The Trouble with Crime Statistics

The Trouble with Crime Statistics
Tom Gilbert/Tulsa World via AP

Last year, lawmakers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania proposed legalizing recreational marijuana in their states. A debate ensued. Some argued that legalizing pot would make crime go up; others claimed that it would make crime go down. There is evidence to favor the optimists: a recent paper in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization reports that, after Washington State legalized recreational marijuana, in 2012, rapes there decreased by as much as thirty per cent, and thefts by about twenty per cent.

And yet there are plenty of pessimists about legalization, too; many of them work in law enforcement. Curious about their views, I reached out to more than seventy-five county sheriffs in California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington—states where recreational marijuana is legal. (It's also legal in Alaska.) Of the twenty-five sheriffs who got back to me, half said they hadn't noticed a trend, and the rest were certain that legalizing marijuana had made crime go up. “We can just tell you from our experience that any time you're around marijuana, or the marijuana industry, the likelihood that you'll be the victim of some type of crime is higher,” Ray Kelly, a sheriff's sergeant in Alameda County, California, which is home to Oakland, said. Paul Bennett, a captain in the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, in California, told me, “I can certainly say that cops in the field, on the streets, and specifically narcotics officers, have experienced an increase in violent crime, all related to marijuana trafficking, sales, and cultivation, both legal and illegal.” I asked the sheriffs about the paper in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. “Whoever gave you those statistics is so full of crap that they can't even see how ludicrous these statements are—you can quote me on that,” Kendle Allen, the sheriff of Stevens County, Washington, said. Frank Rogers, the sheriff of Okanogan County, Washington, had a different hypothesis: “Maybe when they wrote it they were indulging in a little of the green stuff themselves.”

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