Former Washington, Colorado cops explain: What’s really going to change now that marijuana is legal?
Following wins for marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado on Tuesday night, a former Seattle police chief and a former Denver police officer sat down with Raw Story to discuss what the laws will actually do and how they think things will change.
“Today is a great day for America!” exclaimed Tony Ryan, a 36-year veteran of the Denver police force. “It’s real reform. Marijuana legalization is the biggie in terms of changing our drug policy to something that actually helps reduce the problem.”
“When people understand that marijuana prohibition is the cause of violence [instead of the drug itself], they get onboard and that’s exactly what’s happened in both of our states,” Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief, told Raw Story. “I for one could not be happier or more proud of what [activists] have done to help advance that conversation and secure these victories.”
Despite their combined decades in police work, both men crossed the blue wall after retiring and joined Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which advocates for drug policies that are less focused on police interdiction for users and more focused on medical assistance in overcoming addiction. The group worked tirelessly with other advocates in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, where two of three statewide marijuana legalization initiatives passed on Tuesday.
“We’ve already seen some of those changes in states with medical marijuana laws,” Ryan said. “We’ve seen a reduction in teen use of marijuana in states that have marijuana laws. Studies have shown that drunk driving also goes down — some people prefer to relax with marijuana instead of alcohol, which leads to the rate of drunk driving traffic fatalities going down. There are a lot of significant things that happen, as far as we know.”
Stamper seconded the sentiment: “I think as far as effects on law enforcement, the [Washington] law goes into effect on December 6… but not for a full year will we see the evolving definitions and refinements to the regulatory system,” he said.
“Come December 6, it will be legal for an adult 21 or over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana,” Stamper continued. “That does go into effect in a month, but it’s safe to say that precisely how the regulatory system will evolve is going to be left to a combination of law enforcement, elected officials, people from the medical and educational community, getting together with other branches of the criminal justice system and hammering out the actual day to day reality of what the regulatory system will look like. But in a nutshell, police officers will leave you alone if you’re in possession of an ounce of marijuana, not under the influence behind the wheel and not providing marijuana to someone under the age of 21.”
He added that retail sales in Washington will “be hit with excise taxes, 25 percent at each level,” similarly to how states tax alcohol. “It’s going to cost an individual or company $18,000 to get a license, and then there’s a 25 percent taxation rate,” he said. “This will generate tremendous revenue that is completely lost to the state today.”
Ryan concurred, saying that most critics of legalization don’t understand how “controlled” it still is under Colorado’s law. “You cannot use it in public, only in private. You can buy your own, you cannot sell it to somebody else. You cannot give it to kids under 21 — critics say, ‘Well, what about kids?’ Well, what about them? They still can’t have it. There are a lot of controls on this, it’s not a free for all like some people think. It’s still a controlled substance, but it’s legally controlled whereas if it’s illegal there really is no control, all there is is jail.”
In Colorado, marijuana legalization passed with more votes and a much wider margin that even President Barack Obama had over Mitt Romney in the state. In Washington, the president and his formal rival had margins that were nearly the same, with 55 percent choosing Obama and 42 percent choosing Romney, whereas marijuana legalization earned 55 percent support as well, versus 45 percent opposed.
In all, nine total marijuana initiatives passed nationwide on Election Day. Massachusetts legalized medical marijuana, but Arkansas did not. Five cities in Michigan, including Detroit and Grand Rapids, decriminalized possession. Burlington, Vermont also passed a recommendation that marijuana be legalized. And all of these measures, both men said, will prove to be a boon to law enforcement. Still, as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) reminded voters on Election Day, “federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly.”
The possibility remains that the Obama administration may file suit against Colorado and Washington to prevent them from implementing regulatory schemes or granting permits for retail sales, although the Justice Department has been conspicuously mum on the issue throughout election season. Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s U.S. Attorneys have been adamant about busting hundreds of medical marijuana outlets, even as the administration’s drug czar claims to be “interested” in the plant’s potential medical uses.
“We are now in the unique position to lobby Washington to let our two states be an incubator for reform,” Stamper said. “It’s a little presumptuous but my suggestion to the Obama administration and the drug czar — who’s my successor, he was police chief in Seattle after me — is to monitor it, watch it, learn from it and perhaps take some lessons that can be applied throughout the country. That’s what we hope for.”
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