Interpreting Denver's Crime Rates before and after Pot Legalization
In a prior article, I discussed the potential relationship between massive increases in the numbers of some criminal offenses in Denver, Colorado, between January and February 2013 and 2014 and the start of state-regulated recreational marijuana sales on January 1, 2014. What is certain is that, in contrast to the claims over at Vox.com, crime rates in Denver between the first two months of 2013 and 2014 are not unchanged, and certainly not generally declining.
Some commenters on my article noted that Colorado had also changed its gun laws during 2013, and wondered if this could possibly explain some of the recent changes in crime rates. When we look at when the crime rates for offenses that have spiked during the past year actually began their rapid rise, it is clear that rates started to increase substantially in May 2013, and then increased much more in June 2013, after which they have been approximately stable at this significantly higher level. Could this be due to Colorado's gun law changes? This may play a minor background role, but – given their timing and nature – these firearms restrictions are not likely the cause of the skyrocketing crime rates for most offenses during May/June 2013.
What happened in May 2013? On May 8, the Colorado legislature passed bills regulating the manufacture, sale, distribution, and use of recreational marijuana. In late May 2013, the governor signed the bills into law. On January 1, 2014, the first stores in the state to sell pot for recreational use opened.
It was during May and June 2013 that crime rates in Denver for offenses such as simple assaults, intimidation, disorderly conduct/disturbing the peace, family offenses/nonviolent, liquor law/drunkeness, violation of a restraining/court order, and criminal trespassing went through the roof effectively overnight (in some cases by almost two orders of magnitude when compared either to the same month in 2012 or to only a few months prior). Could Denver law enforcement just have started cracking down at much higher levels during this timeframe in an attempt to send a strong public message in response to these bills being signed into law? Certainly. A law enforcement crackdown could also have been timed to send a message regarding increased gun restrictions, but this seems to be a background issue.
If the enhanced gun restrictions were behind these increases, we would probably also expect increasing rates of other – more violent – crimes against persons, such as murder, aggravated assault, sex offenses, and kidnapping/abduction, between 2012 and 2013. But we don't see that. Rates for these crimes are generally unchanged, or even slightly declining, after the 2013 gun laws came into effect. The isolated increases in less violent crimes such as simple assaults and intimidation are more consistent with marijuana legalization and/or a law enforcement crackdown than with increased gun restrictions.
The Occupy movement is also not likely a direct cause of the May/June 2013 crime rate increases on its own. The Occupy movement is often strongly linked to marijuana legalization, so if you promote the latter, you encourage the former to build their base and engage in socially disruptive activities. If you build it, they will come, and Colorado is building a base for an entrenched and emboldened Occupy movement through its legalization of pot. This is a built-in mechanism for increased crime rates.
What is often overlooked in terms of pot legalization are the indirect messages that easing/removing marijuana laws sends to the public, and in particular to those with antisocial, rebellious, and/or criminal tendencies. Yes, there are direct impacts of pot legalization – namely, people getting high and engaging in socially irresponsible/criminal behavior due to impaired judgement and other psycho/physiological factors. But marijuana laws, especially in the United States, have massive social stigmas. Over decades, smoking pot represented for many a de facto dividing line between those citizens who were generally law-abiding and followed the rules of a civil society and those who did not. Consequently, we may expect the indirect impacts of legalizing marijuana to be as significant as – if not more so than – the direct impacts.
Rightly or wrongly, marijuana laws are a “sentinel species” (i.e., they represent much more than just the simple intent to restrict a banned substance), and knowing that a substance will be legalized in the near future can also lead to direct effects showing up prior to the actual legalization date. Access to pot is easy, and once a substance such as marijuana is placed on the legalization path, many members of the public will assume (often correctly) that enforcement of the existing (but soon to not exist) restrictions by law enforcement will cease or be severely curtailed. Thus, we wouldn't necessarily expect the crime rate impacts of marijuana legalization to show up at the moment the substance formally becomes legal. We may just as reasonably expect the criminal effects to manifest the moment the public is told the substance will become legal in short order.
Marijuana legalization also sends a message that the traditional multi-decadal law-and-order approach to governing society is generally being relaxed. This empowers some to engage in activities that they might not do otherwise; call this the spin-off criminal impacts of pot legalization. In other words, the reasoning used by some is if we are getting lax on pot, we'll be soft on crime overall.
The timing of Denver's crime rate explosion for various offenses is consistent with this more nuanced interpretation. While the implementation of greater firearms restrictions in early to mid-2013 may have played a role, the dominant influence appears to be that either the Denver police engaged in a message-sending crackdown starting soon after the state legislature passed the pot legalization bills, or the indirect and direct impacts of marijuana legalization started as soon as the state government indicated the path to regulated recreational marijuana sales had begun (or both). In any case, these impacts are the result of marijuana legalization in Colorado. The data is irrefutable.