Study: More crime comes after pot dispensaries leave
September 20, 2011
C.J. Lin, Los Angeles Daily NewsA new study released today suggests that, contrary to common belief, marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles do not attract crime and shutting them down may actually cause illegal activity to increase. But local law enforcement officials quickly dismissed the findings and said that when it comes to medical marijuana dispensaries and crime, conventional wisdom is right.
The nonpartisan RAND Corp. studied crime reports over the 10 days before and after June 7, 2010, when the city shuttered hundreds of pot shops. The Santa Monica-based think tank found that crime shot up 60 percent within three blocks of closed dispensaries as compared to those where dispensaries were allowed to remain open.
"There's the common wisdom that dispensaries are crime magnets," said Mireille Jacobson, the study's lead author and a senior economist at RAND.
"And this flies in the face of that."
The findings may be attributed to a loss of foot traffic, a resurgence in illegal drug activity as patients turn to the black market to get marijuana, or a loss of the on-site security provided by dispensaries, according to Jacobson.
"If medical marijuana dispensaries are causing crime, then there should be a drop in crime when they close," Jacobson said. "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."
But LAPD and the L.A. City Attorney's Office, which have long considered dispensaries to be nuisances and hubs for crime, scoffed at the study, calling the report deeply flawed.
"(Dispensaries) are a center for crime," said Detective Robert Holcomb of LAPD's Narcotics Enforcement Detail in the San Fernando Valley.
"Look at it from a criminal standpoint: Here is a location that you know contains narcotics, money so what better location to rob?"
As examples, Holcomb cited two people who were shot in separate incidents a month apart at one dispensary on Reseda Boulevard in Northridge in late 2010. Also in Northridge around the same time, two men were shot execution-style and a guard dog was killed at another dispensary on White Oak Avenue during a robbery attempt.
Police have fielded reports of tunneling from adjacent businesses into strip mall dispensaries, and complaints of thefts near the shops to support drug habits or the selling of pot to juveniles. And many dispensaries don't report crime to avoid police involvement, Holcomb said.
"Any objective look at these storefront sales locations would easily show that they attract crime," Holcomb said. "And they are involved in - either as the victims or their customers are involved - crime in and around the locations."
RAND's Jacobson acknowledged that the 21-day study only offers up preliminary findings, and said a longer time period is needed to help inform legislation on how to regulate medical marijuana.
A number of dispensaries could have already closed, remained open or popped up during the study, leading to a flawed basis for the report, according to the City Attorney's office.
Fire sales, disgruntled clientele and in-fighting between collective members may also be responsible for an increase in crime in the period following the dispensary closure, said Frank Mateljan, spokesman for the City Attorney's Office.
Furthermore, security guards at the dispensaries often remain in the stores and may not actually help make the surrounding area safer, he said.
"The study is the polar opposite of a scientific and measured response to verified data," Mateljan said. "It relies exclusively upon faulty assumptions, conjecture, irrelevant data, untested measurements and incomplete results. The conclusions are therefore highly suspect and unreliable."
However, proponents of medical marijuana were bolstered by the study, seizing upon its findings as proof that patients and dispensaries have been unfairly targeted by the city's abatement efforts.
"We're definitely vindicated," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for the Oakland-based advocacy group Americans for Safe Access. "There's less loitering as a result of security systems, whether it's video security or personnel keeping watch over the neighborhood. It invariably reduces diversion if there's any abuse going on in the medical marijuana community."
About 200 dispensaries remain open around L.A., down dramatically from the 683 that proliferated at one point last year, although authorities also still target rogue facilities that continue to pop up and switch locations.
Among them is Valley Holistic Caregivers in Sunland, which won the city lottery to stay open and has been operating for three years.
Despite reports of break-ins, robberies, shootings and crime at other dispensaries around the city, the dispensary has remained unscathed, said manager Mike Lohnes.
"We're actually not in a very good part of the neighborhood, but we've had absolutely no problems here," said "We don't cause any crimes. Our patients seem to be crime free. We have people walking throughout the area, and we haven't had any problems."