Turning over a new leaf
Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne has approved the use of a medical cannabis product for a New Zealand teenager with severe epilepsy. Other MPs are saying the country is ready for a wider debate on marijuana. Last month, Police Association President Greg O’Connor visited Denver, Colorado, where medical marijuana has been legal since 2000 and recreational cannabis was legalised in 2013.
While New Zealand Police are busy cracking down on increasingly sophisticated cannabis growing operations here, in the American state of Colorado, officers are learning what it’s like to police in a world of legalised recreational marijuana.
Cannabis law reform has emerged in various states and countries around the globe, with many at different stages of liberalisation, but in Colorado the authorities have attempted to legislate for the entire process – from the source to the marketplace.
On a recent trip to Britain, Police Association President Greg O’Connor stopped in Colorado’s capital, Denver, to meet police officers, cannabis growers and retailers.
What he found was a still evolving process. Since the law changed at the end of 2012, a widespread and lively legal pot culture has emerged off the back of the medical marijuana market and created a somewhat chaotic environment for law enforcement.
A cannabis dispensary in Colorado. Photo by Jeffrey Beall.
Denver now has more than 100 marijuana outlets (known as “dispensaries”), which is more than the number of Starbucks coffee shops in the city. The Denver Post has its own cannabis correspondent and newsletter, The Cannabist. There are dozens of large-scale marijuana grow houses and several large outdoor operations.
The grow house and retail boom has been dubbed the Green Rush. People have moved to the state to work in the industry and tourism spending has hit new highs, so to speak, although tourist operators are reluctant to link it to cannabis (which they can’t advertise out of state), citing good marketing instead.
Mr O’Connor said a cannabis glut was forecast next year as crops from the outdoor grows were predicted to flood the market.
The changes have been a challenge for some police. Mr O’Connor noted that younger and more recent police officers, who have grown up in the era of legalised medical marijuana, are a little more relaxed about the drug, but other police officers have been left shaking their heads.
They are having to change their attitude to marijuana and learn a whole new set of rules around cultivation, possession and usage. And, unsurprisingly, significantly more people are using and growing cannabis, which is heavily promoted by retailers, both medical and recreational.
The negative effects, documented by police, have been an increase in drug-driving, hospital admissions, fires and explosions at licensed and unlicensed manufacturing facilities, and burglaries of dispensaries and grow houses. More cannabis is also being taken out of state, where it is illegal and against federal law.
Colorado is already facing lawsuits from two neighbouring states, Nebraska and Oklahoma, as the amount of marijuana now crossing their borders has increased by more than 25 per cent in the past year.
The more serious criminal offending is around “interdiction” – taking cannabis into other states to sell it.
“It’s a myth that the cops have got nothing to do now that it’s legal,” Sergeant Dale Quigley, of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area team, told Mr O’Connor. “We actually didn’t realise all the resources it was going to take.”
He is one of a team of only seven people assigned fulltime to policing the new regime. “We could have two or three teams and be busy all the time.
“Marijuana is abundant. It’s everywhere and growing in people’s houses. We thought people might just have a smoke in the garage or the back porch. Now we have people growing hundreds of plants in their residence and there’s not much law enforcement can do about it.
“A lot of our problems come from unlicensed and unregulated growers. If we had really strong regulations and made very strict rules about growing and strict penalties, that would help. We have gone the other way. It can be as little as a $150 fine for breaching a local ordnance.”
It was not easy to police the law on “transference”, either, Sergeant Quigley said. “If you are over 21 years old, you can legally give an ounce or less of marijuana to someone else. If you sell it to them, that’s illegal, but it’s very hard to police that.”
Although Colorado police accept that the sky hasn’t completely fallen in since legalisation of recreational cannabis, they are firm on banning officers from indulging because it is still a federal offence.
Erring on the side of caution seems wise when conflicts with federal law continue to raise anomalies. Recently, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld an employer’s right to sack an employee who tests positive for marijuana because, despite it being legal in Colorado, it is still a violation under federal statutes.
Mr O’Connor said the current drug laws had evolved from the use of medical marijuana, and they were still evolving. Republican presidential candidates have indicated that if they are in the White House next year, they will enforce federal law on the states that have legalised recreational marijuana.
Meanwhile, money is pouring into the government coffers via cannabis taxation – 22 per cent at the point of sale and 15 per cent wholesale, from the grow house to the store. Colorado Department of Revenue figures show that in 2014, the retail marijuana tax take was US$52 million, plus US$10m from medical marijuana.
And there’s plenty of money to be made at the shopfront, too, with sales predicted to reach US$1 billion by next year.
Recreational Cannabis in Colorado
Possession: If you are 21 years old or over, you can possess one ounce (28 grams) of THC, which includes flowers and concentrated and edible forms of the drug.
Buying: Any adult is allowed to possess up to one ounce, but non-residents of Colorado are not allowed to buy more than seven grams in a single transaction. Several purchases could be made from more than one store a day (there is no register of names), but the quantity allowed for possession remains at one ounce.
Where can you consume it: In your own home or a private residence. You cannot smoke or consume marijuana in public, which makes it tricky for visitors wanting to use their marijuana. There are no Amsterdam-style coffee shops, but cannabis clubs are starting to emerge in some bars.
Personal cultivation: The law allows each adult to grow up to six plants in an enclosed, locked space. Under the medical marijuana system, doctors can authorise up to 99 plants to be grown by one person. With such large crops available, police say that lists of medical marijuana patients have become a valuable commodity.
Breaches of the rules generally result in a fine, similar to getting a traffic ticket.
Evolution of Legalisation
The use, sale and possession of cannabis in the United States is still illegal under federal law, but medical use is legal in 23 states and many states have decriminalised non-medical cannabis use. In four states, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, the sale and possession of marijuana are legal for both medical and recreational use; and Washington DC has legalised personal use but not commercial sale.
Legalisation did not happen overnight. Medical marijuana had been legal for qualifying patients in Colorado since 2000 and a relatively small number of people (up to 6000) were registered to possess up to two ounces and grow up to six plants. Medical marijuana is allowed for a range of conditions including glaucoma, HIV/Aids, seizures, cancer, severe nausea and muscle spasms. The majority of permissions, however, are for severe pain from a variety of causes.
In 2009, the federal government indicated it would not be prosecuting people for using medical marijuana in states where it was legal and the era of de facto legalised cannabis commercialisation began. By 2012 the number of medical permits in Colorado had reached about 100,000. Dispensaries began operating and there were also licensed cultivations.
In November 2012, Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 which legalised marijuana purchases for anyone over 21 and allowed for licensed retail outlets, grow houses and the manufacture of “edibles”.
Video from Greg O'Connor's visit to Colorado
To gain a greater understanding of cannabis law reform from a policing perspective, Police Association President Greg O'Connor talked to police officers as well as cannabis growers and retailers in Denver, Colorado.
Greg talks to retailers in a cannabis store about what they offer.
A biology teacher turned cannabis grow house operator talks about his operation.
A cannabis store operator talks about the retail processes involved.