Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Marijuana's impact on public safety needs to be part of the conversation

Most people don’t realize the connection marijuana has to violent crime in Kansas City. On Sept. 10, two men were murdered in their apartment in south Kansas City. A dog was shot and killed, too. The men were known to sell marijuana, and evidence at the homicide scene confirmed that. Investigation has revealed the marijuana dealing was likely the motive of their homicides. So far this year, 10 of our homicides have been directly motivated by marijuana. The non-fatal shootings are even greater. Most of these marijuana-related shootings start as robberies of marijuana or the money connected to it.

The common argument is that this violence would cease if marijuana were simply legalized. The data from states that have done so, however, show just the opposite is happening. The Midwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) of the Office National Drug Control Policy issued a report in March summarizing what has happened in states that have legalized recreational marijuana for several years. These include California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Some of our drug sergeants also spent time with police in Denver and Aurora, Colorado, this summer to see what they’re doing so we can prepare for medical marijuana coming to Missouri. I wanted to share some of the common myths and facts about recreational marijuana from the HIDTA report and what our detectives experienced.

MYTH: Crime will go down if marijuana is legalized.
FACT: Colorado, Oregon and Washington all experienced increases in violent crime and property crime in the years following legalization. Recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado and Oregon in 2012. From 2012 to 2016, the number of homicides in both Colorado and in Oregon increased by 41%. Washington legalized recreational marijuana in 2014. By 2016, their homicides had increased by 248%.

Another crime has sprung up around legalized recreational marijuana in these states: human trafficking. Between 2013 and 2016, Washington saw a 600% increase in these cases. According to the HIDTA report, “Several marijuana-producing states have reported cases of sexual exploitation, kidnapping, and forced labor linked to marijuana grow (operations), particularly in California’s Emerald Triangle region. Migrant workers that travel to the region to work in both legal and illegal growing operations have experienced rape, human trafficking, and other forms of abuse by marijuana growers.”

Reporter Alex Berenson gave a speech outlining the impact of marijuana on mental health and violence. He reported, “A 2012 paper in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence examined a federal survey of more than 9,000 adolescents and found that marijuana use was associated with a doubling of domestic violence; a 2017 paper in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology examined drivers of violence among 6,000 British and Chinese men and found that drug use—the drug nearly always being cannabis—translated into a five-fold increase in violence.”

Our sergeants who visited Colorado saw a family of Chinese nationals who had been trafficked to oversee a large, illegal growing operation in the basement of a $750,000 home in an affluent neighborhood. They learned this was common in that area.

MYTH: Marijuana legalization has no impact on intoxicated driving.
FACT: After recreational marijuana was legalized in California, marijuana-related traffic deaths increased 151%. Fatalities involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana rose from 55 in 2013 to 138 in 2017. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Drug and Alcohol Crash Risk Study found that marijuana users are 1.25 times more likely to be involved in auto crashes than drug-negative drivers. According to a university study on the economic and social costs of legalized marijuana, 69% of Colorado marijuana users say they have driven under the influence of marijuana at least once, and 27% admit to driving under the influence on a daily basis.

MYTH: Tax revenue generated by marijuana sales will have a significant beneficial impact on the state.
FACT: For every dollar Colorado gained in tax revenue from marijuana sales, Coloradans spent more than $4.50 to mitigate the social costs of legalization, according to the university study. Costs related to the healthcare system and high school drop-outs were the biggest contributors. The estimated costs of DUIs in Colorado for people who tested positive for marijuana only in 2016 approach $25 million. There is certainly a lot of money to be made in legalizing marijuana, but not by the government.

Whether we accept marijuana as a legal part of our society is up to lawmakers and the public they serve. Police, however, are responsible for protecting the public, and there is no doubt that marijuana plays a large role in public safety. Legalization is no panacea, and has in fact increased crime and drugged driving in the states where it has happened. As the commander of the Aurora Marijuana Enforcement Team told our sergeants about legalization making its way to Missouri: “Get ready.” 

There is nothing to prove the rise in violent crime was caused by legalized recreational marijuana in the states that have experienced it. But the correlation is undeniable. The conversation about legalizing marijuana has been largely one-sided. As law enforcement, we must consider the impact this could have on public safety, and that needs to be part of the conversation. We’re not here to stifle the discussion but to add to it. The societal cost and drawbacks deserve as much discussion as any argument made in favor of marijuana legalization.

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