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Medical marijuana crime stats may twist facts, activist says

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With Amendment 64, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, already approved for the November ballot, and other initiatives aiming for it, media stories related to cannabis are being read closer than ever for political subtext.

That's definitely the case with a 9News report about rising medical marijuana crime statistics -- figures that shouldn't be taken at face value, one activist argues.

The station's item has an apples-and-oranges quality. The story kicks off by noting that statistics from the Denver Police Department "show a 69 percent increase in overall crime at medical marijuana dispensaries, most notably a 75 percent increase in burglaries compared to this time last year."

These figures are derived from digits provided by the DPD's records department but not broken down in the station's on-air package. At this writing, the document attached to the web version of the report is too small to read; here's a more user-friendly look at the complete figures.

Correspondent Will Ripley shares some info about crimes at dispensaries in his offering, such as a May burglary that netted thieves $8 in cash from a "karma" jar and an April incident involving an accelerant on the roof of an MMC that was investigated as arson. But his focus is on the homicide last week of Richard Nack, a medical marijuana caregiver.

According to Detective John White, spokesman for the Denver Police Department, the investigation into Nack's slaying is "ongoing and very active" -- but at this point, he declines to share any specifics about the murder itself. As such, 9News quotes a neighbor and friend of Nack's, who says the caregiver, armed with a handgun, confronted intruders in his backyard at about 2 a.m. Friday, May 25. The neighbor subsequently recalls hearing several pops representing shots fired. Nack was found dead at approximately 7:15 a.m.

This incident prompts the neighbor to express concern to 9News' Ripley about marijuana growers living in residential neighborhoods. But the aforementioned Denver Police stats concern retail establishments, not caregivers -- a distinction stressed by Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente, an attorney and advocate for Amendment 64.

"Our goal is to take sales of marijuana out of homes, out of communities and neighborhoods, and put them in regulated commercial districts, the same way other products are sold," Vicente says. "That's what Amendment 64 would accomplish, and we think that would be a safer and more regulated model to adopt. You don't see people breaking in and shooting folks to steal their home-brewed alcohol. It just doesn't happen. So if we remove that criminal element, I really don't think we're going to see the kind of violence" that, in this case, appears to have taken Nack's life.

Regarding what to take away from the DPD numbers, Vicente advises deeper analysis based on past experiences.

Page down to continue reading about the reported rise in medical marijuana crime. "The government has a long and storied history of twisting statistics to try to either jail marijuana users or keep marijuana illegal," Vicente maintains. "So we certainly need to be very skeptical.

"Looking back historically in Denver, voters have voted numerous times to lessen penalties for marijuana possession, and the police have really not respected those votes. And the statistics they're talking about are really quite different from what we've seen in Colorado and beyond, where other numbers have shown that the presence of a regulated and licensed dispensary in a community actually makes that community safer. There are security guards, lights, tax revenues pouring in and people often working at buildings that used to be vacant. And all those things can really raise the value of a community."

In Vicente's opinion, "linking marijuana with violence, or saying marijuana causes people to be violent, is a tactic we've seen since the Reefer Madness decade of the 1930s and beyond. And [Colorado Attorney General] John Suthers and other opponents of sensible marijuana reform are going to continue to use those tactics" straight through to election day, he predicts.

In an attempt to counter such claims, Vicente goes on, "we're trying to stress to voters the relative safety of marijuana as a recreational substance, and the fact that marijuana is already here, and we can only benefit as a society by moving it behind the counter."

Vicente calls Nack's death "tragic" -- but equating it to a rise in crime at dispensaries doesn't make much sense to him. Indeed, he sees moving marijuana out of residences and into commercial districts will improve safety, not cause it to decline.

"There's no reason for us to continue to fuel a violent underground market," he says.

Look below to see 9News' report about the so-called "surge in crime involving medical marijuana in Denver."

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More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Colorado Democratic Party convention supports Amendment 64."

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