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Editorial

Putting pot in its place

With a Rand study showing an increase in crime after some medical marijuana dispensaries were shut down, L.A. needs a better policy toward such facilities.

September 24, 2011

A Rand Corp. study this week seemed to nip the conventional wisdom about medical marijuana dispensaries in the proverbial bud, contradicting statements from law enforcement officials that these facilities are magnets for crime. On the contrary, Rand researchers said, crime actually increased in the vicinity of hundreds of L.A. dispensaries after they were ordered to shut down.

Does this mean that dispensaries decrease neighborhood crime rather than increasing it? Unfortunately, despite Rand's analysis, we still don't know the answer. There are so many obvious problems with Rand's study that it's impossible to come to solid conclusions about crime either way.

First and most glaringly, Rand's findings are based on a large and unwarranted assumption: that the dispensaries ordered by the city to close their doors on June 7, 2010, when L.A.'s sweeping medical marijuana ordinance took effect, actually did so. There were thought to be about 600 dispensaries operating in the city at that time, of which 430 received notification that they would have to close. Rand looked at crime statistics during the 10 days before the ordered closure and the 10 days afterward, and compared the numbers for locations near facilities that supposedly closed and the 170 that didn't. Within three-tenths of a mile of the "closed" facilities, there were 59% more criminal incidents than there were within the same distance of those that remained open, and a 24% increase within six-tenths of a mile.

That's all very well, but there is no way of knowing whether those 430 dispensaries actually closed, and officials with the city attorney's office contend that many of them did not. Even if they did, the study really only tells us something about the immediate effect on crime of closing a medical marijuana facility, not whether these facilities increase crime on a long-term basis. If the dispensaries did close and if crime did go up nearby, it may be because, as the city attorney has argued, disgruntled former customers went on a rampage or because the facilities held fire sales to get rid of their inventory, driving more people to the area. Moreover, the 20-day time frame is too short for deriving reliable conclusions.

For all that, we don't think the Rand analysis is completely without value. It's a rare attempt to quantitatively measure the impact of L.A.'s marijuana dispensaries on crime, and it points out that the story we've been told for years by law enforcement officials should be regarded with a degree of skepticism. The city attorney's office has argued in legal filings that the number of dispensaries in the city must be limited in order to deal with the "well-documented crime" they draw, yet the connection to crime is actually far from well documented. Similarly, county Sheriff Lee Baca has claimed that the state's medical marijuana program "has been hijacked by underground drug-dealing criminals who are resorting to violence in order to control their piece of the action," yet he hasn't presented any crime statistics to back that up.

The lack of solid information about crime doesn't discredit efforts by the city of Los Angeles to limit and regulate dispensaries, although the lack of progress on that front is discouraging. After six years of trying to get a handle on a gray-market business operating between state and federal law, it's not clear that L.A. is any closer to eliminating rogue operators.

The main problem for the city is that it's trying to build its ordinances on shifting and uncertain legal ground. Its 2010 ordinance, among the toughest in the state, ordered the closure of any dispensary that wasn't registered with the city as of Nov. 13, 2007, the date of a previous moratorium that was later overturned in court. Yet a Superior Court judge found that restriction unconstitutional, so the city had to craft a new law earlier this year. This time, any dispensary that could prove it was operating as of Sept. 14, 2007, whether it registered with the city or not, could apply to take part in a lottery, which would choose 100 facilities from among those eligible and allow them to remain in business.

Predictably, this new restriction has attracted multiple lawsuits that have yet to be resolved, and the lottery is indefinitely stalled. Meanwhile, storefronts emblazoned with the green cross that denotes a medical marijuana facility open and close continually. The city has moved to close some down, yet many have delayed action with legal filings. Staffing shortages in the city attorney's office and other municipal departments have made identifying and citing these scofflaws a very slow process.

Whether or not these rogue dispensaries attract crime, they are a nuisance. A lack of oversight means they could be selling anything, including marijuana laced with dangerous drugs or chemicals. California voters intended them to operate as nonprofit collectives, yet it's not clear they're all doing so. Also unclear is the extent to which they're selling to minors or people with no legitimate medical need. L.A. is right to try to crack down; now its lawyers just need to figure out a way of doing so that passes court muster.

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