The citizens of Colorado and Washington may have gotten a lot higher since marijuana was legalized. The question is, has the crime rate followed suit?
Eight months into legalization for Colorado and less than two months for Washington, driving under the influence of drugs has risen slightly, and incidents at marijuana stores themselves have occurred.
But experts say there appears to be no appreciable change in the overall crime rate, though in part this is because law enforcement agencies are still collecting data on what could emerge as long-term trends.
“I think it’s a little too early to tell,” said Dave Joly, spokesman for the FBI’s Denver office. “Crime stats don’t keep up that rapidly. We’re usually reporting on last year’s crime stats around this time of year.”
However, the states already had loosened marijuana laws even before going full-legalization — for example, via policies on law enforcement priorities and laws on medical marijuana. As a result, the Denver police have been tracking some statistics since 2012.
According to the city’s department of safety, marijuana-related incidents have constituted just 2 percent of crimes since 2012, with the most common by far being burglary and criminal mischief.
Those are also the most common crimes committed against marijuana stores themselves, the data shows, with 317 burglaries reported in 2012 and 2013 combined. So far in 2014 there have been just 74.
At the stores, there were 13 violent crimes over the last two years — seven robberies and six assaults. The first seven months of 2014 have added just one other robbery and one more assault to that count.
And finally, through the start of July there were 34 people cited for driving under the influence of drugs, up from 21 in the same period of 2013.
But tying instances of crime directly to marijuana use can be difficult, warned Aya Gruber, a law professor at the University of Colorado.
“There’s so many factors that go into not only the gathering of the data but also interpreting the meaning of the data,” Ms. Gruber said. “It’s hard to really connect uprise or fall of crime rates to any one thing.”
For example, a group prone to commit crimes could move into a neighborhood because a marijuana store opened in the area, she said. That wouldn’t really cause new crime so much as it would just transfer it from a different part of the city.
“It would be subject to so many objections that it’s very hard, I think, to use the question of crime rates as any sort of argument in the legalization of marijuana,” Ms. Gruber said. “Those that are for the legalization cherry-pick their statistics, and those that are against it cherry-pick their statistics.”
It can be dangerous to try to guess what is happening with little information, said Seattle Police Department spokesman Patrick Michaud.
“Improperly timed reports, if they haven’t gone on long enough, can be very damaging,” he said. “The total amount of information that we have is just not complete. We haven’t even had it for a year here, [so] to say if it’s gone up or down yet is a little early.”
The Seattle PD does have someone who is specifically keeping track of any potential marijuana-related crime, Mr. Michaud said.
“Mostly we’re talking crime in and around the businesses where marijuana is sold, so theft, burglary, car prowls,” he said, adding that if someone is robbed of their marijuana outside of a store, “that’s easy to associate back to the business that they were at.”
Tracking whether crimes that don’t involve marijuana directly, or take place far from stores, are associated to use of the drug is more difficult, Mr. Michaud said.
So far, there have been only a few tentative studies looking at the crime rate that have initially seemed to show no change, said Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of NORML, a marijuana legalization advocacy group.
“It would appear, biased as we are regarding the subject matter, the data in the first six months in Colorado doesn’t show any uptick in social pathologies,” he said.
One area where there should be better regulation, however, is “edibles,” marijuana doses incorporated into common foods like brownies and candy bars, Mr. St. Pierre said.
“Last year, prior to retail access, eight children had checked themselves into the emergency room [of a major Denver hospital] having eaten cannabis products, either knowingly or unknowingly,” he said.
“Year to date in that same hospital, 16 to 17 kids have now come in,” Mr. St. Pierre continued. “A doubling is obviously going to catch everyone’s attention.
Mr. Joly, the Denver FBI agent, said one of the most common mistakes law enforcement officers are seeing is people eating multiple times the recommended doses, such as an entire candy bar instead of just a single section.
He pointed to the recent Denver County Fair, where several people got sick after consuming items containing THC, the main chemical compound in marijuana, often claiming they didn’t know the drug was in their food.