IMPACT OF DISPENSARIES AND REGULATORY ORDINANCES ON COMMUNITIES IN CALIFORNIA DISPENSARIES REDUCE CRIME AND IMPROVE PUBLIC SAFETY
Some reports have suggested that dispensaries are magnets for criminal activity and other undesirable behavior, which poses a problem for the community. But the experience of those cities with dispensary regulations says otherwise. Crime statistics and the accounts of local officials surveyed by ASA indicate that crime is actually reduced by the presence of a dispensary. And complaints from citizens and surrounding businesses are either negligible or are significantly reduced with the implementation of local regulations.
This trend has led multiple cities and counties to consider regulation as a solution. Kern County, which passed a dispensary ordinance in July 2006, is a case in point. The sheriff there noted in his staff report that "regulatory oversight at the local levels helps prevent crime directly and indirectly related to illegal operations occurring under the pretense and protection of state laws authorizing Medical Marijuana Dispensaries." Although dispensary-related crime has not been a problem for the county, the regulations will help law enforcement determine the legitimacy of dispensaries and their patients.
The sheriff specifically pointed out that, "existing dispensaries have not caused noticeable law enforcement problems or secondary effects for at least one year. As a result, the focus of the proposed Ordinance is narrowed to insure Dispensary compliance with the law" (Kern County Staff Report, Proposed Ordinance Regulating Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, July 11, 2006).
The presence of a dispensary in the neighborhood can actually improve public safety and reduce crime. Most dispensaries take security
for their members and staff more seriously than many businesses. Security cameras are often used both inside and outside the premises, and security guards are often employed to ensure safety. Both cameras and security guards serve as a general deterrent to criminal activity and other problems on the street. Those likely to engage in such activities tend to move to a less-monitored area, thereby ensuring a safe environment not only for dispensary members and staff, but also for neighbors and businesses in the surrounding area.
Residents in areas surrounding dispensaries have reported improvements to the neighborhood. Kirk C., a long time San Francisco resident, commented at a city hearing, "I have lived in the same apartment along the Divisadero corridor in San Francisco for the past five years. Each store that has opened in my neighborhood has been nicer, with many new restaurants quickly becoming some of the city's hottest spots. My neighborhood's crime and vandalism seems to be going down year after year. It strikes me that the dispensaries have been a vital part of the improvement that is going on in my neighborhood."
Oakland city administrator Barbara Killey, who was responsible for the ordinance regulating dispensaries, noted that "The areas around the dispensaries may be some of the safest areas of Oakland now because of the level of security, surveillance, etc...since the ordinance passed."
Likewise, former Santa Rosa Mayor Jane Bender noted that since her city passed its ordinance, there appears to be "a decrease in criminal activity. There certainly has been a decrease in complaints. The city attorney says there have been no complaints either from citizens or from neighboring businesses."
Neighboring Sebastopol has had a similar experience. Despite public opposition to medical cannabis dispensaries, Sebastopol Police Chief Jeffrey Weaver admitted that for more than two years, "We've had no increased crime associated [with Sebastopol's medical cannabis dispensary], no fights, no loitering, no increase in graffiti, no increase in littering, zip."
"The parade of horrors that everyone predicted has not materialized. The sky has not fallen. To the contrary ... California jurisdictions have shown that having medical cannabis in place does not impact...public safety."
- San Francisco Supervisor David Campos
Those dispensaries that go through the permitting process or otherwise comply with local ordinances tend, by their very nature, to be those most interested in meeting community standards and being good neighbors. Many local officials surveyed by ASA said dispensaries operating in their communities have presented no problems, or what problems there may have been significantly diminished once an ordinance or other regulation was instituted.
Several officials said that regulatory ordinances had significantly improved relations with other businesses and the community at large. An Oakland city council staff member noted that prior to adopting a local ordinance, the city had received reports of break-ins. However, the council staff member said that with the adoption of Oakland's dispensary ordinance, "That kind of activity has stopped. That danger has been eliminated." Assistant City Administrator Arturo Sanchez, a nuisance enforcement officer, affirmed that since 2004 he has "never received a nuisance complaint concerning lawfully established medical marijuana dispensaries in Oakland...[or] had to initiate an enforcement action."
