After three months with legal marijuana, Denver has not turned into an urban wasteland. In fact, as Vox reported this week, crime in the first two months of 2014 is down across the board from the first two months of 2013.
Yes, it’s still early. But the numbers so far don’t suggest that Denver is about to succumb to a crime wave fueled by pot-addicted hooligans (as some law enforcement officials warned).
This makes an Associated Press report from Friday all the more bizarre. Here’s the scary lead:
“A 25-year-old is shot dead trying to sell marijuana the old-fashioned, illegal way. Two men from Texas set up a warehouse to grow more than they would ever need. And three people buying pot in a grocery store parking lot are robbed at gunpoint.
“While no one expected the state’s first-in-the-nation recreational sales would eliminate the need for dangerous underground sales overnight, the violence has raised concerns among police, prosecutors and pot advocates that a black market for marijuana is alive and well in Colorado.”
The article continues with scary stories from Denver and its suburbs. But wait, crime is down in Denver, isn’t it? It is, which is why the AP has only anecdotes. One paragraph is the closest the article comes to attempting to find actual figures: “It’s difficult to measure whether there has been an increase in pot-related crimes beyond anecdotal reports because no one at either the federal or state levels is keeping track of the numbers of killings, robberies and other crimes linked directly to marijuana.”
So violence and property crimes are down in Denver. And we have no way of knowing how many of the crimes that have been committed relate to legalized marijuana. Yet the AP goes ahead and quotes law enforcement officials who say that the entire region is erupting into chaos — the same people who predicted as much before legalization took effect and so, of course, have an interest in seeing it come to pass.
There are some 3 million people in the Denver metropolitan area. There will be some crime, whether pot is legal or not. And there will be crimes that, in some way, involve pot whether pot is legal or not — just as there are crimes related to alcohol, money, sex and charity hockey games. It’s also certainly possible that the high tax on pot in Colorado has enabled black markets to continue to exist. And I suppose it’s also at least possible that pot is fueling crime — that, were it not for legalization, both violent and property crimes would have fallen even more.
But that’s all pure speculation. There is no evidence that any of those things are happening. All we have are some anecdotes from law enforcement. So perhaps journalists should hold off on the panicky stories about pot-fueled crime waves — especially since the early data show that crime has actually dropped.
This commentary was excerpted from Radley Balko’s blog on civil liberties and the criminal justice system.