Almost every state has legalized cannabis to some extent, whether that be for medical or recreational use. But as cannabis businesses become more common, prejudices remain, and sometimes local officials and the communities they represent fight back. Although legal cannabis use is becoming more prevalent, communities still hold lingering fears of cannabis businesses increasing crime, turning suburban neighborhoods into crime-infested areas. But are these concerns justified or just rooted in bias?
The pushback against legal marijuana dispensaries and businesses has been a major barrier for some business owners looking to open facilities. Many laws in place limit the locations for potential cannabis businesses, and often getting a location approved by the zoning committee can be the most difficult process. Although the reasoning behind the laws will vary, most ordinances were enacted by local officials trying to look out for their community and its interests. Resolute anti-marijuana voices may always exist, but typically restrictions are created out of misguided concern over the impact on community security and safety.
Cannabis is considered a high-risk business, similar to a bar or jewelry store. High-risk businesses are defined as those with highly valuable merchandise and a large sum of cash that may cause temptation for criminals or promote crime. But, according to a study published in the Regional Science and Urban Economics academic journal, building cannabis dispensaries actually lowered crime rates by 19% per 10,000 residents.
The study evaluated data in the city of Denver and described the reduction in crime as ‘significant,’ and estimated a decrease of 17 crimes per month per 10,000 residents. Although the research was limited in geographical breadth, it suggests that this decline in crime could translate to a more widespread decline in crime as legalization becomes more extensive.
The results of the study also indicated that adding dispensaries significantly decreased the number of nonviolent crimes in a neighborhood by 93%. The evidence also maintained that legal cannabis dispensaries did not cause an increase in cannabis-related crime.
Although cannabis businesses are considered high-risk, they differ greatly from liquor stores or pawn shops in how they are built, managed, and secured to deter criminal activity. Cannabis businesses are extremely tightly regulated and owners must prove worth and intent before they are licensed and approved to open.
There are considerably fewer barriers to open a convenience store, which may have cameras, lights, and warnings posted to discourage crime on property. But unlike a convenience store, cannabis businesses are at risk of having their license revoked if those warnings are not enforced. This results in owners that are more proactive about preventing crime on their premises.
Unfortunately, it is difficult for communities to shake their fears that decades of illicit cannabis sales will lead to a criminal presence in their neighborhood. They fear that a lawful dispensary will act as a beacon for crooks and felons or inspire locals to new heights of illegal behavior. Local officials and the people they protect fear that teenagers and children will gain access to cannabis more easily, that shady individuals will loiter in parking lots, or that cannabis products will tempt vandals and increase crime rates.
But, since recent statistics suggest that cannabis dispensaries actually promote a decrease in the crime rate, how can well-meaning communities and local officials be convinced to allow more cannabis businesses in their area? The answer is likely found in conducting more studies, applying traditional crime metrics to well-recognized areas with legal cannabis activity, with accuracy increasing as legalization expands.
While more research is certain to be conducted as marijuana legalization spreads, it may take time before all public officials and communities welcome cannabis businesses into their neighborhoods. Nevertheless, studies such as these serve as a great tool to advocates and entrepreneurs who seek to engage their local leaders and elected officials with legitimacy and confidence.
Authors: Tony Gallo and Katharine Baxter