Steve Chapman

They suspect that some people switch from alcohol to cannabis -- and that pot smokers are either less likely to drive while impaired or, if they do drive, are less likely to crash.

The epidemic of crime that cops expected failed to materialize. The state's crime rate has fallen by nearly 40 percent since 1996, and violent crime has been cut in half. Crime fell nationally as well, but not quite as much as in California. The same pattern holds even if you look solely at the period after 2004, when dispensaries became common.

None of this has changed the tune of those who were against it all along. In 2009, the California Police Chiefs Association put out a report repeating the litany of horrors, including the allegation that "minors who are exposed to marijuana at dispensaries or residences where marijuana plants are grown may be subtly influenced to regard it as a generally legal drug, and inclined to sample it." Or they may not.

The group says that "many violent crimes have been committed that can be traced to the proliferation of marijuana dispensaries" and that "criminals in search of prey" are "commonly encountered outside" them. Yet somehow the Golden State has gotten dramatically safer.

Some areas have more such shops and the resulting traffic than neighbors prefer, which also happens with liquor stores and convenience stores. But even alongside the dens of iniquity, trouble is not the norm. A study by UCLA professors Nancy Kepple and Bridget Freisthler found no evidence that marijuana outlets generate crime in the surrounding areas.

All this news is a good omen for states that are considering legalization of recreational use of cannabis, something Colorado and Washington embraced last year. It's also reassuring for residents of Illinois, which will allow medical use starting Jan. 1. But if you're expecting a more liberal policy to be a big deal, you're in for a letdown.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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