The absence of any connection between dispensaries and increased local crime can be seen in data from Los Angeles and San Diego. During the two-year period from 2008 to 2010 in which Los Angeles saw the proliferation of more than 500 dispensaries, the overall crime rate in the city dropped considerably. A study commissioned by Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, comparing the number of crimes in 2009 at the city's banks and medical marijuana dispensaries, found that 71 robberies had occurred at the more than 350 banks in the city, compared to 47 robberies at the more than 500 medical marijuana facilities. Chief Beck observed that, "banks are more likely to get robbed than medical marijuana dispensaries," and that the claim that dispensaries attract crime "doesn't really bear out." In San Diego, where some officials have made similar allegations about increased crime associated with dispensaries, an examination of city police reports by a local paper, the San Diego CityBeat, found that as of late 2009 the number of crimes in areas with dispensaries was frequently lower than it was before the dispensary opened or, at worst, stayed the same.
One of the concerns of public officials is that dispensaries make possible or even encourage the resale of cannabis on the street. But the experience of those cities that have instituted ordinances is that such problems, which are rare in the first place, quickly disappear. In addition to being monitored by law enforcement, dispensaries universally have strict rules about how members are to behave in and around the facility. Many have "good neighbor" trainings for their members that emphasize sensitivity to the concerns of neighbors, and all dispensaries absolutely prohibit the resale of cannabis. Anyone violating that prohibition is typically banned from any further contact with the dispensary.
As Oakland's city administrator for the regulatory ordinance explains, "dispensaries themselves have been very good at self policing against resale because they understand they can lose their permit if their patients resell."
In the event of an illegal resale, local law enforcement has at its disposal all of the many legal penalties provided by the state. This all adds up to a safer street environment with fewer drug-related problems than before dispensary operations were permitted in the area. The experience of the City of Oakland is a good example of this phenomenon. The city's legislative analyst, Lupe Schoenberger, stated that, "...[P]eople feel safer when they're walking down the street. The level of marijuana street sales has significantly reduced."
"The areas around the dispensaries may be some of the most safest areas of Oakland now because of the level of security, surveillance, etc. since the ordinance passed."
- Barbara Killey, Oakland
Dispensaries operating with the permission of the city are also more likely to appropriately utilize law enforcement resources themselves, reporting any crimes directly to the appropriate agencies. And dispensary operators and their patient members tend to be more safety conscious than the general public, resulting in greater vigilance and better preemptive measures. The reduction of crime in areas around dispensaries has been reported anecdotally by law enforcement in several communities.
Medical cannabis dispensing collectives are typically positive additions to the neighborhoods in which they locate, bringing additional customers to neighboring businesses and reducing crime in the immediate area.
Like any new business that serves a different customer base than the existing businesses in the area, dispensaries increase the revenue of other businesses in the surrounding area simply because new people are coming to access services, increasing foot traffic past other establishments. In many communities, the opening of a dispensary has helped revitalize an area. While patients tend to opt for dispensaries that are close and convenient, particularly since travel can be difficult, many patients will travel to dispensary locations in parts of town they would not otherwise visit.
Even if patients are not immediately utilizing the services or purchasing the goods offered by neighboring businesses, they are more likely to eventually patronize those businesses because of convenience.
ASA's survey of officials whose cities have passed dispensary regulations found that the vast majority of businesses either adjoining or near dispensaries had reported no problems associated with a dispensary opening after the implementation of regulations.
Kriss Worthington, longtime councilmember in Berkeley, said in support of a dispensary there, "They have been a responsible neighbor and vital organization to our diverse community. Since their opening, they have done an outstanding job keeping the building clean, neat, organized and safe. In fact, we have had no calls from neighbors complaining about them, which is a sign of respect from the community. In Berkeley, even average restaurants and stores have complaints from neighbors."
Mike Rotkin, councilmember and former mayor of the City of Santa Cruz, said about the dispensary that opened there last year, "The immediately neighboring businesses have been uniformly supportive or neutral. There have been no complaints either about establishing it or running it."
And Dave Turner, mayor of Fort Bragg, noted that before the passage of regulations there were "plenty of complaints from both neighboring businesses and concerned citizens," but since then, it is no longer a problem. Public officials understand that, when it comes to dispensaries, they must balance both the humanitarian needs of patients and the concerns of the public, especially those of neighboring residents and business owners.
Oakland City Councilmember Nancy J. Nadel wrote in an open letter to her fellow colleagues across the state, "Local government has a responsibility to the medical needs of its people, even when it's not a politically easy choice to make. We have found it possible to build regulations that address the concerns of neighbors, local businesses, law enforcement and the general public, while not compromising the needs of the patients themselves. We've found that by working with all interested parities in advance of adopting an ordinance while keeping the patients' needs foremost, problems that may seem inevitable never arise."
Mike Rotkin of Santa Cruz stated that since the city enacted an ordinance for dispensaries, "Things have calmed down. The police are happy with the ordinance, and that has made things a lot easier. I think the fact that we took the time to give people who wrote us respectful and detailed explanations of what we were doing and why made a real difference."