Commentary

Cannabis legalization: Will Pa. lawmakers barter away our public health and safety? | Opinion

Sen. Mike Regan didn’t ask for law enforcement’s input on his legalization bill. Here’s what we think

By Scott Bohn

As Executive Director of The Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association and as a former member of the Pennsylvania Department of Health Medical Marijuana Advisory Board, I would like to express my concerns and those of many of our membership about the legalization of marijuana and the relative effects on public safety in or communities.

I believe that marijuana legalization in Pennsylvania will pose significant challenges for law enforcement as a result of the unanticipated consequences it has on crime and public safety.

The Senate Law & Justice Committee, chaired by Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, held a hearing on Monday to explore and advocate for the legalization of marijuana in our state.

No professional law enforcement association was invited nor were written briefs to the Committee permitted.

In a recent news story, Regan admitted that  “convincing statewide organizations representing law enforcement to alter their position on marijuana legalization will be a tough sell, but the former law enforcement officer himself is hoping to barter with them when they come to asking for his support on other issues.  ‘I think we can make progress there,’ Regan said. ‘I’d like to get them to neutral.’”

Professional law enforcement executives do not barter the public’s health, safety, and or welfare concerns.

The public’s safety and welfare are the first priority for our elected officials and law enforcement. Professional law enforcement leaders are committed to public service and ensuring our communities are safe. They take an oath/affirmation to obey and enforce the law.

Current information validates our concerns and strengthens our collective resolve that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should not legalize the use of recreational marijuana.

We value the public we jointly serve.   Commercialized sale of what science proves to be a harmful and addictive drug should be opposed. This is simply a state revenue issue, and the 2018 projections of what taxing marijuana would generate for Pennsylvania by taxing the legalized sale of marijuana.

The Auditor General’s estimate at that time was $580 million annually if taxed at 35%.  Ask yourself, “who are the real benefactors and at what cost to the public safety?”

Federal law still treats marijuana as an illegal drug, creating headaches for states | Analysis

In our meeting with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, we supported decriminalization for possession of small amounts of marijuana.  In our last and only contact with Regan in September 2020, we expressed the same view and provided considerable data and evidence-based information.

There is an important distinction to be made here for the Commonwealth’s residents. Legalization of marijuana is the process of removing all legal prohibitions against it. Marijuana would then be available to the general adult population for purchase and use at will, similar to tobacco and alcohol. Decriminalization is the act of removing criminal sanctions against an act, article, or behavior.

We have strongly suggested that there is insufficient data to determine the true impact of legalized marijuana on crime and safety.

However, studies in Colorado show:

  • High-potency THC from marijuana hash oil extractions, which are used in making legalized laced edibles and beverages, has led to overdoses, potential psychotic breaks, and suicide attempts.
  • Youth use and addiction rates have increased due to ease of accessibility, and there is great concern about the significant health impacts of chronic marijuana use by youths.
  • Banking systems are unavailable to the marijuana industry because of federal laws, creating a dangerous level of cash that can lead to crime.
  • Difficulties in establishing what is a legal marijuana operation have created problems in conducting investigations, determining probable cause and search and seizure procedures.
  • Marijuana illegal trading through the black and other markets has not decreased. Diversion across state boundaries has created issues for states that do not have legalized marijuana laws.
  • Detecting driving under the influence of marijuana is a significant challenge for law enforcement. Currently there is no roadside test for marijuana intoxication.
  • Many states have had difficulties caused by conflicting state legislation and local ordinances, policies, and procedures. The situation is even more complex because marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law.

One of the most salient concerns we have relates to the consequences of drug-impaired driving. We have all witnessed our share of crashes and traffic congestion as well as vehicular, pedestrian and cyclist fatalities. Law enforcement officials are uniquely qualified to discuss the issues and concerns related to impaired driving.

Our efforts to curb drunk driving have met with a great deal of success over the last decade, but drug-impaired driving is not the same as alcohol-impaired driving and our understanding of the impairments due to drug impairment is limited.

Alcohol is unique among impairing drugs in that there is a documented correlation between blood alcohol levels and levels of impairment.

This does not exist for other drugs, and it has been shown to be non-existent for THC in marijuana. It is not possible to currently identify a valid impairment standard for marijuana or any other drug equivalent to the .08 percent BAC limit for alcohol.

Exacerbating the problem is the matter of how to best create, implement and enforce the laws prohibiting impaired driving. In populous areas of our Commonwealth, this is particularly concerning where the risk of catastrophic consequences related to a drug impaired driving incident is exponentially more probable.

The percentages of traffic deaths related to the use of recreational marijuana doubled in Washington State in the year retail marijuana sales were allowed. In Colorado, marijuana is now involved in more than one of every five deaths on the road.

These statistics highlight why it is necessary to wait until we have a better understanding of the impacts and management of marijuana intoxication.

Given the statistics that are available today, it is clear and indisputable that the use of recreational marijuana negatively impacts the motoring, pedestrian and special needs community, and that innocent people in states where recreational use of marijuana has been legalized are at a greater risk of harm, injury and death due to the increased number of drug impaired drivers.

Law enforcement executives in the Commonwealth need answers that are supported by valid data and scientific research rather than being promised consideration on other issues that impact the public’s safety. Current information validates our concerns and strengthens our collective resolve that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should not legalize the use of recreational marijuana.

Scott L. Bohn is a retired police chief, and executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association. He writes from Harrisburg.

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