While the state awaits first licensed retail marijuana retailers tentatively on July 7, local law enforcement officials find they’ll take a wait and see approach since they’ve been handling cannabis cases long before Initiative 502 passed.
“We’re not really doing anything differently,” said Trooper Russell Winger for the Washington State Patrol. “We’ve been dealing with it (cannabis) and arresting impaired drivers for years.”
What will change for Winger and other local law officials is the new marijuana laws, such as no underage possession/use and no use in public, similar to the no open container law applied to alcohol.
From the State Patrol’s perspective, there hasn’t been a significant impact on enforcement since the legalization of recreational cannabis, Winger said, but it’s really too early to tell or statistically identify the impacts, if any.
To “make the highways safer,” Winger said every car a trooper stops, he/she is looking for impairment each time and was procedure before the legalization of recreational cannabis. Despite there not being a breathalyzer test available for cannabis like there is for distinguishing amounts of alcohol in an individual’s system, Winger said all state patrolmen are well-trained in identifying signs of impairment and it is up to the individual trooper whether an individual will be arrested for driving under the influence (DUI).
Field sobriety tests are indeed voluntary but Winger strongly encourages all individuals to participate if asked because it gives the individual an opportunity to prove he or she isn’t impaired, despite a trooper’s inkling. In addition, opting out of a field sobriety test does not mean the individual is free of lawful ramifications if the trooper decides.
If there’s trouble determining the legitimacy of a DUI or other type of infraction related to possible cannabis impairment, a drug expert may get involved and/or a blood test will be administered, which again is voluntary or achieved through a warrant, Winger said.
Blood tested in a toxicology lab can provide a wealth of information including any tetrahydrocannabinol or commonly referred to as THC (a psychoactive element in cannabis) residue and amount present.
Similar to Winger’s outlook, Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict also is focused on keeping the roads as safe as possible.
“I’m more concerned with using (cannabis) and driving than anything else,” Benedict said.
The expectations of Bill Dickinson, Sequim police chief, echoes this as he anticipates a likely increase in more driving under the influence arrests.
Overall, a shared consensus among law enforcement officials appears that the legalization of recreational cannabis requires adjusting enforcement to include the new laws as previously discussed and maintaining a well-trained eye on impaired driving.
Given the “more pressing and dangerous” issues within the county, such as heroin use, enforcement is spending more energy addressing those kinds of public concerns, said Ron Cameron, Clallam County Sheriff’s Department chief criminal deputy.
At this point, even if a cannabis grow is stumbled upon, unless it’s of significant size, it is essentially left alone by enforcement, according to Cameron. However, if an unlicensed grow operation is found and is relatively large in size, law enforcement will consult with the prosecuting attorney.
Clallam County Prosecutor Will Payne said most criminal charges are more likely to go through city ordinances and misdemeanors such as smoking marijuana in public. If a case is prosecuted as a felony, he said it’ll only be if the grow is big enough.
In Payne’s tenure, he said there’s been only one incident where law enforcement conferred with his staff about a marijuana grow, which they decided not to prosecute.
“It’s still too early to tell,” Payne said. “We’re waiting to see how it all develops.”
In talking with residents, Payne said more concern is coming on the civil level through the Department of Community Development where he’s assigned a civil deputy to work on cases.
In addition, Cameron pointed out, it’s important to remember although recreational cannabis is legal in Washington it is still illegal federally; thus, anything relating to cannabis on federal land, such as Department of Natural Resources or Olympic National Forest, could result in serious consequences.
To properly enforce recreational cannabis, Cameron said he doesn’t anticipate additional officers or resources to do so. Any “step-ups in enforcement will likely be administrative,” Cameron said, and that the Liquor Control Board already has stepped up its administrative manpower to manage the new industry.
For deputies, when it comes to enforcing the laws surrounding cannabis, it can prove “a bit ambiguous if you compare the regulations for medical and recreational cannabis side-by-side,” Cameron said.
“It’s where the Legislature fell down on the job a bit and didn’t do anything to tweak medical laws for recreational,” Cameron said.
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