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Marijuana Study: Is Rise in Denver Crime Linked to Pot?

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Marijuana's social effects on Colorado have been routinely debated since recreational sales began in 2014.

So a group of students at Metropolitan State University of Denver decided to study city crime and homeless numbers after commercial pot's inaugural year.

Presented yesterday in room 420 of MSU's Student Success Building, the report showed that both crime and homelessness had increased from 2013-2014 — but like many studies on social issues, it provoked just as many questions as answers.

Students of the schools criminal justice and criminology, and psychology programs looked at Denver County crime data from as far back as 2010 and found a rise in crimes such as assault, drug possession, burglary and driving impaired from 2013-2014.

It's hard to tell if the 15 percent increase in total crime was directly related to cannabis or following an earlier trend, however, as crime in Denver rose 40 percent from 2010-2013 according to the study.

Denver's reputation as a rapidly growing city isn't enough to explain the crime increase, either; Denver County's population rose by less than 1 percent in 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau reveals. And according to Denver Marijuana Management Analyst Netia Ingram, the numbers may be a bit misleading. She says the apparent increase in crime is related to the Denver Police Department changing the way it reported stats in 2013, as well as changing policies that increased the number of petty citations but decreased violent and property crimes.

In addition, students surveyed eleven local homeless shelters last year to see if there was an increase in visitors since legalization, as well as to get information about the demographics. Although the surveys were non-random and based more on employee perception, most shelter interviewees saw a rise in numbers over the past year. The four shelters that regularly kept sign-in sheets saw a 15-30 percent increase in signatures in 2014 and all noticed more young, white clients.

"I know there has been an increase in people that are homeless because of the marijuana industry and housing is a lot more difficult to get. You know, I don't know scientifically. I haven't asked people, but that is the word on the street," an anonymous shelter employee is quoted as saying in the study.

Despite homeless shelters reporting more people, another part of the study that referenced Project Homeless Connect — an annual outdoor homeless outreach in Denver — reported a decrease in homeless numbers. However, it's important to note that the 2013 survey was conducted in 78-degree weather in August and the 2014 version was done in 22-degree weather in November.

Study author Corey Engle said he had hoped to get a larger range of numbers to look at.

"We were originally trying to get as many as seven years back on Project Homeless Connect, but could only get dates from 2013 and 2014," he said. "We were interested in looking at not only when (recreational marijuana) passed, but also back when Denver originally asked the police force to stop prioritizing marijuana possession."

Although the study reported increases in cases of homelessness, drug possession, assault, larceny, traffic violations and domestic violence, none of the other data (with the exception of drug possession, of course) showed if the incidents were related to cannabis.

Nicole Pyfer, one of the authors of the study's crime section, said she wished the data the authors collected provided more context. "Our crime numbers are just that — numbers. We don't have the why," she acknowledged.

Students also surveyed Denver metro residents about the daily impact marijuana has on their community, asking them if they felt legalizing marijuana had led to an increase in crime and worsened Denver's quality of life.

Of the 231 people interviewed, 18 percent felt legalization had increased crime and 34 percent were not satisfied with how it had impacted their community. Respondents weren't asked if they voted in favor of retail marijuana during interviews.

Some of the students will travel to Washington D.C in November to present their study at the American Society of Criminology's annual meeting.

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