Sheriff, police chief say legalization raises many unanswered questions
While libertarians, potheads, and critics of the nation’s “War on Drugs” celebrate the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Colorado, Montezuma County law enforcement officials have some practical concerns about weed becoming the second consciousness-altering drug legally available in the state (alcohol being the other).
Both Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane and Sheriff Dennis Spruell recently discussed some of the less-obvious impacts the new freedom to catch a buzz in the privacy of one’s home (the only place pot is allowed to be used under the state’s somewhat vague regulations) may have.
Retail sales of marijuana began on Jan. 1, dubbed “Green Wednesday,” in municipalities such as Denver, Pueblo, Frisco, Breckenridge and Telluride. According to 9News in Denver, pot shops sold $1 million worth of the leafy substance on the first day alone.
While the Cortez City Council will not even address the issue of allowing retail pot shops to operate within its boundaries until May, the town already allows the sale of medical marijuana. Other than a few incidents involving break-ins at the pot clinics, those outlets haven’t caused a significant rise in criminal activity, Lane stated in an earlier interview.
However, enforcement of the complex laws regulating the retail outlets and governing pot use presents one more task for his officers, Lane observed, since the state is only minimally involved in enforcing such new regulations.
“It’s cut down to where we [local law enforcement] have to control them and make sure everything is run like it’s supposed to, so it takes additional time for us,” he said.
How, for instance, is the one-ounce maximum purchase rule for state residents and the quarter-ounce rule for non-residents supposed to be enforced, since buyers can easily make purchases from different outlets?
Lane said there is only one state enforcement agent based in Grand Junction responsible for overseeing the entire retail pot operation on the Western Slope. “It’s another one of those unmandated things we have to do, so I have to have someone go around and check them periodically,” he said, “and that takes time and effort and if things aren’t being done right, that means we have to go back and make sure they are being done right.
“So it’s definitely an additional burden on us so far.”
Lane said at this point his chief worry about the private, recreational use of pot is the possible effect the second-hand smoke might have on children.
“My concern is marijuana being smoked in the home with small kids around,” he said. “As far as other crimes, I would hate to even guess – in six months I might be able to give you a better indication, but right now my only concern is the kids being in that atmosphere, because the only place you can legally smoke it is in people’s homes.”
Lane said he is not aware of any educational efforts similar to those concerning the effects of second-hand cigarette smoke being proposed by the state.
Just as with the medical-marijuana-clinic regulations, those for retail shops were not well thought-out by the state, Lane said, and only time will tell what unintended effects the legalization of small amounts of weed will have.
“We’ll just have to wait and see – it’s just such a new thing and a change in life the way it’s lived in that part of the world. “Until (the new law) has been in effect for six months or a year, we really won’t know” what the impact might be. But he did predict a general increase in the use of marijuana. “There’s no doubt in my mind – just like with liquor – that when a kid reaches 21 years of age there’s going to be an increase in use.”
Lane said at this point he didn’t even want to venture an opinion as to whether he would support the establishment of retail stores in Cortez. The city has several medical-marijuana dispensaries, and such dispensaries will continue operating throughout the state separately from retail outlets because medical marijuana will not be taxed at the steep 25 percent rate levied on recreational pot.
Spruell, who had predicted when running for sheriff three years ago that pot would be legalized eventually, said although the drug is not high on his priority list of criminal activities to which law-enforcement resources should be dedicated, he’s always been against its legalization, and some of the projected statistics concerning its impacts are “very, very scary.”
“I was, of course, against the legalization of marijuana, but it’s a constitutional amendment, so I will abide by the will of the people of Colorado,” Spruell said.
He cited some statistical information from a report titled, “The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado,” and is published by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, that projects numerous negative impacts the sanctioned use of pot could have.
For instance, Colorado driving fatalities declined16 percent between 2006 and 2011, according to the report, but fatalities involving drivers testing positive for marijuana went up 114 percent, he said.
“The national average is 7.6 percent of youth between 12 and 17 that use [marijuana],” Spruell said, “but in Colorado it’s 17.2 percent, and in adults it’s 18 percent nationally, but in Colorado it’s 27 percent. Emergency visits here are higher and it just keeps on and on – just different stuff.”
The report, which he admitted was fairly dated, was funded in part by the U.S Department of Justice. It concedes the data is preliminary and includes arguments made on both sides of the issue, although its obvious intent is to highlight the harmful impacts of more widespread marijuana use. (The full report is available by googling “Rocky Mountain HIDTA.”)
The report, citing statistics from the Rocky Mountain Poison Center, said marijuana- related exposures for children ages infant to 5 rose from an average of 4 per year from 2006-08 to 12 from 2009-12.
It also said emergency-room admissions for marijuana only among youths 12 to 17 in the Denver and Aurora metropolitan areas increased from 25 percent of the total marijuana-related admissions in 2005-08 to 28 percent in 2009-2011.
Spruell said although he foresaw pot’s legalization as inevitable, “I was never for it because I was afraid for the youth of our country, and I didn’t want Colorado to be known as ‘The Stoner State.’
“I didn’t think it would increase our crime rate a lot, because marijuana isn’t the methamphetamine of the world, but there will be some fallout with easier access to marijuana among our youth.”
Spuell said at present alcohol is a far larger problem among the general population, but that is in large part because it is legal, and he fears that the legalization of pot could cause a similar trend.
Spruell agreed with Lane that enforcing whatever laws and regulations that accompany its legalization will increase the workload of his officers and add to the already voluminous paperwork they must generate.