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More states look at legal marijuana

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Police say legal marijuana allows them to focus on more serious crime

October 7, 2014 4:17 pm Printer-friendly version

Click on photo to enlarge or download: Graphic by Sean McMinnClick on photo to enlarge or download: Graphic by Sean McMinn

Three jurisdictions, Washington, D.C., Oregon and Alaska, are following Colorado and Washington’s path to legalizing marijuana. It’s on the November ballot in all three jurisdictions.

But the effects of doing so are still largely unknown, including the states’ main reason for legalization – freeing law enforcement officials to focus on other crimes.

There is only one report that chronicles the trends after the 2012 vote in Colorado that includes law-enforcement data, according to Allen St. Pierre, executive director for NORML, which promotes marijuana legislation reform. There are no complete studies available for Washington state, where recreational shops have been operating only since July.

In the District of Columbia,  63 percent of voters in an NBC4-Washington Post-Marist poll  taken in mid-September said they are in favor of legalizing marijuana. In a July poll in Alaska, voters opposed the initiative  49 percent to 44 percent. And a SurveyUSA-KATU TV poll of 568 likely voters in Oregon in late September found 44 percent in favor and 40 percent opposed.

The status report from the Drug Policy Alliance says there was a 10.1 percent decrease in overall crime, a 5.2 percent decrease in violent crime and a drop in burglaries and robberies of marijuana dispensaries in Colorado in the first six months. The alliance supports legalizing marijuana.

“That by definition says the police are doing something different,” St. Pierre said.

The numbers aren’t directly correlated with the legalization of marijuana, but rather show the opposite of what many citizens feared, said Bryan Vicente, a Colorado lawyer who helped draft Amendment 64. A lot of people thought crime would increase after  Amendment 64 passed, but it’s done the opposite, which was a main goal for the ballot initiative.

“I felt like it would set the tone for part of what we were trying to accomplish, which was essentially to steer law enforcement in a direction that was a better use and have more resources in the community,” Vicente said.

Anthony Johnson, chief petitioner for Oregon Initiative 91, had the same idea in mind when he first started advocating to legalize marijuana.

“Really, it’s just common sense that police have bigger priorities than non-violent people using marijuana. Every state has unsolved murders, unsolved burglaries, untested rape kits and missing children,” Johnson said. “Arresting and citing more than 100,000 people for the last decade has taken up more than two years of time which could be better spent.”

The several thousand citations for misdemeanor marijuana possession issued in Oregon each year have no real consequences on people’s lives, Johnson said. Plus, legalizing marijuana in the state would give police departments more money on top of time.

Initiative 91 would send 15 percent of the revenue from recreational marijuana sales to state police and 20 percent to local police.

Statistics from the ACLU Washington state chapter show court filings for misdemeanor marijuana possession have decreased from 7,964 arrests in 2009 to 120 filings in 2013, after Initiative 502 was passed.  A drop in filings from 2011 to 2012 is most likely explained by district attorneys not prosecuting marijuana cases after the November vote, according to Mark Cooke, criminal justice policy counsel for Washington’s ACLU.

“The data strongly suggest that I-502 has achieved one of its primary goals – to free up limited police and prosecutorial resources. These resources can now be used for other important public safety concerns,” Cooke said in a March news release.

Some retired police officers in Washington and Colorado say they dealt with marijuana in their careers, which is proof enough that legalization has freed up time for agencies.

For much of his 36 years as a Denver police officer, Tony Ryan said he constantly heard calls on the radio asking for a car to respond, but there weren’t enough officers to cover them.

“Some of that is because of a distraction of narcotics enforcement under the prohibition we have for most narcotic substances, and it’s taking officers off the street. The fact is when you’re enforcing narcotics laws, you’re probably enforcing marijuana laws,” Ryan said Tuesday in a Drug Policy Alliance teleconference.

“So, having this changed in Colorado relieved the police department of a lot of things and gives them more of a chance to do what cops are first and foremost supposed to do – which is answer calls for service,” he said.

In Seattle, I-502 has bettered the relationship officers have with the community, Norm Stamper, who retired as Seattle’s police chief in 2000, said on the call.

“It’s no secret that the relations between police officers and the communities they’ve been hired to serve are our most strained between cops and young people, and poor people and black and Latinos. And a huge factor contributing to this strain is marijuana enforcement,” Stamper said.

“A vast number of young people, poor people, and people of color have been arrested for marijuana possession over the years in Washington, but with I-502, we’ve seen a major shift in enforcement priorities, which means law enforcement can in fact focus on crimes.”

In 2013, there were 2,580 offenses related to marijuana – the second highest, following methamphetamines with 3,334 cases – according to statistics compiled by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

“There’s still going to be some marijuana-related behavior that will require police attention. We don’t expect that to exceed the level of enforcement of it did prior to the change in law,” Seattle Police Department Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said.

Even before legalization, there weren’t very many calls for marijuana crimes, Whitcomb said. For the past decade, marijuana has been decriminalized in Washington, which has left Seattle police free to handle other crimes.

Drug offenses in Colorado increased from 2011, before marijuana legalization, with 12,859 adult arrests to 13,568 adult arrests in 2012, when Amendment 64 was passed, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. In 2013, the number of arrests fell to 9,397.

But it’s still too early to tell how Amendment 64 is affecting staffing at the Denver Police Department, Communications Director Sonny Jackson said.

“It’s kind of a balancing act. Now we have people who are driving under the influence,” Jackson said. “It’s changed some areas and added in others.”