In this April 20, 2013, file photo, members of a crowd numbering tens of thousands smoke marijuana and listen to live music at the Denver 420 pro-marijuana rally at Civic Center Park in Denver. (Brennan Linsley, The Associated Press)

Legal pot has little impact in Denver crime increase, stats show

When the state Senate in New Mexico this week considered a measure that would have asked voters whether to legalize marijuana, the debate inevitably became as much about Colorado as the lawmakers’ home state.

When making his case against the measure, Sen. William Sharer, a Republican from Farmington, pointed to Denver, where he said crime has increased since retail marijuana stores opened in the city in 2014.

The measure ultimately failed, 24-17.

Marijuana policy experts and Colorado officials urge caution when trying to grade legalization’s impacts — which are the subject of debate all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where this week justices are scheduled to discuss a lawsuit over pot filed against Colorado by two neighboring states. But there is one thing that legalization supporters, opponents and neutrals within Colorado agree on: It’s unlikely marijuana has much to do with Denver’s recent uptick in crime, as Sharer suggested it did.

“Crime is up,” said Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson,” but I don’t know if you can relate it to marijuana.”

Since 2012, the year when Colorado voters passed recreational marijuana legalization, the number of crimes in Denver has grown by about 44 percent, according to annual figures the city reported to the National Incident Based Reporting System. Police have, in the past, argued that system potentially over-counts crimes and preferred instead to cite the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, which shows a 3½ percent increase over the same span. Both of those increases are tempered when taking population growth into account.

But, regardless of the counting system, marijuana’s contribution to the measurement is small.

Beginning in 2012, city safety officials began tracking crimes that they believe are marijuana-related. The city counted 223 offenses in that first year, with 172 of those being connected to the marijuana industry, which at the time only encompassed medical marijuana businesses. Last year, the city counted 251 marijuana-related offenses, including 183 connected to the medical and recreational marijuana industry. (The numbers are for more serious offenses and do not include petty citations for violations such as public marijuana consumption nor do they include crimes committed by juveniles.)

That means, in any given year, marijuana-related crimes in Denver make up less than 1 percent of all offenses counted in the Uniform Crime Report and less than a half percent of all NIBRS offenses.

“There’s absolutely no evidence that our change in marijuana laws has contributed to any specific crime increase,” said Mason Tvert, one of the activists who helped pass legalization in Colorado.

A group of Metropolitan State University of Denver students who last year looked into any connection between crime trends and marijuana legalization concluded the same thing.

Denver crime map: Interactive map tracks trends and stats for neighborhoods

Sharer, who, like his colleagues at the New Mexico Capitol, is in the closing days of that state’s legislative session, did not return a phone call for comment. But even people in Colorado who share his concern about legalization said the connection between Denver’s crime trends and marijuana is overstated.

“That’s a relatively small number of crimes,” said Tom Gorman, the director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, an organization that has spoken out against legalization. “When you look at overall crime in Denver, there’s so many reasons that crime rises and falls.”

John Ingold: 303-954-1068, or @johningold

This story was first published on