Pot Clubs Are Not Crime Magnets 

New data suggest that when medical cannabis dispensaries close, crime goes up. Plus, testing the weed-testers yields interesting results.

Closing medical cannabis dispensaries in Los Angeles is associated with an increase in neighborhood crime, according to an unexpected new study released by the RAND Corporation. Researchers there looked at 21 days of crime reports for 600 LA dispensaries around the time the city ordered the clubs closed on June 7, 2010. The city blamed the clubs for nuisances and crime, but RAND study lead author Mireille Jacobson said that after looking at the data "it's pretty clear we don't find evidence for the crime magnet hypothesis."

According to RAND, "Overall crime increased almost 60 percent in the blocks surrounding closed clinics in the ten days following their closing. The effects are concentrated on crimes, such as breaking and entering, and assault, that may be particularly sensitive to the presence of security."

A Los Angeles dispensary operator said the study's theory that an open, secure business makes a neighborhood safer jibes with his experience. He declined to be identified for fear of political retribution during the city's ongoing permitting process, which may go to a lottery for 120 permits this fall. "I can see how crime would go up once there's not eyes on the street," the operator said. "We have to patrol these areas so hard. We have cameras around our entire facility and I got security guards that are doing checks randomly every twenty minutes. There's nobody allowed in our neighborhood smoking on the street or selling drugs."

Despite vociferous rhetoric by NIMBYs, police chiefs, and city leaders, Jacobson said the RAND study is "the first systematic, independent analysis of" the claim that dispensaries are crime magnets.

When Los Angeles ordered clubs closed on June 7, 2010, 170 stayed open while 430 shutdown. The LA City Attorney's Office provided club addresses for the study, while the public crime data site CrimeReports.org offered block-by-block information on incidents. RAND tracked what happened in dispensary neighborhoods day by day from ten days before until ten days after the orders to close. "It's not perfect but it's a good Petri dish," Jacobson said.

The study's validity is limited by the length of time studied — just 21 days — and the "noise" in the data. That's because crime on any given block is actually pretty rare, Jacobson said. Tiny changes like one or two incidents can make the numbers look bigger than they are. "The estimated increase should be interpreted with some caution," the paper stated.

RAND is broadening the study to include several weeks of data, and trying to wrestle with the fact that some clubs closed, then re-opened in the complex, fast-moving legal environment of LA pot dispensaries.

Kris Hermes, spokesperson for the patient lobby group Americans for Safe Access, said the RAND study buttresses a 2009 analysis by LA's Police Chief Charlie Beck, who found that crime around banks dwarfed alleged dispensary crime. According to a report by Americans for Safe Access, 71 robberies occurred at more than 350 banks, compared with 47 robberies at the more than 500 unregulated medical marijuana shops. "Chief Beck observed that 'Banks are more likely to get robbed than medical marijuana dispensaries, and that the claim that dispensaries attract crime doesn't really bear out.'"

Two studies by law enforcement in Colorado also concluded in 2010 that dispensaries had no effect on crime, Jacobson noted.

Hermes said the crime magnet theory is a still a myth widely perpetuated by law enforcement groups, such as the California Narcotic Officers' Association and the California Police Chiefs Association. The RAND study is "really an affirmation of what we've been saying all along," he said.

The California Narcotics Officers' Association did not answer a request for comment. "There is no justification for using marijuana as medicine," the association has stated. "The overriding objective behind [the medical marijuana] movement is to allow a minority (less than five percent) of our society to get 'stoned' with impunity."

The LA County Sheriff's Department also disputed the RAND findings, but to date no law enforcement agency has provided any independent data to support their assertions.

Jacobson said the study doesn't account for nuisance reports like bad traffic, double-parking, litter, public smoking, and loitering — many of which fuel neighbors' complaints regarding unregulated clubs. City permitting usually mitigates such business nuisances, Jacobson noted. However, the City of Los Angeles has refused for years to properly permit dispensaries.

Testing the Testers

More and more California patients are purchasing medical marijuana allegedly screened for pathogens and tested for potency by a cannabis lab. But how good are the labs? Dutch phytochemist Arno Hazekamp, California NORML's Dale Gieringer, and cannabis science advocacy group ProjectCBD investigated.

The group sent the same weed samples to ten different labs and compared the results this year. Short answer: 1) Most labs in the test did okay; 2) some labs were way off; 3) tincture potency is all over the place; and 4) the same flower's potency can vary.

"Consumers should beware of the risk of misleading results and sub-standard labs," the report stated. Clubs should thoroughly check lab credentials and references. "Although it is easy to procure the necessary equipment for cannabis testing, professional chemistry expertise is required to run it properly. Even then, well-qualified labs may come up with misleading or aberrant results."

Read the full report in the autumn 2011 issue of the medical cannabis journal O'Shaughnessy's.

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