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'A large-scale experiment': Fearing ‘societal costs,’ ND police leaders oppose recreational pot measure

FARGO — Law enforcement leaders here are laying out their opposition to a ballot measure that would legalize recreational marijuana in North Dakota, with just over two months until residents cast votes on it.

Fargo Police Chief David Todd and Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney both say they have concerns about Measure 3. "There is going to be some societal costs to this if it goes into effect, and I'm concerned that people aren't hearing about those society costs," Todd said.

Todd and Laney said Measure 3 doesn't limit where or how much marijuana people could grow, sell or possess or where they could use it. They also said if passed, the measure would prevent officers from enforcing DUI laws when drivers are impaired by marijuana.

Dave Owen, chairman of the Measure 3 sponsoring committee, said law enforcement's worries are well-intentioned, but unfounded. "Every year, we get more data that marijuana is safer than alcohol," Owen said.

On Aug. 17, the North Dakota Peace Officers Association passed a resolution against Measure 3, citing possible dangers to citizens, and encouraged people to research the measure and vote "no" in November.

In a letter provided to The Forum, Todd called Measure 3 "a large-scale experiment with public health and safety." The chief said he wishes the matter had been introduced by way of a bill in the Legislature, where it could have been properly vetted.

Laney would rather the measure have taken a baby-steps approach. "I think it's too much, too fast," he said.

More crashes, ER visits?

North Dakota voters legalized medical marijuana in 2016, but lawmakers changed what they saw as flaws in the legislation last year. The state expects to have medical marijuana dispensaries open by mid-2019.

Supporters of recreational marijuana have said their enthusiasm for it is borne out of frustrations with the delays in implementing the medical marijuana program.

Measure 3, in part, would amend the state Century Code to remove marijuana and other similar substances from the list of Schedule I controlled substances. It would also add penalties for people under 21 possessing or distributing marijuana.

Todd said one of the most glaring issues in legalizing recreational marijuana is that it's still illegal on the federal level, creating a conflict for officers.

Todd and Laney fear increases in fatal crashes and hospital emergency room visits due to more impaired drivers on the road. That's happened in Colorado, the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, Todd said.

Owen disputes that, saying other studies have shown a drop in fatal crashes, relative to an increase in population.

The biggest challenge for officers and deputies may involve current DUI laws.

Todd said the way he and several attorneys interpret the measure, officers won't be able to enforce those laws in cases of marijuana impairment because it would be a "nonviolent offense."

Owen disagrees. He said "award-winning" attorneys his group has consulted maintain that those drivers can be held liable.

No threshold for impairment

Colorado has set a blood level of five or more nanograms per milliliter of THC, the key psychoactive element in marijuana, as the limit for driving.

Detecting that level has required a new testing system and retraining of law enforcement officers there, according to the Police Foundation, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C.

North Dakota's Measure 3 makes no reference to blood-level limits for marijuana impairment.

Owen said he doesn't like thresholds because everyone reacts to the drug differently. Some people at a certain THC level will not be impaired while others might be seriously impaired and a danger on the road.

For law enforcement, determining exactly what substance a person is under the influence of could require a drug recognition expert, or DRE.

Todd said the Fargo Police Department has close to a dozen trained DREs. Laney said the Cass County Sheriff's Office has two.

While every officer is trained in DUI tactics, DRE training is much more intensive and costly.

If the measure passes, officers may not be the only ones going back to the classroom.

Drug-detecting police dogs would likely have to be retired or retrained to make them unlearn some of what they know, Laney said.

'What potential did we lose?'

Beyond those issues are other public safety and quality of life factors.

Your neighbors may choose to till up their backyard for a marijuana field because the measure doesn't dictate how much people can grow or where they can grow it.

Owen said there are no limits for growers, for a reason.

"If you have a fictional grow limit and they have a spectacular harvest, through no fault of their own, they could face criminal charges," Owen said.

Todd said federally insured banks may not take money from marijuana grow operations, turning it into a mostly cash business. That could make those operations robbery targets, if it's known they have a lot of cash on hand.

He also said the measure appears to supersede smoking regulations, so if restaurants or other businesses wanted to allow marijuana smoking, they likely could.

In the next two months, Laney hopes other segments of the community, including medical, education and business representatives, will take a stand on Measure 3 one way or the other.

There are intangible costs, too, Todd said, from people losing jobs over failed drug tests and addictions worsening.

According to the Police Foundation, Colorado law enforcement has seen concerning trends in drug use among youth and young adults since marijuana was legalized.

"I think it's going to cause us to look and wonder what potential did we lose in our younger generation?" Todd said.