SAN FRANCISCO — Patients, growers and clinics in some of the 14 states that allow medical marijuana are increasingly falling victim to robberies, home invasions, shootings and even murders at the hands of pot thieves.
There have been dozens of cases in recent months. The issue received more attention this week after a prominent medical marijuana activist in Seattle nearly killed a robber in a shoot-out — the eighth time thieves had targeted his pot-growing operation.
Critics say the heists and holdups prove that marijuana and crime are inseparable, though marijuana advocates contend that further legalization is the answer. News of crimes related to medical marijuana comes at an awkward time for California and Washington advocates who are pushing to pass ballot measures to allow all adults, not just the seriously ill, to possess the drug.
"Whenever you are dealing with drugs and money, there is going to be crime. If people think otherwise, they are very naive," said Scott Kirkland, the police chief in El Cerrito, Calif., and a vocal critic of his state's voter-approved medical marijuana law.
"People think if we decriminalize it, the Mexican cartels and Asian gangs are going to walk away. That's not the world I live in," Kirkland said.
Activists and law enforcement officials say it is difficult to get an accurate picture of crimes linked to medical marijuana because many drug users don't report the crimes to police for fear of arousing unwanted attention from the authorities. But the California Police Chiefs Association used press clippings to compile 52 medical marijuana-related crimes — including seven homicides — from April 2008 to March 2009.
Police and marijuana opponents say the violence is further proof that the proliferation of medical marijuana is a problem that will worsen if the drug is legalized or decriminalized.
Others say the opposite: that prohibition breeds crime and legalization would solve the problem. They also say the robberies have exposed the need for more regulation of medical marijuana laws in states like California, Washington and Colorado.
"The potential for people to get ripped off and for people to use guns to have to defend themselves against robbers is very real," said Keith Stroup, founder and chief legal counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "But it's nothing to do with medical marijuana. It is to do with the failure of states to regulate this."
Marijuana advocates say there is adequate regulation in New Mexico, where officials say there have been no violent medical marijuana robberies.
Medical cannabis is primarily grown by a small number of regularly inspected nonprofits in New Mexico, and the state keeps their names and locations confidential. The law includes extensive requirements covering security, quality control, staff training and education about the use of the drug.
Most medical marijuana states have only vague rules for caregivers or dispensaries participating in a business with products that can fetch $600 an ounce. Some states, including California and Colorado, can only guess how many pot dispensaries they have because the businesses don't have to register with the state.
"This is ridiculous, in my opinion, to have medical marijuana and no regulation," Stroup said. "A jewelry store wouldn't open without security, and if it did, a scuzzy person's going to break in and steal all their diamonds."
Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the pro-pot Drug Policy Alliance, said that while the robberies are disturbing, there is no way to conclude that legalized marijuana breeds any more crime than convenience stores, banks or homes stocked with expensive jewelry and electronics.
In fact, Denver police said the 25 robberies and burglaries targeting medical marijuana in the city in the last half of 2009 amounted to a lower crime rate than what banks or liquor stores there suffered.
Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, but the Obama administration loosened its guidelines for prosecutions of medical pot last year. The Justice Department told federal prosecutors that targeting people who use or provide medical marijuana in strict compliance with state laws was not a good use of their time.