As Michigan voters consider whether to legalize recreational marijuana, law enforcement agencies are assessing how to respond if the measure passes in November.
Police departments can look to the nine other states and the District of Columbia where recreational use is already legal. The effect in those states has been mixed.
“Don’t think of it as a plant. Think if it as a commodity or think of it as money.”
“From a law enforcement perspective, it has caused us some issues,” says Ret. Police Chief Marc Vasquez. He spent more than 40 years in Colorado law enforcement. He currently works as a consultant.
Vasquez says recreational marijuana has contributed to several problems, including behind the wheel.
“We have seen increased impairment on our roadways” says Vasquez.
The numbers appear to back up Vasquez.
In 2016, the latest year statistics are available, 77 deaths on Colorado roadways were linked to marijuana use.
But by comparison, 26% of the more than 600 driving fatalities that year in Colorado were tied to alcohol use. It’s also worth noting that the head of the Colorado Department of Transportation, at the time the numbers were released, blamed an “epidemic of distracted driving” for rising highway fatalities.
When it comes to catching drivers impaired with cannabis, one frustration for law enforcement is the science is still trying to catch up.
“We don’t have a breathalyzer device, at this juncture, that can accurately detect the level of THC that’s in a person’s system,” says Vasquez.
Because of the way the human body processes THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive compound in marijuana, there is no reliable test to determine if a driver is actually impaired. So, the task falls to police officers to assess whether drivers appear under the influence.
The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice recently looked at more than 27,000 DUI arrest records. 91% were for alcohol. Only 6% were for marijuana.
Those numbers are leading some to a different conclusion about the effect recreational marijuana is having on drivers.
In Diane Goldstein’s opinion, "the sky has not fallen.”
Goldstein is a former Redondo Beach, California police officer and is currently the chair of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a national group that supports changing the nation’s marijuana laws.
She does not see recreational marijuana laws creating a crisis. Though she says police agencies do need to improve their response.
Goldstein says police officers need better training and states need to spend more money on research to develop reliable testing and improved DUI data collection.
“I believe, just like with the alcohol industry, the cannabis industry needs to be responsible” says Goldstein. “[Public service campaigns] worked with the alcohol industry. We need to do the same with the cannabis industry.”
“I think the percentage of drivers in fatal accidents that had pot on board is not very different in the past to what it is now” says Lenny Frieling.
In addition to four decades of experience as a criminal defense attorney, Frieling is a board member emeritus of the Colorado chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
“What we know for certain is we didn’t test for it,” says Frieling. He says the lack of testing in the past is skewing the data that’s being produced now.
Law enforcement agencies are also concerned about other types of crime. In particular, criminals who may hide behind a state’s recreational law to grow marijuana intended to cross state lines.
In Denver, legal and illegal marijuana both thrive
It may seem strange, in a city where a marijuana retail shop is usually little more than a short walk away, that Colorado’s capitol city is also a center for illegal grow operations too.
“Don’t think of it as a plant. Think if it as a commodity or think of it as money,” says Lt. Andrew Howard. He’s with the Denver Police Department’s Vice and Drug Control Bureau. He oversees three separate teams that investigate the city’s marijuana black market.
“The majority of our illegal marijuana grows are from people that have moved here from out of state,” says Howard. “They are packaging the marijuana and sending it back to a different state.”
Howard says growers can make three to four times more selling marijuana in states where pot remains illegal than they would selling it in Colorado.
Illegal growers often set up shop in single family homes in quiet neighborhoods.
“They are hiding in plain sight,” says Det. Sgt. Aaron Rebeterano, who has been part of the Denver PD’s marijuana teams for two years.
In August, garbage trucks were needed for all the marijuana plants seized in raids on dozens of homes and businesses in the Denver area.
But hiding in plain sight is not all they’re doing.
“In 2017, we had seven homicides directly connected to marijuana grows,” Howard says. “I would love to be able to shift some of my resources away from marijuana to other things, but right now the violence is marijuana or marijuana-related.”
Tom Gorman is the director of the Rocky Mountain Drug Trafficking High Intensity Area, which is a program that coordinates federal, state and local drug enforcement agencies.
Gorman says in 2016 they seized 3 ½ tons of black market marijuana. In 2017, he says they seized 7 tons.
“Now we have whole new brand drug trafficking organizations specializing strictly in marijuana,” says Gorman.
Gorman laughs when he recalls some supporters of legalizing recreational marijuana suggesting it would allow police to focus on something other than pot.
“It is actually taking more of our time. It’s a whole new industry,” says Gorman.
But others argue marijuana has long been a black market industry, and allowing a highly regulated industry to take its place will help reduce crime.
Michael Whitty is a lecturer at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where he teaches a course on drug policy reform.
He takes issue with those in law enforcement who point to the current black market in legal marijuana states as a reason why voters should reject the recreational ballot question in November.
“It seems counter-intuitive to me,” says Whitty. “Seems like a black market would leave more room for crime with less direct transparency and supervision.”
Diane Goldstein, with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, expects it will be difficult for many police departments to fully accept recreational marijuana use.
“Law enforcement is still stuck in some aspects of ‘group-think’ mentality. Because we tend to view drug use from a moral point of view instead of a public health strategy,” says Goldstein.