yet, local regulations may legalise and even welcome them. They offer a glimpse into a model of what legalisation could look like in the United States, and what might happen if people had ready, safe, legal, reasonable access to marijuana if it was something they wanted to have access to. Which of course means that they become political flashpoints, as advocates on all sides of the marijuana debate want to use them to prove or disprove points.

Prohibitionists are fond of claiming that marijuana leads to an increase in crime, and like to argue that it should be kept illegal for this reason. Evidence suggests that this correlation is not actually proof of causation. The greater connection here would not be between marijuana and crime, but between prohibition and crime. When you prohibit people from accessing things they want, they tend to work on creative ways to get them. In the case of marijuana, an industry has sprung up to supply the demand, and that industry can be a dangerous one. Not because marijuana itself is dangerous, but because criminalisation makes it dangerous.

Dispensaries occupy a particularly interesting role because they are, first and foremost, businesses. Their goal is to supply customers with a product they have requested, and to meet that demand as efficiently and effectively as possible. Prohibitionists argue that crime rates increase around dispensaries, that they expose fragile minds (like those of young children) to the fact that marijuana exists, and then attempt to regulate them out of existence in regions where communities have created a framework to support dispensaries.

Sometimes those attempts include very sinister tactics and scaremongering. In small communities, they can amount to personal attacks on individual dispensaries, conducted in the name of ‘public safety.’ Many such campaigns are fond of focusing on proximity to schools, suggesting that young children shouldn’t be exposed to ‘that kind of thing.’ I’d argue that a discreet dispensary is a lot less offensive than some of the content in school textbooks at the moment.

A study released in September shed some particularly interesting light on the subject[1. It was later retracted, but sparked a great deal of interesting conversation.]. Researchers found that crime was actually higher after a round of dispensary closures in Los Angeles. Advocates promptly leaped on these conclusions to support their points, and unfortunately ignored some serious flaws in the study methodology. Like the fact that the researchers only looked at a ten day period before the closures and a ten day period after, which is not a large enough sample to provide meaningful results, and, as it turned out, didn’t look at a complete set of crime statistics. What the study showed was that we needed more information, because the initial results were counter intuitive, at least for people who believe that dispensaries cause crime.

Like any other business, a dispensary has an active interest in keeping neighbourhood crime low. Dispensaries do not benefit from crimes in their area that expose them to the risk of vandalism, theft, and other problems. Replacing broken windows and cleaning up graffiti, after all, is expensive. Putting in security measures to address concerns about theft and violence is also expensive. And dispensaries bear a double burden when it comes to this issue because of the assumption that they cause crime, which means they have an extra incentive to work on keeping crime low, to be good neighbours, to show that legalisation, or quasi-legalisation as the case may be, does not in fact increase crime rates.

What increases crime rates is prohibition. Making something harder to access doesn’t make people stop using it, it just makes them go to greater lengths to get it. The dispensary model shows that providing people with marijuana in a safe, controlled environment has a number of benefits. Like lower crime because people aren’t resorting to street dealers, who have their own form of business overhead, so to speak. Unfortunately, dispensaries focus solely on medical marijuana, rather than on making the drug freely available to any consenting adult who wants to use it in full awareness of the potential risks and benefits. This means that they do not address the demand from people who don’t have medical reasons to use it, and it creates a situation where medical reasons are invented to get access to a medical card, which further muddies the legalisation debate.

There’s a legend that dispensaries create ‘neighbourhood nuisances’ which wasn’t supported by this study, and probably wouldn’t be supported with additional studies either. Because, again, no business wants to become a neighbourhood nuisance. Business owners want to contribute to their communities, want to have neat, tidy storefronts, want to keep crime rates low, want to be viewed favourably, because this is how they make money. This is one of the rare instances in our society of a situation where capitalism actually works, because capitalism and the bottom line mean that dispensaries have every reason to operate peacefully and pleasantly, so they can make more money.

The September study wasn’t really a decisive victory for either side of this often contentious discussion, especially after the retraction, but it was another piece of evidence in an ongoing debate. Increasingly, the evidence suggests that the reason marijuana is dangerous, the reason it causes social problems, is because it is not legal. No one is having shoot outs over carrots. People are not trashing houses to grow grapes. Wineries are not accused of attracting crime to the region. People aren’t taking to state parks to grow surreptitious crops of rutabegas. Rosemary isn’t a public health nuisance.

Marijuana is not innately dangerous because it contains THC and other psychoative substances. It’s been made dangerous by the social attitudes that surround it, the decision to criminalise and stigmatise it. People truly concerned about drug-related crime might want to consider commissioning some studies to explore that topic from the perspective of legalisation. And full legalisation, as well, rather than a hybrid and incomplete form which creates problems of its own by perpetuating the stigma and harmful social attitudes and creating needless regulatory snarls.