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Denver's Crime Drop Might Have Nothing To Do With Marijuana Legalization

After opponents' claims that legalization would increase crime, recent numbers out of Denver could be good news for weed advocates. Or not.
Image by Jeffrey Beall

It came as no surprise that Colorado’s recent legalization of marijuana was accompanied by panicky claims that crime would increase dramatically as a result. In September 2012, Douglas County Sheriff David Weaver warned that "there will be many harmful consequences" and to "expect more crime, more kids using marijuana, and pot for sale everywhere."

But, according to recent statistics from Denver’s Department of Safety, crime is actually on the decline. In its comparison of certain violent and property crimes between January 1 and April 30, 2013, and the same period this year, the department reported an overall 10.6 percent drop.


After all the doomsaying surrounding marijuana legalization from politicians and other opponents, it’s tempting for some to call Denver’s decrease in crime an outright victory for legalization.

The numbers show slight declines in rates of sexual assault, aggravated assault, robbery, and burglary, with a slight increase in larceny and a large increase in arson, but most of the decline is attributable to changes in homicide and thefts from motor vehicles, which declined 52.9 and 36.3 percent, respectively.

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There were eight homicides in the first quarter of 2014, compared to 17 in 2013; however, in the same period in 2012 and in 2011, there were 13 and 12 murders respectively, indicating that 2013’s large number may be the outlier here.

But there was a massive decline in theft from motor vehicles between this year and last, decreasing from 2,317 incidents to 1,477.

'I’m always very careful to not mistake correlation with causation, and I think it’s too early to necessarily draw a conclusion that there’s a causal relationship here.'

Chris Wyckoff, director of the Data Analysis Unit at Denver Police, told VICE News that a change in police tactics could have had a significant effect on the decline in crime, especially in incidents of theft from motor vehicles.

“Starting at the beginning of this year we implemented a focus area policing tactic, and each week the lieutenants are looking at where they need officers to focus on, based on the crime patterns or crime issues emerging in their areas, and targeting those areas when they have time to patrol,” Wyckoff said. “So we’re finding some great effects from that.”


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Wyckoff was hesitant to derive any kind of correlation between the city’s decline in crime and the recent legalization of pot.

“A lot of times, if marijuana’s involved, it’s a subsidiary type of crime or component of a crime, so it doesn’t come out as being causality, and we aren’t able to show that within the crime stats,” she said. Wyckoff noted that possible criminal effects of marijuana legalization could show up in increase burglaries of dispensaries, for instance. “Other than that, it’s been very challenging to see any kind of direct correlation.”

Mason Tvert, director of communications at the Marijuana Policy Project, was also hesitant to draw conclusions from the crime drop. “I’m always very careful to not mistake correlation with causation, and I think it’s too early to necessarily draw a conclusion that there’s a causal relationship here,” Tvert told VICE News. “It certainly suggests that opponents’ fears of crime increasing are unfounded.”

So while these numbers show marijuana legalization hasn't lead to an increase in crime in the Mile High City, they also don't show the opposite: that it has decreased crime. Until more information is available, the most that these figures show is that legalization hasn't single-handedly destroyed Denver.

Follow Jordan Larson on Twitter: @jalarsonist

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