Does Legalizing Pot Drive Crime Rates Up or Down?

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Photo by Cannabis Culture via Flickr

Does legalizing marijuana make crime go up or down? The evidence is unclear.

A recent paper found that after Washington State legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, rapes decreased by as much as 30 percent, and thefts by 20 percent. The New Yorker surveyed sheriffs in nine states that have legalized pot.

Of the 25 sheriffs who responded, half said they hadn’t noticed a trend, and the rest were certain that legalizing marijuana had made crime go up.

“We can just tell you from our experience that any time you’re around marijuana, or the marijuana industry, the likelihood that you’ll be the victim of some type of crime is higher,” said Sgt. Ray Kelly of Alameda County, Ca.

Some studies offer a more nuanced conclusion. In December, researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York (CUNY) found that Denver neighborhoods in areas close to dispensaries selling recreational  pot experienced higher levels of property crime.

In the John Jay study, the costs of dispensary-area crimes were largely offset by the sales revenue generated by recreational dispensaries. It found no corresponding increase in violent crimes.

Nevertheless “the increase in nonviolent crimes must be a consideration when assessing the legalization of recreational marijuana,” said Nathan J. Connealy, a doctoral student at John Jay, who led the study.

Criminologist David Weisburd of George Mason University told The New Yorker marijuana’s effects on crime are likely to remain hazy, noting that the effect of pretty much anything on crime is rarely crystal clear.

Authors of the Washington State study suggest that legalizing pot could reduce crime by sedating people, by substituting for alcohol or other drugs, by reducing the allure of black markets, and by allowing police to focus on other crimes.

Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson thinks criminologists should spend less time trying to figure out what causes crime—in many cases, an impossible task—and turn to investigating the effects of law-enforcement policies. Such research might provide politicians and voters with a more contextual view of proposed crime-fighting measures.

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