Connecting The Dots On Rising Gang Violence In Denver

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Gang violence in Denver is on the rise. Only 4 months into the year, the city is on track for its most violent year since 2010 according to the Denver Post. As of this week, 120 people have been injured in 61 gang-related assaults. With an average 150 annual gang-related assaults occurring yearly over the past five years, 2015 is shaping up to be a banner year. 

So what’s going on? One explanation is a “troubled relationship” between the police and the community. Another explanation is the lack of “alternatives to the gang life,” presumably employment opportunities. A Denver police commander concedes, “No one has been able to find a meaningful answer as to exactly why gang violence has spiked.”

Let’s look at these explanations. Denver’s 5280 Magazine published an article last year, “Allegations of Denver police brutality are nothing new.” They chronicled the high-profile lawsuit settlements by the Denver police over the past 12 years. It seems the troubled relationship between the police and the community is ongoing, certainly not a new phenomenon this year, and not explaining the spike in gang violence in 2015.

What about jobs? The Denver metro unemployment rate is currently about 4.5 percent, down from a high of 9 percent in 2010. If anything, employment opportunities, which certainly qualify as “alternatives to gang life” are more plentiful now than they have been over the past five years. “Opportunities for educational and vocational advancements,” are one of the key anti-gang strategies of the U.S. Department of Justice. The Denver unemployment rate, one percentage point lower than the national unemployment rate, certainly provides such opportunity.

So what else might be responsible for the increase in gang-related violence this year? How about recreational marijuana, which became legal in Colorado just over a year ago?

The crime statistics for crime in Denver, comparing 2013 (marijuana illegal) with 2014 (marijuana legal) are a mixed bag. Overall crime was down 7 percent post-legalization, driven largely by a drop in homicide and theft from a motor vehicle, but other categories such as aggravated assault and larceny were actually slightly higher. The conventional wisdom is that marijuana legalization reduces crime, but then why is gang activity and violence on the rise?

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, in their 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary, noted, “Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO) and criminal groups will increasingly exploit the opportunities for marijuana cultivation and trafficking created in states that allow ‘medical marijuana’ grows and have legalized marijuana sales and possession.“ Meaning that marijuana legalization may well increase criminal gang activity.

Legalization in Colorado should reduce the demand for illegal marijuana since anyone can now buy it legally from a dispensary. On the surface this would be a blow to the drug cartels and the gangs that serve as wholesaler, distributor, and retailer for illegal weed. But basic economics may trump conventional wisdom. With a 28 percent tax on recreational marijuana in Colorado, it might be much cheaper for users to purchase the illegal weed, without paying the tax. This is actually what’s happening. Colorado’s marijuana tax isn’t bringing in the anticipated revenue. If fact, it’s 42 percent less than planned. This means the gangs still have a role in the marijuana trade, acting like big box retailers undercutting the smaller local businesses.

Another problem is, “Gangsters buying out weed stores’ inventory and selling it in other states, or perhaps using the black market to undercut the heavily regulated legal one, which levies a 25-percent tax at each step of the way from grower to smoker,” according to a Seattle County sheriff’s detective. Washington also has legalized recreational marijuana. Colorado’s neighbors, Nebraska and Oklahoma, are seeing in increase in marijuana crossing the border from Colorado, and have filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court. Although it’s not clear how much marijuana is crossing the border via individuals versus gangs, but both purchasing legally in Colorado then selling in adjoining states.

Lastly, the gangs operate as businesses. They diversify their portfolios. Cut their profit in marijuana and they will gravitate toward selling other drugs. Prostitution and gambling are other potential business opportunities for the gangs. Look at Wal-Mart. With increasing competition from Target, Costco, and other large retailers including on-line retailers, they are diversifying into healthcare, selling insurance and setting up primary care medical clinics. Expect the drug cartels, and their retail arm of gangs to do the same. With in an increase in these other illegal activities, expect gang activity to increase as well.

This is not an argument for or against marijuana legalization, simply an acknowledgement of potential unintended consequences. I wrote about some of these a year ago. Denver’s increase in gang violence may be another unintended consequence. The reason why, “No one has been able to find a meaningful answer as to exactly why gang violence has spiked,” may be that no one is seriously looking for an answer.

Brian C Joondeph, MD, MPS, a Denver based physician and writer. Twitter @retinaldoctor.