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Look at other states’ experiences before legalizing pot, U of M study suggests

Unintended consequences elsewhere have included increased youth access to the drug and more people driving under its influence.

Marijuana-based products
Marijuana-based products are displayed at the Oregon's Finest medical marijuana dispensary in Portland, Oregon.
REUTERS/Steve Dipaola

In at least two of the states where recreational marijuana has been legalized — Colorado and Washington — law enforcement officials report that problems with underage use of the drug and with people driving under its influence are common, according to a University of Minnesota study.

The study, published recently in the International Journal of Drug Policy, also found that law enforcement efforts to deal with those two problems have not yet become a high priority in those two states.

As Minnesota considers the issue this year of whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use, it’s important that its policymakers look at — and learn from — the experiences of states that have already taken that step, said Darin Erickson, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota, in an interview with MinnPost.

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“We’re not saying that marijuana isn’t, for the most part, a pretty safe drug,” he said. But lawmakers still need to think about having good policies in place to address the unintended consequences of legalization, such as increased youth access to the drug and more people driving under its influence, he stressed.

“We’re going to start placing added burden on law enforcement,” said Erickson. “Do they have the resources to absorb that added burden, and, if not, what is going to be sacrificed?”

These are public health as well as law enforcement issues. For as Erickson and his co-authors point out in their paper, recent research has raised concerns about marijuana’s effects on the developing brain and “marijuana use has been shown to be associated with impairment of operating a motor vehicle among both youth and the general population.”

How the study was done

To see how marijuana law-enforcement policies are being implemented in other states, Erickson and his colleagues turned to Colorado and Washington. In 2012, they became the first two states to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana.

Darin Erickson
Darin Erickson
Both Colorado and Washington set the legal age of the purchase of marijuana at 21, and both have similar laws concerning driving while under the influence of the drug. Washington, however, has somewhat stricter limits on the number of places where the drug can be sold, and Colorado allows people to grow the drug at home for their own use.

The U of M researchers focused their study on two specific aspects of enforcement efforts regarding recreational marijuana: keeping the drug from being used by underage youth and keeping marijuana-impaired drivers off the roads.

To see how well Colorado and Washington were doing in enforcing those laws, the researchers conducted telephone and online surveys in 2016 and 2017 of 50 local law enforcement officials (25 in each state). They also sought to survey the state-level agency responsible for the enforcement of recreational retail marijuana laws in each state, but only Washington’s agency (the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board) agreed to participate in the survey.

Enforcing underage sales

All of the local agencies surveyed reported that underage use of marijuana was somewhat or very common in their jurisdictions. Yet less than a third (30 percent) said they conducted enforcement that targeted underage use and possession. And only 20 percent said they conducted underage compliance checks at licensed stores (sending underage “decoys” into stores to see if the stores will sell to them).

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More agencies conducted compliance checks in Colorado (32 percent) than in Washington (8 percent). Most agencies in both states (well over 85 percent) said, however, that they hadn’t issued a citation to a licensed store selling marijuana to someone under the age of 21 during the previous year.

Interestingly, the primary target of underage enforcement was the young users themselves rather than the providers of the drugs. That was especially true in Washington, where 59 percent of the agencies that targeted underage use of marijuana reported that they were focusing only on users.

“Although underage use and possession need to be addressed,” write Erickson and his colleagues in their paper, “we have learned from the alcohol and tobacco policy fields that targeting the supply of substances is a more effective approach for reducing youth use than focusing on use/possession.”

Enforcing impaired driving

Most of the agencies also reported that marijuana-impaired driving was somewhat or very common in their state, but only one of the agencies in each state reported enforcement specifically aimed at marijuana-impaired driving.

One of the difficulties with enforcing laws regarding marijuana-impaired driving, said Erickson, is the lack of a reliable sobriety test for it. The current test can identify if you’re a user of the drug, but not necessarily whether you are impaired by it.

Law enforcement officers also know what to look for with alcohol impairment, such as slurred speech. “But marijuana impairment doesn’t necessarily look the same, just like prescription drug use doesn’t look the same,” said Erickson.

One aspect of marijuana-impaired driving that doesn’t get talked about enough, he added, is that many people who get pulled over for impaired driving in states where the drug has been legalized have also been drinking alcohol.

We don’t yet know the combined impact that both these drugs can have on driving, Erickson said.

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In addition, about a third of the local agencies surveyed said that marijuana legalization had limited their ability to address alcohol-related issues, primarily because of the need to shift resources to the enforcement of the new marijuana laws.

Limitations and implications

This was a pilot study of just two states, and included interviews with only one person from each of the local law enforcement agencies that were contacted. Because of that limitation, the findings may or may not reflect what is happening regarding law enforcement in all eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana.

Still, these states offer a cautionary tale to ones like Minnesota that are contemplating following in their footsteps.

“Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California — they sort of jumped into this and have been kind of the canary in the coal mine,” said Erickson. “Now, though, as the next wave of states start thinking about [legalization], we’re getting data and information, and we need to put all that new information on the table and to consider it. How are we going to enforce all these policies? Who is going to do it? Do we have the budget or the money or the resources to be able to do the necessary levels of enforcement?”

“We need to be going forward in a thoughtful way, considering all of the outstanding issues as we decide and make a decision on whether to go legal or not,” he added.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the website of the International Journal of Drug Policy, but the full paper is behind a paywall.