A New Study Disproves Long-Held Beliefs on Both Sides of Cannabis Debate

"We wanted to know what the data would show."

Depending on who’s talking when it comes to weed, it induces psychotic behavior, helps psychotic behavior, kills teen brain cells or doesn’t kill sperm. In other words, whatever your opinions on prohibition, there’s no debating that it has made cannabis, and its effects, harder to study. Case in point: A new data set which disproves long-held beliefs on both sides of the weed debate.

Decriminalization and outright legalization are making researching cannabis’s effects easier, but early results also show how frustratingly off-the-mark the conventional narratives have really been. Take the question of the relationship between weed availability and crime. Does legalization reduce crime by creating a legal market, or exacerbate crime by creating a mini weed paradise in a sea of illegality? Turns out, the answer may be both.

That’s according to a new study, published yesterday in Justice Quarterly, by researchers from the University of Colorado Denver who say that marijuana dispensaries contributed to an initial rise, and then decline, in neighborhood crime throughout Denver following the city’s legalization of recreational marijuana in 2014.

weed dispensaries
Weed dispensaries may have beneficial effects on their communities, but the relationship is complicated. 

The team, led by Lorine Hughes, an associate professor at UC Denver’s School of Public Affairs, spent over two years gathering data on the effect of dispensaries on the crime rates in their communities. Tracking the crime, Hughes tells Inverse, was the easy part. In Denver, the last five years of crime data is available to the public. Navigating the under-regulated, newly minted recreational dispensary world, says Hughes, was significantly more difficult.

“There was no standardized list [for dispensaries]” said Hughes. “Statuses would fluctuate. There were errors. Sometimes they went into delinquent status, then they’d resolve that issue a few weeks later.” Storefronts often changed hands, explains Hughes, as dispensaries moved from purely medical outlets to ones serving recreational clients, too. It was a “fast-moving thing,” so Hughes and her team eventually bypassed digital resources and went old-school: They went into communities, and they talked to people.

Their thinking was that as states like New York and Illinois prepare to potentially legalize recreational marijuana use over the next year, debates surrounding the cultural connotations of weed have been growing in volume. Hughes and her team were curious what they would find when they cut through the ideological arguments to the actual facts at hand.

“We wanted to know what the data would show,” says Hughes.

states with legal weed
De-prohibition is making it easier to study the effects of cannabis legalization. 

Because of federal laws, dispensaries remain a cash-only business. Their full coffers, plus their, uh, appealing product, makes them a target for burglary attempts. Their popularity and their novelty, especially in the immediate months following an opening, leads to just more people being around. More people means more opportunities for small-time crime, like disturbing the peace or drug and alcohol infractions, as well as violent crime. And police, knowing all of this, may patrol more heavily the areas around new dispensaries, says Hughes, leading to more tickets.

Based on criminological theory, Hughes and her team suspected an initial rise in crime sparked by the arrival of a new dispensary. Ultimately, the researchers found that while crime rates rose initially in areas surrounding recreational marijuana dispensaries, within a few years, the spike leveled out.

Like every new industry, the recreational dispensaries needed a few years to work the kinks out, to stabilize their business plan and get their operations in order. And when treated like every other new industry — by law enforcement, by local government, by neighbors — dispensaries figured their shit out, too. Crime leveled out. And things went back to normal. But not just any new normal, a new normal on weed.