Strict laws in the city and county of Los Angeles have, over the years, led to the closure of hundreds of illicit marijuana dispensaries, an action hailed by some as a way to combat drug-related crime such as robberies and loitering.

But a new study contradicts the argument, sometimes made by law enforcement itself, that weed stores are crime magnets. The research, published in the July issue of the Journal of Urban Economics, took a close look at the city's closure of hundreds of illicit dispensaries in 2010.

It concluded that crime around pot shops forced to shut down actually increased afterward. “When marijuana dispensaries were shut down, we found the opposite of what we were expecting,” says the paper's co-author, USC business economics professor Tom Y. Chang. “Crime actually increased in the areas that closed relative to the ones allowed to stay open.”

Other studies have come to similar conclusions in the past, but Chang and co-author Mireille Jacobson of UC Irvine's Paul Merage School of Business refined their research further to find out more specifically why this is. Academics previously believed that dispensaries' security protocols, including mandated guards and fancy video systems, discouraged criminals.

But when Chang and Jacobson looked at restaurants temporarily closed around the same time by the L.A. County Department of Public Health for things such as nonfunctional hot water and rodent infestation, they found a similar increase in crime close to the establishments. Many, Chang says, did not take such security measures.

Crime-free weed at MedMen in West Hollywood; Credit: Gustavo Turner

Crime-free weed at MedMen in West Hollywood; Credit: Gustavo Turner

“We found exactly the same situation,” he says. “When the restaurants opened back up, that crime spike disappeared.”

Their conclusion was actually simpler than the security-guard theory: Having customers around decreases crime. The theory comes from Jane Jacobs' 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “When you have people at the street level — people who patronize, work at and own the business — they have a vested interest in the neighborhood,” Chang says.

“They act as informal surveillance,” he says. “A criminal is less likely to break into a car if there are people around.”

The academics dug deeper and looked at Walk Score ratings for neighborhoods where dispensaries and restaurants closed. The idea, Chang explains, was to determine if maybe dispensaries were already in high-crime areas, on dark streets, with criminals ready to pounce, he says. It turned out that dispensaries in Los Angeles had a relatively high average Walk Score of about 75 out of 100, Chang says.

Regardless, it was petty, nonviolent crime that often went up when dispensaries were closed. One key violation, Chang says, was theft from automobiles. Hardcore violence wasn't generally associated with pot shops, although there are anecdotes of deadly robberies at the businesses. “One of the main arguments people use against dispensaries is that they're crime magnets,” he says. “It's a claim people make without evidence.”

It's a lesson L.A.'s dispensary groups have taken to heart.

“Dispensary owners who want to be licensed and legitimized are taking great pride in protecting their patients, employees and the neighborhoods they work and live in,” Adam Spiker, executive director of the Southern California Coalition, the largest group of marijuana businesses in the city, said via email. “We believe these numbers will be even stronger once dispensaries are fully licensed and legitimized like any other industry and trust they can call on the same resources like any other fully legitimized businesses such as restaurants would.”

Jonatan Cvetko, co-founder of Angeles Emeralds, a group that represents embattled collectives in unincorporated L.A. County, said via email that the research suggests that “creating a pathway for licensing for existing, responsible operators is the right policy for the community as a whole.”

However, Chang's not saying that opening more dispensaries necessarily means low-crime nirvana for Greater L.A. “We're not saying open dispensaries to prevent crime,” he says. “Opening a bookstore would also decrease crime.”

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