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Ind. LEOs encounter new challenges after neighboring states legalize marijuana

Officers must uphold the state’s prohibition of the drug while positioned between two states where it is legal

Bob Kasarda
The Times

MUNSTER, Ind. — Within just a few hours of recreational marijuana being made legal in neighboring Michigan a year ago, an impaired motorist was nabbed driving the wrong direction along a local stretch of U.S. 30, Porter County Sheriff Dave Reynolds said.

It turned out the driver was still high after consuming a hybrid variety of marijuana while in Michigan, he said.

“Legalization of marijuana will increase highway deaths and crime,” Reynolds said.

While Reynolds may appear to be standing against a landslide of growing support across the nation for legal marijuana, he and others in Indiana law enforcement are in the challenging position of upholding the state’s prohibition of the drug while positioned between two states — Michigan and Illinois — where it is now legal for both medicinal and recreational use.

“I am 100% opposed to the legalization of marijuana and hope the Indiana legislators and the governor do not change their position,” he said. “If you look at any jail in the state of Indiana every sheriff will tell you substance abuse is the major cause of incarcerations.”

Legalization certainly will not be happening so long as Gov. Eric Holcomb is leading Indiana, despite the repeated marijuana legalization and decriminalization efforts led by state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes.

The Republican chief executive, who last year admitted to The Times that he used marijuana in college, is steadfastly opposed to legalization of either recreational or medicinal marijuana, so long as the drug continues to be classified as a controlled substance by the federal government.

“We’re following the law, and I’m proud of that fact,” Holcomb said. “I like to be in line with federal law.”

The Obama administration advised states in 2013 it would not interfere with initiatives to permit recreational or medicinal marijuana use at the state level, provided those efforts did not make marijuana available to children or affect federal drug trafficking enforcement.

Since then, 11 states, beginning with Colorado and Washington, have legalized recreational marijuana, including Michigan and Illinois, and 33 allow medicinal marijuana use.

Colorado saw a “significant” increase in the number of adults using marijuana, including on a daily or near daily basis, since the drug was legalized for recreational use in 2014, according to a study done by the Colorado Department of Public Safety.

The craze appears to be repeating itself in Michigan, which saw recreational marijuana sales of $1.6 million during just the first week of stores being open last month. There was also no shortage of customers on hand Wednesday in Illinois as the first recreational marijuana stores opened for business.

The party, however, stops at the Indiana state line, according Indiana State Police Cpl. Eric Rot.

The department has a simple message for anyone purchasing and/or consuming marijuana in Illinois, Michigan or any other state where the drug has any level of legal status: “I recommend you leave it there and not travel to Indiana with it,” he said.

There is the misunderstanding by some that if the drug is legal in their home state, they have the right to carry it in other states, like Indiana, where it remains illegal, Rot said. This is not correct, even if the person has possession for medical reasons.

“Any is illegal no matter where you’re from,” Rot said.

This is also the case if a motorist has consumed marijuana in a legal state and drives back to or through Indiana, he said.

“You’re still bringing it back inside of you,” he said.

Motorists caught impaired on marijuana face the same penalties as if they have been drinking too much alcohol, Rot said. The distinct and lingering smell of burned marijuana makes it tough to hide.

“That’s an easy one for officers,” he said.

The number of impaired driving citations issued by the Colorado State Patrol fell 15% from 2014 through 2017, according to the state study.

But the presence of marijuana in those cases increased from 12% when it went legal in 2014 to 15% in 2017, according to the study.

Reynolds predicts that legal marijuana also will fuel health problems among young people and offenses beyond just impaired driving.

“The sheriff’s office has seen more violent crimes associated with marijuana than we have with heroin users because of the amount of money involved,” he said.

While he expects to see an increase in small amounts of marijuana as a result of legalization in neighboring states, Reynolds said the larger seizures still will likely come from Mexico and California.

“We may find people are traveling to Illinois to make a quick purchase of an ounce and then transport home,” he said. “Because of the higher price though, it is doubtful it would then be sold here.”

Rot said he has seen an increase not so much in the quantity of marijuana over the past few years, but rather in the quality. In addition to greater potency, the products from legal states are much more commercial in appearance, such as chocolate bars that are nearly indistinguishable from the standard non-marijuana versions.

“I personally feel that the legalization of marijuana is a risk that public policy and society should not consider,” Reynolds said. “Public safety is my number one responsibility, and it should be everyone’s priority and the legalization of marijuana would adversely affect it.”