By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Researchers who expected to find that medical marijuana dispensaries harm neighborhoods discovered that that’s not the case so far in Denver, according to a new study.
“Everybody is saying that these things are undesirable. If that’s the case, it’s certainly not showing up in the data,” said one the study authors, Paul Stretesky, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs.
The study analyzed whether pot shops are so-called “locally undesirable land uses” or LULUs. If they were locally undesirable, they could have impacts on environmental justice and increase health problems for disadvantaged people.
The results show that pot shops tend to be located in higher crime neighborhoods, but they don’t seem to cause higher crime. They also occupy areas that already have many retail shops, which could reduce neighborhood impacts. The study shows that some Latinos may move out of neighborhoods when pot shops move in, but that association wasn’t particularly strong, Stretesky said.
Stretesky and his co-authors expected pot shops to be like chemical factories or waste dumps that locate in disproportionate numbers in poor neighborhoods and can cause negative health effects to people living there.
“Everybody says these are bad. If you had asked me, I would have said the same thing. These are undesirable and the people with the least are going to lose the most and be screwed, like having a polluting facility in your neighborhood. We just didn’t find it,” Stretesky said.
The study analyzed the impacts of 275 medical marijuana facilities in 75 Denver neighborhoods. The study authors compared demographic characteristics of the neighborhoods based on Census data from 2000 — before Denver had any pot shops — to 2010. The explosion in medical marijuana shops began in 2009 and it may be too soon to know if shops will change neighborhoods. Stretesky said that’s one of the weaknesses of the study and harms could show up in future years.
In addition, the study did not consider the effects of recreational pot shops, which began opening in January of this year after Colorado voters approved a measure to allow recreational shops similar to liquor stores for people ages 21 and over. Some medical marijuana facilities are now converting to recreational shops.
Stretesky focuses on inequities and his co-authors specialize in drug policy and geography. Stretesky said he personally opposed legalized marijuana and figured pot shops would cause inequities.
“We dug and dug and didn’t find any evidence,” he said.
He expected the shops to be disproportionately located in poor neighborhoods and expected that pot use could go up as shops proliferated. In fact, the shops seemed to be randomly dispersed. There was no relationship between poverty rates and ethnicity and the location of shops. The only correlation related to slightly higher crime rates.
The study authors did not analyze health impacts of medical or recreational marijuana shops.
“You would have reason to believe there may be some (health effects),” Stretesky said.
“If you think of these (shops) like a polluting facility, based on the research I’ve done in the past, those facilities often release toxic chemicals in minority areas,” he said. “ I was looking at marijuana in the same way. It’s probably not a good drug to be using. I would expect to see that these are undesirable….I would not want my kids living near one.
“But maybe so many people look at (marijuana) as an acceptable thing” that it’s not harming neighborhoods, Stretesky said. “It brings in revenue and tax dollars. When you look at alcohol, it may not be as harmful. Maybe people’s opinions have changed.”
(Note: Health News Colorado is housed at the University of Colorado School of Public Affairs, but is an independent news agency and does not have any affiliation with Stretesky or his fellow researchers.)