As legalization of recreational marijuana forges ahead in Canada, a U.S. law enforcement officer says making the drug legal is not such a good idea if Colorado is anything to go by.
Marijuana was legalized in Colorado in January 2014, and the consequences across the state have been negative with “no upside,” says Ernie Martinez, a command officer with the Denver Metro Police Department for 35 years and director-at-large for the National Narcotics Officers Associations Coalition.
“We’ve had a bevy of different issues since legalization. It has not been a good thing,” he said.
“Because of the acceptability, affordability, and availability paradigm, we’ve seen increases in burglaries of dispensaries, burglaries of houses, robberies, home invasion robberies, aggravated assaults, and also the possession of marijuana for people under 21. That’s across the state.”
Cases of people driving while high have risen too, as have addiction rates.
“We’ve had increased addiction rates simply because of the accessibility, the affordability, as well as the potency of the THC [marijuana’s main psychoactive agent] in smokable marijuana,” he said.
The year after legalization, use among Coloradans aged 12 to 17 spiked and then dropped back to pre-legalization levels, according to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The legal age for anyone to use or possess marijuana in the state is 21.
Among adults, however, cannabis use increased significantly, from 17 percent in 2013–2014 to 20 percent in 2014–2015.
Colorado and Washington were the first two U.S. states to vote to legalize cannabis for recreational purposes. Nine other states have followed suit, although the federal government still deems it illegal.
Marijuana becomes legal in Canada on Oct. 17, making it the first G7 country to do so and the second in the world after Uruguay where cannabis use is legal nationwide.
One of the main reasons Ottawa has given for the move is to weaken the criminal role in the market. But legalization hasn’t had that result in Colorado, according to Martinez.
“The illegal black market has mushroomed,” he said. “Legalization hasn’t taken away the black market—in fact it’s increased, as we (law enforcement) predicted,” he said.
Martinez said new “crime patterns” such as massive illegal grow operations have appeared since legalization and police don’t have the resources to keep up with them all.
“We have so many different rental buildings, condominiums, and townhomes across the state that are rented in blocks—five to six to seven at a time—and they are utilized by either pseudo or full-blown organized crime to have illegal grows of 1,000 plants on up,” he said.
Legalization has, however, brought a boost to the state’s economy. The industry reached $683 million in sales in 2014, the first year pot was legal, and soared to $1.26 billion in 2017, according to data from the Colorado Department of Revenue.
But Martinez is still not convinced legalization was a good move.
“It’s an all-encompassing problem and an all-encompassing venture to want to legalize this all for the almighty dollar, and at what cost to society does that occur?”
As of June 2017, there were 491 retail marijuana stores in Colorado compared to 392 Starbucks and 208 McDonald’s, according to the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Report.
Across the state, 68 percent of jurisdictions have banned medical and recreational marijuana businesses.
Andrew Prokop, the mayor of Taber in Alberta, has heard of the situation in Colorado and says he worries something similar could happen here.
“Overall, as a council we are very concerned about [legalization in Canada],” he said, noting the rise in criminal activity in Colorado since legalization, with law enforcement spending roughly 15 percent more time on drug investigations, as well as a doubling of traffic fatalities compared to previously.
“They’re having to lay out tax dollar costs to try to deal with this,” he said.
“What makes us think we in Alberta or Canada are going to be any different than what’s going on in Colorado?”
Last November, Taber town council tried but failed to stop legalization by submitting a motion at the annual meeting of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association asking the association to lobby Ottawa to repeal the Cannabis Act.
On Sept. 11, Halifax regional council voted for a full ban on smoking or vaping any substance—including tobacco, marijuana, and medical marijuana—on all municipal property except for designated smoking areas.
Richmond city council in B.C. stated their opposition to legalization in a letter to the provincial and federal governments in October 2017. And in Ontario last month, the mayors of three municipalities said they will choose to opt out of having a marijuana retail store in their communities.
Richmond Hill Mayor David Barrow has indicated that over 1,000 residents have signed a petition asking that no marijuana stores be opened in the municipality.
“The concern with the community is the fact that it will be seen to be an acceptable thing to do, and most parents don’t want their children to be thinking that that’s the case,” he said in an interview with CTV.
Use among youth is also a concern for Prokop, who notes medical studies showing that marijuana use can damage brain development in those aged between 12 and 24. The minimum age for use in Canada after legalization is 19.
“We’re all just trying to do what’s best for our own individual municipalities and province, and we’ve got some serious concerns about what’s likely to happen going forward,” he said.
Martinez’s advice to Canada is to “go slow. Do what’s good for society.”
“The fact is, we’re seeing the ill effects of [legalization]. No matter if people think that Colorado has a very highly regulated framework—it’s regulated to a degree that it can be—but at the same time there’s so many deficiencies that point to the truth of the matter and the truth of what’s good for society.”