After Florida voters approved use of marijuana for prescribed medical purposes last November, Sarasota joined several other cities in passing a moratorium on new dispensaries. State lawmakers are hammering out the state rules and regulations for the medical marijuana industry, but most likely local governments will still be making at least permitting and zoning decisions for dispensaries.
Enough places around the country have experience with legal medical marijuana for us to anticipate which issues local city leaders will face.
Banning dispensaries is a bad idea. Over 71 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 2 in November, so patients have a reasonable expectation of access to medical marijuana wherever they live in Florida. Denying patients access at this point, or forcing them to travel far for their medicine, which they will indeed do, would be wrong. A local ban will only mean patients will acquire their medical marijuana elsewhere, and possibly from illegal sources rather than legal dispensaries.
The biggest concern most city governments have about permitting dispensaries is crime. Many, if not most, people believe that dispensaries are magnets for crime. Certainly the federal intolerance of state-level legalization denies dispensaries the use of bank accounts, increasing their cash on hand, which may increase the risk of robbery. But even so, there is a lot of evidence that dispensaries are not magnets for crime.
A study in the science journal PLOS One compared state-level crime data for homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft between 1990-2006 for all states, including the 11 with legalized medical marijuana. During that period, crime fell nationwide, but fell more in states with legal medical marijuana, even adjusting for other differences between states. A 2012 study by the University of California, Los Angeles found no connection between dispensaries and either violent or property crime rates in the city of Sacramento after legalization of medical marijuana there.
The list goes on. A narrower report in Sacramento in 2010 found a drop in violent and property crimes from 146 per year in 2006, before the dispensary opened, to 32 crimes in 2010, for a 1,000-foot radius around one of the city’s largest dispensaries. A 2011 report in San Francisco compared annual crimes reported near a large dispensary (28) to crime near a popular chicken restaurant (39). And in Colorado, police report that medical marijuana dispensaries are robbed less than liquor stores and banks, and no more than pharmacies.
So it is unlikely that dispensaries in Florida will be a particular magnet for crime. Indeed, one can imagine that there might be less crime with legal dispensaries than there already is with the illegal buying and selling of marijuana.
Another local government concern with dispensaries is that they will hurt surrounding businesses. I can find little economic research on this, save a 2014 study by researchers from the Universities of South Florida and Colorado, and the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, which looked at the effect of dispensaries in Denver. They concluded that “these centers do not appear to have any impact on the urban landscape — and therefore on the [economic] health of the communities in which they are located.” I’m sure that won’t stop many a NIMBY protest from some neighbors of proposed dispensaries who fear it will affect their business. But every legal business has an equal right to open in any given location, barring some specific and measurable harm to the neighbors—not just a dislike.
And keep in mind that as the legalization of medical marijuana has spread nationwide, the old hippy cooperative-style dispensary is being rapidly replaced with corporate operations concerned with branding, image, financial returns and being part of the community. Legalized marijuana sales is now a $40-billion business with stockholders, consultants and lawyers. The medical marijuana landscape is increasingly populated with franchises trying to build their brand the same way other medical businesses do, and to look more like pharmacies and less like head shops.
That changing face of the dispensary business flows into Florida’s No. 1 issue as well — jobs. Legal dispensaries move millions of dollars of local, black-market marijuana sales to people with severe medical conditions into legal, taxpaying, job-creating businesses. That's exactly what our city leaders keep saying we need more of.
So sensible local rules would permit as many dispensaries as the proprietors think the market can bear — we don’t limit the number of other businesses, except in a few instances like medical clinics, and those instance really harm consumers. They should only be forbidden to locate in locations that are most clearly problematic — such as very close to day care centers and schools. And there should be clear rules for dealing with nuisance and crime issues that don’t single out dispensaries, but rather included them in with all other businesses in town. Such simple rules will ensure patients have access to the medicine Florida voters approved.
Adrian Moore is vice president of Reason Foundation and lives in Sarasota.