In 2013, Little Rock, Arkansas received a dubious distinction: on a list of the “Most Dangerous Cities in America,” the state’s capital and most populous city was on top, the riskiest place in the United States.
Why is this? What causes the “deviant behavior” that our laws have classified as “crime”? If you listen to criminologists, whose job it is to figure this out, theories for the root causes of crime are so complex and so hotly debated that a good rule of thumb has emerged: If a cause is simple and easy to explain, it is almost certainly wrong.
Keep this in mind when you digest this recent news from Arkansas, where police chiefs and other leaders in law enforcement are blaming a perceived increase in crime on attitudes—specifically, a “lax attitude towards marijuana.”
In November 2016, a few years after Little Rock’s slide into criminal purgatory Arkansas voters legalized medical marijuana. Their attitude is consistent with other voters across America: According to a 2017 poll conducted by Gallup, 64 percent of Americans believe cannabis should be legalized outright.
Mike Davis is chief of police of North Little Rock, a majority white city just north across the Arkansas River from the capital. In a recent interview with CBS affiliate THV-11, Davis, who spent much of his 30-plus-years in law enforcement on drug and gang task forces, suggested that an unspecified “increase” in crime was related to this attitudinal shift.
“We started really noticing that increase because several of our homicides this year kind of had ties to the marijuana trade,” Davis told the station.
Among the crimes that, according to Davis, “happen as a result” of marijuana: “car break-ins, house break-ins, commercial burglaries, shootings, robberies, and homicides.”
Another local law enforcement leader dug further into this theory, that, in the TV station’s words, a “lax attitude about marijuana has emboldened criminals, leaving behind deadly consequences.”
As per THV-11:
“We’ve always had crime related to marijuana, I mean that’s always been the case,” said Kevin Russell, a captain with Benton police. “I looked for cases involving marijuana just in the city since June 1, and it was 28 incidents, where it was somehow related in some shape, form, or fashion. That just seems like such an extremely high number that we’ve seen in a very short period of time.”
There are a few problems with this theory, starting with the complete lack of any evidence to support it — and data that has led criminologists to conclude that legalization may actually trigger a drop in crime.
According to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, the same data that allowed Little Rock to be declared a lawless cesspool, Arkansas has a crime rate nearly 10 percent higher than California, a place with very lax attitudes indeed towards the drug.
Granted, this is an apples-to-oranges comparison. There are two cities in California with more residents than live in all of Arkansas, which is not nearly as large or as varied geographically.
However, given that Californians have had a “lax attitude” on cannabis since at least the 1990s, when voters there legalized medical marijuana, it would suggest that there is at least one notable exception to Davis’s theory.
But there are more. In fact, there are exceptions almost everywhere you look. According to a study published in The Economic Journal, the “lax attitudes” that manifest into marijuana legalization laws reduce drug cartel activity so significantly that violent crime drops by 13 percent on average where the drug is legal.
In Little Rock itself, police arrested 702 people for marijuana possession in 2016 — up from 285 in 2012, around when the city earned its title as America’s most dangerous.
Earlier this summer, city lawmakers there rejected a proposal that would have decriminalized marijuana possession — in part because, according to police chief Kenton Buckner, cops there already treat cannabis possession more lightly than other crimes.
Applying Davis’s theory, this should be no surprise in America’s most dangerous town. But a few years after topping that unfortunate list, when the more laissez-faire attitudes were developing, another listicle pegged Little Rock as only the country’s ninth-most dangerous city.
It’s almost as if when police leaders like Mike Davis and Bentonville, Arkansas police Capt. Kevin Russell blame “lax attitudes on marijuana” for a rise in crime, they are completely full of it.
TELL US, do you think medical marijuana has anything to do with an increase in crime?