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What Law Enforcement Can Learn from Marijuana Legalization in Colorado

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By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety

Law enforcement agencies around the country must learn from the impacts of Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana so they are prepared for similar legislation in their own communities. The 38th annual California Police Chiefs (CPCA) training symposium offered an educational session, The Impact of Marijuana on Public Safety in Colorado, featuring three panelists involved in Colorado’s transition to legalized marijuana.

Pete Dunbar is a former California police chief and is the former director of Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training. He warned California police chiefs in the room that they must prepare for the legalization of recreational marijuana and learn from the experience of Colorado law enforcement agencies.

“The sea has shifted about marijuana whether you like it or not,” he said. “You might not want to have it legalized, but learn from Colorado and look what could happen when you don’t think legislation will pass.”

The First Step is Acceptance
One of the initial issues that Colorado law enforcement faced was simply accepting the legalization of marijuana. Chief John Jackson of the Greenwood Village Police Department, which serves a suburb of Denver, admitted that he was in denial about the passage of Amendment 64. The day after it passed he called the attorney general, feeling blindsided because law enforcement was told the law wouldn’t pass. No one, not the AG or other state leaders, knew what to do or how police should respond.

[Related article: Are Conflicting Comments by Obama on Marijuana Policy Undermining Law Enforcement’s Drug War?]

Jackson was not alone in his denial. “There were 14,000 officers in Colorado who needed training. The first thing I did was talk to officers on the front lines,” said Michael Song, assistant attorney general in Colorado, who provided legal training for law enforcement officers. “It was obvious that many of them were in stage one of depression. They were in shock and denial and they were angry. So the quicker you can get officers to the last stage—acceptance—the better it will be for public safety.”

Legalizing marijuanaPanelists recommended that other states act now to work with their communities on what the best outcome for their community is and then train their law enforcement officers, as appropriate, so that they can adapt to the laws, maintain a positive attitude about it, and remain flexible. “That one-year void in our training from when it was legalized to when we started delivering training was a big loss,” said Jackson. “Other states need to act quicker and be more decisive from the start.”

One of the best things the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) did, however, was stay involved in the conversation. From day one, CACP said that it wanted a seat at the table and to stay engaged with the community to help create good policy. “Whether you embrace it or not, you need to engage with the community to figure it out,” he recommended.

Advocate for Law Enforcement’s Share of the Money
One of the major justifications for the legalization of recreational marijuana was the increased tax money for the state. However, at this point the financial incentives don’t appear to be panning out.

“It’s not worth it,” Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said on Feb. 23 during a state attorneys general conference, reported US News & World Report. Coffman was referring to the $76 million the state collected in taxes and fees from marijuana sales in 2014.

“Don’t get intoxicated with the money and lose sight of the social costs and ramifications,” said Jackson. Upon passage of the law, one of the biggest mistakes Colorado made was that it did not adequately allocate funds to train law enforcement officers about the implications of the law.

The law is extremely confusing. Amendment 20, which passed in 2000, approved use of medical marijuana with written medical consent, allowing patients to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and cultivate no more than six cannabis plants. That is, unless they have a doctor’s permission, in which case they can cultivate additional plants based on the doctor’s recommendation.

Under Amendment 64, which passed in 2012, adults 21 or older can grow up to six cannabis plants and possess one ounce of marijuana. Caregivers can grow six plants for each patient. A caregiver can have up to five patients (and more with state permission). Individuals can also keep the yields from their plants. Thus, it is a daunting task for police officers to determine how many plants and the amount of marijuana a person can legally possess.

“We have cops trying to do the math to make sure a person hasn’t exceeded their legal limit of marijuana and that’s a problem—it’s unworkable,” said Jackson. “We don’t take marijuana plants any more, it’s just too confusing.”

Jackson recommends training officers ahead of time, if possible. “We’ve done a woefully bad job training our officers,” he said. “Take the time and spend the money to train officers.”

Invest in and Set up Data Collection Systems Now
Another major mistake Colorado made was that it didn’t have data collection systems in place to quantify the impacts of legalization. Panelists agreed that states like California that are facing such legislation must start implementing data collection systems now.

“Not collecting data gives you the answers to nothing,” he said. “If you set it up ahead of time and have data systems in place, you can quickly quantify the problems.”

The overarching message from the session was that law enforcement agencies around the country need to learn from Colorado’s experience. As demonstrated during this educational session, Colorado’s leaders are willing to share their experience with other law enforcement agencies so missteps and mistakes aren’t repeated. For more resources about the law enforcement response in Colorado, visit the Colorado Association Chiefs of Police website.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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