The “legalize it” marijuana movement and conversation has been ongoing for decades, and in recent years, it finally seems to be going somewhere.
In the United States, four states – Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington – have legalized recreational marijuana use as of May of this year. Another 22 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of medical marijuana, including California.
Long Beach Chief of Police Robert Luna believes legalizing the sale of recreational and medical marijuana in Long Beach would add to his departments already overwhelming workload. (Long Beach Business Journal Photograph)
The November 8 ballot will see more state propositions regarding weed than any other election in history. Five states – Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada – will be voting to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota will vote to legalize the use of medical marijuana or, in Montana’s case, loosen stringent laws that have been passed since its legalization in 2004.
Aside from Proposition 64 to legalize recreational marijuana in the state, Long Beach voters will also decide upon measures MM and MA, which would legalize the cultivation and sale at brick-and-mortar stores in the city and set city tax rates on top of proposed state taxes, respectively.
When it comes to the issue of legalizing recreational marijuana use in California, or more specifically, if the City of Long Beach should allow the cultivation and sale of marijuana within city limits, many residents have opinions one way or the other. However, most residents will not have to deal with many possible consequences on a daily basis should marijuana become legal. That duty will fall to the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD).
“One of the things that concerns me is we have been struggling to address the city’s current needs with our existing resources,” LBPD Chief of Police Robert Luna said in an interview with the Business Journal. “Where I’m coming from on this is I believe that the legalization of marijuana will increase our workload. There is always the possibility that we could be wrong. I don’t have a crystal ball. I can just tell you what I’m reading, I’m not very comfortable with.”
Luna explained that over the years, police forces have gained a lot of what he calls “unfunded mandates.” Essentially, departments have been asked to administer additional training on mental illness, procedural justice and implicit bias, to name a few, but were not given additional funding. Combined with legislation like Proposition 47, which “reduces certain drug possession felonies to misdemeanors” and “requires misdemeanor sentencing for petty theft, receiving stolen property and forging/writing bad checks when the amount involved is $950 or less,” and Assembly Bill 109 that “transfers responsibility for supervising certain kinds of felony offenders and state prison parolees from state prisons and state parole agents to county jails and probation officers,” Luna said his department has already seen an increase in its workload.
“[In Colorado], marijuana-related emergency room visits have grown about 57% in two years between 2011 and 2013. Marijuana appears to be associated with very poor school performance and increases the absence from school and is increasing the dropout rate,” Luna said. “Now, why is a police chief talking about education and emergency room visits? Because those are things we look at that impact our overall workload. If kids aren’t in school, they’re usually out committing crimes. If the dropout rates continue to go [up], that means kids aren’t being employed. And then they become more of our stats, which we don’t want to see.”
Being the first states to fully legalize marijuana, statistics from Colorado and Washington are often cited both for and against. Proponents will often cite how much money is made off of marijuana tax revenue. Opponents often cite reported links to an increase in driver impairment and accidents and fatalities when marijuana was present in the individual’s system.
When it comes to pulling over and arresting someone for driving under the influence of marijuana, Luna said the process is the same as with alcohol. Typically, when the officer approaches the window, they can detect the smell of marijuana. If the driver was operating their vehicle erratically, it could be grounds for arrest for DUI.
“Certainly, we’ve developed a science around drunk driving that makes it very predictable and consistent to measure how impaired a person is,” Long Beach City Prosecutor Doug Haubert said. “We do not have the same science for marijuana, so prosecuting someone for operating a vehicle while impaired by any drug is usually more challenging than if they are impaired by alcohol.”
When asked how marijuana would be regulated – more similarly to alcohol or cigarettes as far as when and where it can be purchased and used – Deputy Chief Richard Conant said, “That particular piece of concern, where folks are walking around smoking marijuana everywhere, that type of activity is still under review. There is no hard and fast [guideline] on that one just yet. But it stands to chance that we are not going to see that type of activity. They’re already talking about pot shops where people go and hang out and smoke. Kind of like speakeasies back in the day.”
One narrative used by proponents of legalizing marijuana is that it will keep people out of jail and prison for nonviolent, marijuana-related crimes. Luna said this cracks him up every time he hears it. He explained that in 2015, the LBPD documented 17,910 arrests. Of those arrests, 316 were marijuana related, which equates to 1.76%. Not a very staggering figure. When he included citations, meaning people who were ticketed but not booked, that figure jumped to a whopping 3.44%.
“While I can’t predict what will happen in the future if Measure MM is passed, I think it’s reasonable to assume that regardless of the laws that are included, there is going to be a great number of people who will disregard those laws,” Haubert said. “Plus, the laws were not written to make it easy for the city to enforce, they were written by the operators for the benefit of the operators.”
When asked why the legalization of marijuana and its ramifications are any different than the legality of alcohol, which has been linked to numerous health problems and deaths due to drinking and driving, Luna said there are countless studies that show marijuana is a gateway that leads users to other more serious drugs. He said he does not see similar studies of alcohol that are comparable or that link alcohol to school absence, dropout and graduation rates, as marijuana does.
“Once upon a time, we had D.A.R.E. officers that would go to schools trying to teach drug resistance to kids,” Luna said. “I have got to be honest with you, what kind of message are we sending our kids if this passes? That smoking weed is OK? Do we have to go back to the schools and start teaching that marijuana’s bad and you shouldn’t do it? Because that’s not the message that they’re getting from the adults.”