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IACP Quick Take: Marijuana legalization is coming – is your agency prepared?

Agencies must prepare now or risk playing catch up


Brian Maxey, left, Bill Amato, center, and Tim Gunther speak to the crowd at IACP 2016. (PoliceOne Image)

No matter your moral stance on the issue, marijuana legalization in your jurisdiction isn’t a question of if, but when. Are you prepared for the complications that it will bring to your city?

At the 2016 International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference, a panel of three experts broke down lessons learned and what to expect.

Tim Gunther — CEO/Chief Strategist, TGunther Group
Brian Maxey — Chief Operating Officer, Seattle Police Department
Bill Amato — Police Legal Advisor, Tempe (Ariz.) Police Department

Quick summary:
All three panelists made it clear that the discussion wasn’t intended to be read as an approval or condemnation of pot legalization. Rather, whatever your personal stance may be, there are very real consequences to legalization that require careful consideration. Legalization is arguably inevitable — it’s already a $5 billion industry in the U.S., as the panelists pointed out, and shows no signs of slowing down. Agencies must prepare now or risk playing catch up.

3 key takeaways:
Although it’s difficult to anticipate all the complex issues marijuana legalization will bring, there are some key things your agency should keep in mind:

1. Unexpected changes will occur in your city — not only from a LE perspective.
Unintended consequences of legalization range from changes in the population (a potential influx of homeless people and transients) to effects on businesses (a rapid rise in the price of warehouse space). These are merely two examples of a number of issues states like Colorado faced in the wake of legalization. Of course, some of these considerations extend beyond law enforcement. Zoning and building permits, public health and environmental quality, fire prevention, inspections and risk management, and youth education and prevention were just a few of the things listed off during the presentation.

2. There will be legal challenges with no easy solutions.
How does an agency enforce laws against public consumption of marijuana in the case of edibles and other pot-infused products — which can be difficult to distinguish from their THC-free counterparts? How will legalization affect the use of narcotics detection K-9s for probable cause?

3. Officers will face hazards that require education and training.
Gunther stressed the problem of the lack of compliance standards in the cannabis industry, from both a quality and safety of operations standpoint. Exposure to certain chemicals commonly used for fumigation (such as sulfur dioxide) can cause respiratory and central nervous system damage, and cannabis extraction methods (see Butane Hash Oil) can cause explosions. Electrical hazards, mold, and even booby traps in grow operations are all very real dangers that threaten the safety of both LEOs and the citizens they serve.

Other observations:
Amato told the audience that the general sentiment before medical marijuana legislation was passed in Arizona was “it’ll never happen here.”

“We weren’t ready for it,” Amato said. “Understand that no matter what your opinions are, you need to be prepared for it.”

Study the lessons learned from other states and know that this is an issue cops can’t handle alone. Make connections with other departments and bureaus in your city and plan now, because cannabis is not going away – no matter what happens in November.

Cole Zercoe previously served as Senior Associate Editor of Lexipol’s and His award-winning features focus on the complexity of policing in the modern world.

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