Marijuana Dispensaries and Disadvantaged Neighborhoods | The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse

Marijuana Dispensaries and Disadvantaged Neighborhoods

Marijuana Dispensaries and Disadvantaged Neighborhoods

As more states push for the legalization of marijuana, there is increasing fear that the stores that sell marijuana, commonly known as dispensaries, will have a negative impact on their surrounding communities. Both recreational and medical marijuana are legal in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Alaska, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Maine. However, because of the negative ripple effects of legalizing marijuana, state support doesn’t necessarily translate into local backing. 

The many concerns surrounding dispensaries

Areas with dispensaries fear that there will be increased marijuana use. Some residents complain of odor. Community leaders worry that neighborhoods significantly impacted by drugs and the war on drugs are now being asked to shoulder the burden and risk of having dispensaries on their streets. Some see the location of these stores as a way to circumvent resistance to placing dispensaries in wealthier areas.

These fears are well-founded. While a wide range of individuals from many different socio-economic status groups utilize the dispensaries, many of the areas with dispensaries are economically disadvantaged and lack the political and economic power to discourage the placement of these stores in their communities. The dispensaries are also often placed in locations with alcohol outlets nearby. Hence, the fears associated with dispensaries are an added worry to the many challenges disadvantaged communities already face. Data show that the neighborhoods with dispensaries bear the brunt of the industry’s presence in their communities: the more marijuana dispensaries a neighborhood has, the greater the number of marijuana-related hospitalizations.

Another concern is that children and adolescents will be at heightened risk of using the marijuana sold at these dispensaries, as the drug becomes far more accessible. And youth in disadvantaged neighborhoods are known to be at even higher risk. Regulations to prevent adolescent use have done little to ease concerns. Sometimes, laws that are applied to tobacco and alcohol retail outlets aren’t enforced in the same way for marijuana, particularly zoning laws. Indeed, anti-marijuana activists are increasingly concerned about these stores being located near schools.

Residents of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods who were assured that the taxes from the dispensaries would be put back into the community aren’t seeing the benefits. In one working class Denver neighborhood, there hasn’t been any sign of revitalization, despite the promises of city politicians.

What can be done?

Marijuana use, particularly among youth, greatly increases the risk for mental illnesses, and can be detrimental to a young person’s social, psychological, and intellectual development. Regardless of its legal status in a particular community, marijuana should not be accessible to young people and should not be allowed to interfere with their healthy development.

As states move forward with legalized marijuana despite its known risks and disadvantages, communities that have dispensaries should receive adequate funding to ensure that effective policies and programs are put into place to help prevent young people from using marijuana. There also needs to be a concerted effort to zone dispensaries in an equal, fair, and safe way. Otherwise, the proliferation of dispensaries will come at a much heavier price. 

Jordana Vanderselt, MPH

 Jordana is a Research Associate at The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse

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