Research shows impact marijuana dispensaries have on crime

FILE - In this Feb. 17, 2016 file photo, plants grow at the home of Jeremy Nickle, owner of Hawaiian Holy Smokes, in Honolulu, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Marina Riker, File)

It's no longer a debate of if, but when, we will see our first legal dispensary open. Two dozen business owners in Ohio have officially filed with the Secretary of State's office to become licensed operators.

“It’s a cash-only business,” says Dr. Bridget Freisthler, Professor and Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at the Ohio State University’s College of Social Work.

“It’s an attractive product for resale on the street and a huge concern,” adds Dr. Freisthler, who spent nearly the past decade studying the impact of legalized to crime in neighborhoods in California and Colorado.

“The biggest takeaway is that while crime did not increase in the neighborhoods where the dispensaries were located, property crime did increase in those areas that were spatially adjacent,” Dr. Freisthler says of her near three-year study published in April 2017.

In other words, Dr. Freisthler discovered property crimes in cities like Long Beach and Denver happened in neighborhoods a tenth of a mile or farther from the dispensary, depending on population density.

“What we think it might be is people going to those dispensaries -- potentially people who are in those areas that may not have been in those areas before -- are just looking for crimes of opportunity,” she explains.

From January 2013 to October 2015, Freisthler says she gathered crime statistics from the Denver Police Department. Her study revealed the average property crime increased by 100 cases per month during the years when marijuana transitioned from medical to recreational in Colorado. She stresses these crime rates happened in neighborhoods adjacent to the dispensary and not the building location itself. Freisthler says the reason could be many factors, primarily extra security hired by the dispensary owners and operators.

“So, they have armed guards, they have security cameras, they'll have multiple rooms that you have to get into before you gain access to the actual place where you can purchase marijuana,” she describes.

“Dispensary owners kept telling me, as long as this is a cash-only business, we have to take these extra security measures to make sure we are safe, and our customers or patients are safe. Otherwise, we are sitting duck,” Freisthler adds.

As a substance abuse researcher, Freisthler says she’s more concerned with where these marijuana dispensaries are choosing to show locate their business.

“They are in areas with marginalized populations,” she explains. “Lower social economic status, high ethnic-racial minorities, so they will experience the disparity of these additional problems in their neighborhoods if these dispensaries continue to be located in adjacent areas.”

Freisthler also notes that her previous studies revealed the number of property crimes attributed to the density of dispensaries was about the same for the number of property crimes attributed to the density of bars that serve alcohol.

“If you’re concerned about crimes and how substance abuse outlets might affect that, you see the same things with marijuana that you saw with these alcohol outlets.”