Pubdate: Mon, 24 Jan 2011
Source: Denver Post (CO)
Copyright: 2011 The Denver Post Corp
Authors: John Ingold and Nancy Lofholm


The would-be thieves - captured on surveillance video at the Colorado 
Springs medical-marijuana dispensary they were trying to burglarize - 
made for a fitting symbol of the connection between dispensaries and crime.

Prevented by locked doors in front of them from getting what they came
for and prevented by locked doors behind them from getting away, they
were stuck in the muddled middle.

With a calendar year of data now available, local law enforcement
officials face a similar predicament.

Crimes connected to medical marijuana have undoubtedly increased since
the beginning of Colorado's cannabis boom.

Robbers target the expanded number of people legally growing
marijuana. Burglars break into dispensaries that didn't exist 18
months ago. Police have publicly linked incidents of violence and even
a homicide to medical marijuana.

"Across the state, we're seeing an increase in crime related to
dispensaries," said Ernie Martinez, a Denver police detective who is
president of the Colorado Drug Investigators Association. "And that's
just the crime that's being reported to us."

But so far, there is no statistical evidence that medical-marijuana
businesses have made neighborhoods less safe overall.

A Denver police analysis completed late last year of areas around
dispensaries showed that the number of crimes in those pockets dropped
in the first nine months of 2010 compared with the same period in
2009. The drop, 8.2 percent, was marginally less than the city's
overall drop in crime of 8.8 percent, according to police.

Meanwhile, a Denver Post analysis of crimes committed in the first 11
months of 2010 found that some Denver neighborhoods with the highest
concentration of dispensaries per capita saw a bigger decrease in
crimes than did some neighborhoods with no dispensaries.

What these numbers mean, though, and whether dispensaries have played
any role in the changes is unclear.

"It's not like I have seen excessive reports" involving violence
linked to medical marijuana, said Steve Fox, director of public
affairs for the National Cannabis Industry Association. "It's no
different from any normal business. You always will have robberies and
break-ins where someone believes there are valuables."

Dispensaries As Targets

Indeed, the value of the product seems to drive most of the crimes
reported around medical marijuana. The would-be burglars in Colorado
Springs - who in November bumblingly locked themselves inside a
dispensary until cops arrived - are perhaps the most famous example of
a dispensary-related crime in Colorado.

Dozens of other dispensary burglaries or attempted burglaries have
been reported across the state.

Other crimes have been more menacing. Two New Castle men were arrested
in early October on suspicion of severely beating a woman whom they
accused of stealing a medical-marijuana plant from them.

In September, Grand Junction police arrested Joseph Doremus on
suspicion of shooting at another man because, the victim said, he owed
Doremus $250 for medical marijuana, police said.

And one year ago, police arrested a man on suspicion of killing a
Denver medical-marijuana grower during a deal-turned-robbery.

Based on incidents like these, Martinez concludes that dispensaries
aren't making neighborhoods safer.

"It's not taking away the underground empire of criminality," Martinez
said of medical marijuana's legitimization.

One Factor Among Many

Sgt. Steve Noblitt, a Colorado Springs police spokesman, said
comparing neighborhood crime pre- and post-dispensary is complicated.
Because crime rates fluctuate all the time for many reasons, what
should police departments use as a baseline for assessing
dispensaries' impact?

"We haven't done an analysis," Noblitt said, "because we don't know
what to compare it to."

The 46 medical-marijuana-related burglaries Colorado Springs police
responded to between January 2009 and November were a small fraction
of the total burglaries police handled in that time. The only crime at
a business near a Colorado Springs dispensary that police can
definitively tie to the dispensary, he said, was an incident in which
burglars busted into an adjacent building to dig into the dispensary
next door.

In two of Denver's most dispensary-dense neighborhoods, community
activists say they haven't seen much change since the pot shops moved

"I haven't sensed any outrageous behavior at all," said Catherine
Sandy, president of the Overland Park Neighborhood

In the Ballpark neighborhood near Coors Field, the situation is the
same, said neighborhood association co-president Judy Schneider. The
community is part of the larger Five Points statistical neighborhood,
which has 15 dispensaries, the most of any neighborhood in Denver.

"What I think it is," Schneider said, "is that people are running
their businesses well."

Dan Brennan, the Wheat Ridge police chief and president of the
Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, said police have also had to
deal with problems from small, at-home medical-marijuana operations.
There have been home-invasion robberies, burglaries and a fire started
by bad wiring in a marijuana-growing room.

But when it comes to what it all means, Brennan is a little like the 
burglars in Colorado Springs: stuck in the muddle.

"We're still so early into this," Brennan said. "I don't know that we
have a total picture of what this really looks like." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake