Western Slope police officers watch weed industry evolve
December 15, 2014
This is the final part in a two-part series focusing on marijuana law enforcement and education.
EAGLE COUNTY — Glenwood Springs Police Chief Terry Wilson thinks anyone who feels strongly about either side of the legalized marijuana argument is just, excuse the pun, blowing smoke.
Wilson said the decision-making so far stems from who had the most money to throw at the campaign. In 10 or 20 years, Coloradoans might ask themselves what they've done. Or, perhaps they'll ask what took so long to legalize weed in the first place.
"It's a big roll of the dice," Wilson said. "And we'll find out if we won or lost in a generation."
Wilson and every law enforcement officer in the state is facing that uncertainty head-on. New laws allow Colorado residents over the age of 21 to legally buy, use and possess up to an ounce of marijuana. Out of state residents can purchase up to ¼ ounce in a single transaction, but can possess up to one ounce.
New laws equal new laws to be broken. Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy doesn't think legalized weed means his department will have less to do in the way of enforcement. In fact, it could turn out to be just the opposite.
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"There's still enough illegal marijuana out there coming in to the state," Hoy said. "We still have enough (illegal) business out there we need to deal with."
And, marijuana is still illegal to use in public. It's illegal for anyone under 21 without a medical marijuana card, and it's illegal to drive under the influence of cannabis.
"Arrests will be made based on our understanding of the laws," Wilson said. "Court proceedings and appeals will flesh out what little there is in the gray areas."
Wilson expects public consumption to be one of the bigger concerns as legal recreational marijuana integrates into mountain communities. He remembers a wave of public pot smoking after medical marijuana was legalized when officers frequently found users lighting up right on Main Street.
Wilson said he knows another police officer who works near the Colorado-Wyoming border, where every weekend it's like a Cheech and Chong movie. Wyoming residents are being caught coming back from Colorado with marijuana, their cars often completely full of smoke when they're pulled over.
While those kinds of traffic stops make it easy for police officers trying to determine whether drivers are under the influence of marijuana, there are plenty of traffic stops when it's not so obvious. That's why law enforcement agencies across the mountain resort region and the state are training officers in drug recognition.
The Colorado Drug Recognition Expert program began in 1987, but the state's new legalized marijuana industry is making it more popular. Wilson has multiple officers trained, while Hoy said he has three officers trained through the program. The Pitkin County Sheriff's Department has one expert, said Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, and in Breckenridge — where there are four operating recreational marijuana stores open — Police Chief Shannon Haynes said her officers are familiar with roadside tests for marijuana. She's also sending an officer to the drug recognition expert training.
"There's a big push across the state to get more trained in drug recognition," Haynes said.
There's also a push to get the state to cough up more of its marijuana tax proceeds. The Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police last week sent a letter to the state asking for access to funds for enforcement because officers are having to divert their time away from other priorities.
Driving under the influence
The Colorado Department of Transportation launched a campaign last week targeting "drugged driving." The education campaign — called Drive High, Get a DUI — is a direct response to legalized marijuana. In 2012, the department reported 630 drivers involved in 472 motor vehicle fatalities in Colorado. Of the 630 drivers, 286 were tested for drugs, with 12 percent testing positive for cannabis.
Avon Police Chief Bob Ticer is chair of the Interagency Task Force on Drunk Driving and is promoting the CDOT campaign locally. He said police departments are not only certifying more drug recognition experts, but also more Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement, known as ARIDE. That program isn't as intensive as the drug recognition expert program, but it goes beyond the level of training police officers receive in police academies.
"The whole intent of this campaign in public awareness that it's unlawful to drive a vehicle under the influence of any substance," Ticer said. "We are really wanting to emphasize that (marijuana) is a substance that causes impairment."
A recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey found that 6.8 percent of drivers, mostly under age 35, who were involved in accidents tested positive for THC; alcohol levels above the legal limit were found in 21 percent of such drivers, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Marijuana impairs judgment, motor coordination and slows reaction time, research shows.
"We've had impaired drivers by marijuana since people have been driving cars," Ticer said. "There are misperceptions about it — some think it's not as dangerous as alcohol to drive on. I would say that it's just a different drug; it acts differently in the body."
And when people mix drugs — marijuana and alcohol are common pairings — impairment increases.
The American Association for Clinical Chemistry reported in 2013 that cannabis is second only to alcohol for causing impaired driving and motor vehicle accidents. The research, which was published in the journal Clinical Chemistry, also reported that cannabis smokers had a 10-fold increase in car crash injury compared with infrequent or nonusers.
The concern over impairment expands beyond Colorado's roadways, too. At the end of February, Vail Resorts and the U.S. Forest Service announced they would be working together to destroy so-called "smoke shacks" at the company's ski resorts. The illegal structures had been built for the purposes of smoking marijuana while skiing, something that is just as illegal as driving under the influence.
"The safety of our guests and our employees is our highest priority and we therefore take a zero tolerance approach to skiing or riding under the influence," said Blaise Carrig, president of Vail Resorts' Mountain Division, in a joint statement released by the company and the Forest Service. "We do not permit the consumption of marijuana in or on any of our lifts, facilities or premises that we control. … We want the public to know that the consequences of being caught smoking marijuana on our mountains are removal from the mountain and the suspension of skiing and riding privileges."
Recreational marijuana store owners are also trying to inform customers who might not know the laws. At Stash, a store just across from the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, co-owner Garrett Patrick told a Texas couple last week where they should consume their pot. He specifically said not while driving or skiing.
The woman, in her 60s, shrugged her shoulders after Patrick walked away and said she'd be using her newly purchased cannabis on the chair lift.
Pitkin Sheriff Joe DiSalvo hopes efforts throughout his county and the entire mountain resort region will result in more responsible marijuana use. Because so many of the customers walking into the pot shops in places like Aspen, Vail and Breckenridge will be tourists, educating them truly is up to the communities, he said.
That's why DiSalvo was so supportive of Jordan Lewis, owner of the Silverpeak Apothecary in downtown Aspen.
"He's doing it the right way," DiSalvo said.
Anyone who purchases marijuana at Silverpeak can ask a staff member anything about the laws, but Lewis also provides a pamphlet that guides customers toward responsible use. It outlines everything from consumption guidelines to possession laws. Conveniently, there's also a disclaimer on the back cover telling customers the contents of the pamphlet should not be taken as legal or medical advice.
"Our goal was to establish an environment that allowed for interaction and education that people would feel comfortable about," Lewis said. "We want to remove all the reservations people have about buying cannabis and create an environment where they feel safe and secure and it feels appropriate."
In Breckenridge, Haynes said the ratio of tourists to locals buying marijuana at the beginning of the year was 8 to 1. So, the town and police department have worked together to pass out information much like Lewis's pamphlet in Aspen. Haynes said they've printed about 2,000 informational cards with the basic facts and a link pointing tourists toward more information. The cards are available at hotels, restaurants, town hall, the police department and the recreation center.
The town and police department are also working with nonprofits and Colorado Mountain College on panel discussions.
"I do still feel like we don't know what we don't know," Haynes said. "There will be things that pop up that we didn't anticipate."
One of those 'things' on her mind is the fact that marijuana stores are cash businesses because most can't get financing from federally insured banks. That means credit cards aren't accepted, too. Haynes thinks the state did a good job mandating surveillance cameras and other security measures, but you never know. She said there has only been one burglary of a medical marijuana store since they opened in town roughly 4 years ago.
"Knock on wood," she said.
Paying the man
Bryan Welker feels a lot better about buying marijuana legally, even though the state and municipalities have imposed hefty taxes. Welker, of Carbondale, was the first person the legally buy recreational weed in Pitkin County last week.
He hopes that paying those taxes helps keep marijuana in the right hands.
"It's above ground now — let's make it harder to get for kids, not easier," Welker said. "I think we've moved this beyond the alley deal. I don't think people want to go back to that, but price drives everything. It's better to pay the government the money than a cartel — I don't think anybody would disagree with that"
Drugs like heroin, cocaine and illegal market marijuana are rising in popularity in the mountains, though, Hoy said. While the back alley deal might not be necessary anymore, he doesn't think it's going to disappear. Undersheriff Mike McWilliam expects the Mexican drug cartels to find a way into the legal business.
"It's a very big concern of mine that more of the stuff will get into the schools, especially edibles and all of that," he said. "I don't think the Mexican drug cartels are going to throw up their hands and say, 'forget it.'"
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-777-3125.