Crime is down in Denver after pot’s legalization, but AP still wants to scare us

After three months of legal pot, Denver has not turned into an urban wasteland. In fact, as Vox reports, crime in the first quarter of 2014 is down across the board from the first two months of 2013.

Yes, it’s still early. But so far, the numbers don’t suggest that Denver is about to succumb to a crime wave fueled by pot-addicted hooligans. (Yes, some law enforcement officials actually warned of this.)

All of which makes this Associated Press report all the more bizarre. Here’s the scary lead:

A 25-year-old is shot dead trying to sell marijuana the old-fashioned, illegal way. Two men from Texas set up a warehouse to grow more than they would ever need. And three people buying pot in a grocery store parking lot are robbed at gunpoint.

While no one expected the state’s first-in-the-nation recreational sales would eliminate the need for dangerous underground sales overnight, the violence has raised concerns among police, prosecutors and pot advocates that a black market for marijuana is alive and well in Colorado.

The piece goes on with other scary stories from around Denver and its suburbs. But wait, I thought crime was down in Denver? It is. Which is why the AP has only anecdotes. This paragraph is the closest the article comes to attempting to find actual figures:

It’s difficult to measure whether there has been an increase in pot-related crimes beyond anecdotal reports because no one at either the federal or state levels is keeping track of the numbers of killings, robberies and other crimes linked directly to marijuana.

So violent and property crimes are down in Denver. And we have no way of knowing how many of the crimes that have been committed are related to legalized marijuana. But the AP goes ahead and quotes law enforcement officials who say the entire region is erupting into chaos — the same group of people who predicted as much before legalization took effect, and so of course have an interest in seeing it come to pass.

There are 3 million people in the Denver metropolitan area. There will be some crime whether pot is legal or not. And there will be crimes that in some way involve pot, also whether pot is legal or not — just as there are crimes related to alcohol, money, sex and charity hockey games. It’s also certainly possible that the high tax on pot in Colorado has allowed black markets to continue to exist. And I suppose it’s also at least possible that pot is fueling crime — that were it not for legalization, both violent and property crimes would have fallen off even more.

But that’s all pure speculation now. There’s no evidence that any of those things are happening. All we have are some anecdotes from law enforcement. So perhaps we should hold off on the panicky stories about pot-fueled crime waves for a bit — especially since the early data show that crime has actually dropped.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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