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Waiting For the Drugs to Kick In 

Those worried about the societal costs of legalization haven't seen a big impact yet, but solid data has yet to arrive

click to enlarge Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich remains opposed to pot.
  • Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich remains opposed to pot.

Back in 2013, the arguments over I-502, the statewide initiative to legalize marijuana, were never of the alarmist Reefer Madness variety. In fact, the medical marijuana industry, worrying about new competition and regulations, powered much of the opposition. So far, the skeptics who did oppose pot legalization over worries about the societal impact of legalizing pot haven't been pointing to calamity.

"The sky's not falling," says Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which opposed legalization. "We didn't think it would."

Sure, there are anecdotal reports out there, but most have been waiting for better data to roll in.

Remember, it wasn't as if the moment the law went into effect, thousands of recreational marijuana shops opened up everywhere in the state. The hurdles of opening a shop — finding financing, getting licenses, opening a location — remained substantial, and access has grown slowly.

The Washington State Healthy Youth Survey, conducted among the state's school-age students in the fall of 2014, only caught students at the very beginning of marijuana legalization. The percent of frequent users remained unchanged from two years earlier.

"So far we're not seeing a spike in youth use," says Linda Graham, health policy specialist with the Spokane Regional Health District. "We have a pretty rigorous retail system, so youth can't buy it in stores."

Instead, the impact of legalization seemed to be mostly based on perceptions. The number of high school seniors who didn't see a health risk from the regular use of marijuana rose from 37 percent to 45 percent. Two-thirds of seniors believed marijuana was easy to obtain.

And from Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich's perspective, marijuana-related incidents have increased in the past year at the schools.

"[School Resource Officers tell us] we're seeing more and more instances of marijuana in school, at the lower grades, down to junior high," says Knezovich, a longtime legalization opponent. "[Marijuana-related] DUIs are up. We've had robberies. We've had burglaries, all related to marijuana."

Marijuana shops, typically cash-only businesses, are in particular a favorite target of thieves, he says. "One interesting robbery — they didn't go after they cash. They went after the product."

Statewide, stats do show 56 percent increase in fatal crashes of people with marijuana in their system, and a 29 percent increase in drivers who test positive for the pot-chemical THC in their systems. But those statistics, the Seattle Times points out, are hazy. Inactive traces of THC can remain in the human body for weeks — the data doesn't dive into the details — and the percent of the drivers testing positive for THC who were over the legal limit actually decreased from 2013.

Not all the hoped-for-benefits have come to pass yet either. For good or bad, marijuana has only brought in a quarter of the anticipated tax revenue so far. And while supporters like public-television travel host Rick Steves penned op-eds promising the initiative would "bring cannabis out of the black market and regulate it," the black market remains, Knezovich says .

"The illegal market is stronger than ever," Knezovich says. "That's what all the investigators are saying." Taxed and regulated legal weed is much pricier than the illegal stuff. And the risks, already fairly low, for selling pot on the black market are lower than ever, while investigation and prosecution has become a lot more complicated.

"Right now, when we get a call about a marijuana grow, we have three questions: Is it a medical grow, is it a retail grow, or is it an illegal grow?" Knezovich says. "We don't have the resources to check out what is legal or what isn't legal." (In some counties, like Snohomish, the loss of revenue from marijuana-raid seizures has devastated drug task-force budgets.)

Knezovich then points to Colorado, where the far more established medical marijuana market impacted the state long before its recent legalization. Yes, Colorado has seen massives increase in tax revenue and economic activity. No, fatal car accidents haven't soared. Crime in Denver actually has dropped.

But a series of reports by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area found rising rates of drug-related expulsions, pot use among teens, marijuana-related hospitalizations and accidental consumption of pot-infused edibles. Nebraska and Oklahoma are so peeved at the flood of weed from their neighbor, they've sued Colorado. This, Knezovich worries, is Washington's future. The pot-store burglaries and increase in pot-related DUIs happened in Colorado too.

"We're starting to see the early phases of what happened in Colorado," Knezovich says. ♦

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