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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WSU study of connection between marijuana legalization, crime turns up surprises

Brock Baker shows off his T-shirt and 2 grams of pot he legally purchased at Spokane Green Leaf, Tuesday, July 8, 2014, in Spokane, Wash. A recent study of marijuana legalization turned up unintended consequences, found gaps in the data and came up with suggestions for law enforcement agencies dealing with a possible sea change in drug use. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Looking into the effects of legalized marijuana, Washington State University researchers discovered some surprising things.

They turned up unintended consequences, found gaps in the data and came up with suggestions for law enforcement agencies dealing with a possible sea change in drug use.

They couldn’t definitively settle the debate on whether legalizing marijuana has led to more crime or less crime. But in talking to law enforcement officers, researchers were told legalizing marijuana was affecting their work in ways no one expected, including their interactions with K-9s and informants.

Some departments had to get new drug-detection canines because the dogs they had were trained to sniff out marijuana, said David Makin, of the WSU Criminal Justice Department and one of the principal investigators of the research. Some of the retired dogs got new jobs with school security officers.

Some drug units also complained about a loss of a key avenue to acquire an important investigatory tool: confidential informants.

“They said, ‘Marijuana was how we got CIs,’ ” Makin said during a presentation last week of the research to law enforcement groups in Olympia.

Someone facing a marijuana charge could be convinced to become a confidential informant and provide information leading to arrests higher up the illegal drug supply chain.

With a grant from the National Institute of Justice, WSU researchers set out to determine how law enforcement was handling crime before and after marijuana was legalized, and how that change in the law affected crime. It wasn’t an easy task.

“You can’t get the data you want, all of the time,” said Dale Willits, of the Department of Criminal Justice and another principal investigator. “This is not a true experiment. It’s a social experiment, not a lab experiment.”

They compared the rates of serious crime in Washington and Colorado, which also legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, to rates in 21 other states that haven’t legalized either recreational or medicinal marijuana.

The data available points to an increase in serious crime in Colorado, which was similar to increases in the 21-state control group. Serious crime went up in Washington, but a little less than in the control states.

“There was no substantial effect of legalization on crime rates,” Willits said. “That doesn’t mean legalization had no effect.”

But if crime rates are increasing in states with and without legalized marijuana, other factors are at work.

When the results of their multiyear study were first announced, some members of law enforcement disagreed with the conclusion that the data doesn’t show a conclusive link between legalization and serious crime rates.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he’s heard from many people about a change in the quality of life when recreational marijuana stores open. “It’s one thing to look at pure statistics and numbers, it’s another thing to come down and talk to people about life on the street.”

The research team did talk to some 150 law enforcement officers about their experiences before and after legalization, and worked out ways to analyze the data from those interviews, Makin said. There are concerns about crime, particularly as it relates to traffic safety and underage consumption.

Cannabis-related impaired driving and crashes have increased in many jurisdictions, he said. But the data has some problems, because cases that may involve both marijuana and alcohol are often just listed as alcohol-related because that’s a much easier conviction to obtain, he said.

The blood alcohol content standard of 0.08% is well established and easy to measure with a Breathalyzer. There’s no readily available and affordable testing equipment for the impairment standard for marijuana, set by law at 5 nanograms of the active ingredient THC in a milliliter of blood. And that standard is debatable because long-term chronic users might not be impaired at the 5 nanogram level and occasional users might be impaired at less than that.

“The 5 nanogram limit is not going to pass a legal challenge,” Willits predicted.

The researchers also did a pair of case studies in cities in an effort to determine whether police activity had changed as a result of legalized marijuana.

They compared calls for service to the police departments in Pullman, and across the border in Moscow, Idaho, where marijuana remains illegal. Those calls, for reports of domestic disputes, noise complaints or “welfare checks” were up in Pullman, but down in Moscow.

In Seattle, they compared calls for service and officer contacts involving marijuana in the months before and after recreational marijuana retail sales began. Officer contacts increased by about 354 per month, but there was no impact on calls for service.

WSU researchers have applied for more grants to continue studying the effects of legalized marijuana. They would like to track marijuana usage rates, estimate the effects on illegal or “black market” sales and do more work on traffic safety. They’d like a broader study of whether or not law enforcement across the state is getting more complaint calls related to marijuana. They’d also like to collect body camera footage and analyze it to help departments learn the best ways to deal with traffic stops.

“We’d like to have other states come to Washington to learn,” Makin said.