High Country: 99 problems but cannabis ain’t one
On New Year's Eve, the Aspen Police Department received a staggering 99 phone calls between the hours of 5:00 p.m. and 4:30 a.m. According to Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn, it wasn't a record-breaking year, but headline-making enough to make me reach out and ask him, "How many of those incidents involved cannabis?"
My assumption was zero and I was correct.
According to Linn, "Alcohol and drugs were factors in most of the calls. And until recently, marijuana was not even broken out separately and fell under the 'drug' umbrella. On New Year's Eve, we were only dealing with strictly hard drugs (with a tragic occurrence resulting in one death) — but now marijuana sort of occupies this no man's land territory because it's legal here, yet still considered a 'drug' federally."
"I think the numbers speak for themselves and no matter what the numbers are, on a holiday like New Year's Eve or otherwise, it's clear that alcohol incites more unpredictable and more violent behavior in people," explains Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo.
Linn adds, "I'm not trying to make a demeaning comparison, but (pot users) are a lot more threatening to a bag of Cheetos than to each other. It's just not the way the substance affects people in my experience."
The debate on cannabis and alcohol is nothing new, but in the years since the recreational legalization of marijuana, it has only intensified. While I was catching up on my favorite periodicals over the holidays, a long read in the December issue of 5280 magazine by former Skiing magazine editor Tracy Ross begged the question, "Skiing & Booze: Does Colorado Have A Drinking Problem?"
While official research on the health benefits of consuming marijuana are still largely lacking, there are numerous studies citing the harmful effects of alcohol. Ross referenced a recent one published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, "Which stated emphatically that risk of health issues goes up the more alcohol you consume and that the only 'safe' level of alcohol consumption is none."
She also shared that according to the American Journal of Public Health, when it came to American counties with the highest incidence rates of "any type of adult drinking," Pitkin County ranked third.
However, cannabis isn't completely in the clear as an issue Pitkin County officials have to deal with year-round. In 2018, Pitkin County made 133 alcohol-related contacts compared with 36 incidents involving marijuana, which ranged from underage possession to the substance simply being present on-property when an officer was responding to another issue. And there have been zero instances of individuals admitted to detox for cannabis in Pitkin County … ever.
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DiSalvo and Linn agree that the biggest problem cannabis causes is when tourists and locals alike break the law when it comes to consumption.
"It's mostly dealt with by issuing a verbal warning. What are we going to do? Force them into a car where there is the risk of an under-the-influence situation? The way marijuana is most commonly consumed is by smoking it and the fact is that there is no place — specifically for tourists — to do that," Linn says.
DiSalvo says, "I wish (the city of Aspen) would seriously consider a club type of atmosphere. There hasn't been much movement on the matter and I do find some level of hypocrisy that during events like Food & Wine, you can walk around town with your merlot and no one says a word. I'm not even sure it's not encouraged!"
Public and social use still has yet to be regulated at a state level, despite recreational retail sales being legal for more than five years. But now, with notable pot proponent Jared Polis as governor, the industry expects 2019 could finally be the year consumption laws change in Colorado. Here's hoping …
Katie Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @kshapiromedia.