Thursday, December 10, 2009

Where Are the Bodies?

Where Are the Bodies?

For more than forty years Drug Warriors have argued that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer and that since marijuana is also smoked, it must cause cancer too. The most effective response to that argument has been to ask: “Where are the bodies?” because there are no bodies. Thirty-five years of documented heavy marijuana smoking by millions have not produced a single case of lung cancer that doctors are willing to attribute to marijuana. That statistic conclusively rebuts their argument.

Another Drug Warrior argument is now ripe for a “Where are the bodies?” rebuttal.

Prohibition zealots, from the very beginning have argued that drugs must be made illegal because drug use is associated with increased crime. The more rabid even repeat the 1930s “Reefer Madness” idea that a single puff on a joint will send a nice, innocent young man off on a rampage of rape and murder with a wild glint in his eye. The less extreme still show up at city council meetings and write letters to the editor protesting medical marijuana dispensaries because they will increase crime in the area. They don’t seem clear about whether all marijuana users, including those who use it to combat illnesses, are criminals who will knock over a convenience store when they pick up their meds or whether marijuana itself is a crime magnet that, by its very presence attracts all the miscreants who learn of its location.

Enough hard data now exists to rebut this argument. It’s time to start looking for the bodies.

California now has had legal medical marijuana for over a decade and several years of open operation of marijuana dispensaries. Colorado, Oregon, and Michigan also allow dispensaries, although for shorter periods of time.

Almost all of those dispensaries operate in towns or cities that participate in the FBI’s Uniform Reports of Major Crimes. For even finer scale analysis, police reports in most towns and cities are either open to the public or available through some kind of open records request. These reports show every crime reported to the police and even the address at which it occurred.

In cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Oakland, with large numbers of active dispensaries, longitudinal comparisons within the cities can be made. How was crime different in San Francisco in 1980-89 and 1999-2008? Comparing a decade before medical marijuana with one after it has been established should show whether it has affected either the rate of crimes or their locations. Los Angeles, like many cities, has followed New York in basing its police posting procedures on weekly statistical reviews of incident reports around the city. Those reports should be available and should provide a detailed picture of the relationship, if any between marijuana distribution and the incidence of crime.

Comparisons between cities could be even more telling. While Los Angeles and San Francisco have been liberal in their approach to medical marijuana, San Diego has resisted allowing any legal marijuana outlets of any kind. Comparing the crime report data between San Diego and the other two cities should be very revealing.

Other sources of data should be available as well. Numbers of court-ordered admissions to marijuana rehab programs is one statistic that should be available over an extended period of time. The number of marijuana-related DUIs should be publically available and is probably a surprisingly low total.

Local regulation of marijuana dispensaries is creating civil litigation in both California and Colorado. All of these public safety records should be obtainable through the discovery process, and their use as evidence would require the same kinds of statistical analysis discussed below.

These kinds of data are almost meaningless in their raw state. Intensive sophisticated statistical analysis is necessary to make them meaningful. That kind of analysis is normally done in universities. But certainly some sociology professor is looking for a tenure piece, and the data holds the potential for many Ph.D. dissertations. The mountain of numbers will provide meaningful employment for generations of graduate students. Universities are, as a rule, also experienced in open records access and are willing to fund the search for them.

Although this kind of detailed statistical analysis may take years, the where’s-the-body argument is useful now. The “Marijuana causes crime” argument belongs to the prohibitionists. Since they advance that argument, they also have the burden of proving it. And they cannot. Anytime that argument is advanced, the response should be: “What do the crime reports show?” One can point out that the police have the data and can provide the answers. A city council can be pushed to study their own records to determine the truth about crime and marijuana. They can be asked to delay repressive actions until the records are examined.

Health care has made fantastic advances by insisting on evidence-based medicine. Now is the time to insist on evidence-based laws as well. Facts are the sharpest tools in any reasonable argument. The facts are on the side of ending prohibition. It’s time to wield them vigorously.


  1. Re: dispensaries attracting crime. There may be some truth to that, not because of the characteristics of the product they are selling but because they're selling a product for which demand is high and supply is low, and they tend to have more cash on hand than, say, your local Stop 'n Rob (as my cop neighbor used to call them).

    Also, as you well know, the number of people ordered to treatment for pot use has no connection to the number of people who actually need treatment. That's a statistic that the prohibitionists commonly use to 'prove' the harm marijuana use causes society. That’s not to say that analyzing the other data you mention isn’t a primo idea. I’m sure the statistics would be of benefit to the reform movement. Perhaps someone you know from your university days would be interested in undertaking the task or could interest a grad student in the idea.

  2. Here is an example of the kind of information I was talking about: Houston has just started putting its crime report information on the web: .If you look, you will see that it is in a form only a statistician or scoiologist would love.

    I suspect that other cities are doing the same, but I haven't looked.

    Leroy, ost of my contacts are either in Law Schools (and therefore not very useful for this job) or in Texas. We need researchers in the states that have gone the furtherest with med mj: California, colorado, Michigan, New Mexico.