The impact of legalization

Police, prosecutors discuss recreational marijuana a year later

Although it has been a little more than a year since the legalization of recreational marijuana in Michigan, area police and prosecutors still are unsure what long-term impact the new law will have on the local community and the state as a whole. (Courtesy photo/Getty Images)

Although it has been a little more than a year since the legalization of recreational marijuana in Michigan, area police and prosecutors still are unsure what long-term impact the new law will have on the local community and the state as a whole. (Courtesy photo/Getty Images)

MECOSTA, OSCEOLA, LAKE COUNTIES — Although the year anniversary of the legalization of recreational marijuana in Michigan has passed, area police and prosecutors still are unsure what the future holds in relation to drug use and crime.

Voters passed Proposal 1 on Nov. 6; the law that followed, called the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act, went into effect on Dec. 6.

The law allows people to carry 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana in public, as long as they are not on land owned by the federal government or K-12 schools. People also are allowed to have up to 10 ounces of marijuana at home.

However, smoking marijuana in public still is illegal, and people cannot drive under the influence of the drug.

For local county prosecutors, one of the biggest changes since the passage of Proposal 1 last year has been a decrease in the number of marijuana possession cases they see cross their desk.

"Virtually everything involving marijuana possession is a civil infraction," said Osceola County Prosecutor Anthony Badovinac. "Even violations by minors are civil infractions, and it takes three times of a minor getting in trouble with marijuana before it becomes a misdemeanor. Unless it's on school grounds or it's able to be seen by the public, we just don't prosecute it anymore."

Lake County Prosecutor Craig Cooper noted courts across the state still could see marijuana cases related to distribution.

"Criminal complaints have mostly gone away, but there can be a violation for distributing marijuana without a license," he said.

Driving under the influence of marijuana

While criminal possession cases have decreased, law enforcement officials now are turning their attention to people driving under the influence of marijuana.

However, Mecosta County Sheriff Todd Purcell said he has not seen a significant increase in the number of people driving while impaired by drugs.

"We're more cognizant of impaired driving, but our arrests are about normal for that type of driving," he said.

Purcell explained deputies are continuing to prepare for changes in the way police determine whether a person is under the influence.

"There isn't a test, other than a blood test, to test for influence of marijuana or drugs, so I don't perceive too many changes in training until a test like that is available," Purcell said. "We do have five deputies currently trained in advanced roadside detection though."

He explained advanced roadside detection consists of different field sobriety tests an officer can have a person perform to better determine if that person is under the influence of drugs.

Although other local police departments also are looking into specialized training for officers related to roadside detection, Cooper is hopeful a new tool being tested by the Michigan State Police will lead to a more streamlined system of determining if a person is driving under the influence of drugs.

The MSP Oral Fluid Roadside Analysis Pilot Program began Oct. 1, and includes participation from drug recognition experts (DREs) in many Michigan counties, including Lake County.

According to the MSP, under the pilot program, a DRE may "require a person to submit to a preliminary oral fluid analysis to detect the presence of a controlled substance in the person's body if they suspect the driver is impaired by drugs."

In addition to obtaining oral fluids with a mouth swab, a DRE will complete a drug recognition 12-step evaluation. The evaluation includes components such as an eye examination, an interview by the DRE, checking vital signs and a breath alcohol test, among others.

"The saliva test could be a very helpful tool, especially for probable cause for search warrants to get a blood draw to determine the THC level in the system," Cooper said.

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical responsible for most of marijuana's psychological effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cooper added the ideal outcome of the MSP saliva test would be to eventually use data to determine the amount of THC a person can have in their system before being considered illegally impaired while driving, such as with a breath test for drunken driving.

"I think the legislation is going to need to come up with what amount of THC in the system causes impairment on the roadway, but we don't have that yet," he said. "Right now we're relying on other bad driving — swerving or if there's an accident — and then if they have THC in their system, that goes toward showing THC may have caused an impairment."

He said although there is a long way to go before this is possible, legislation and an accurate test available would be a big step toward regulating driving under the influence of marijuana.

"This would be a game-changer to help out the courts," he said.

Unintended consequences

As area police and prosecutors look at keeping drivers and pedestrians safe, Badovinac speculated the legalization of marijuana has led to the increase of other crimes and the use of drugs such as methamphetamine.

"A lot of people who used to see marijuana as a scourge of any sort now see it as no big deal, so as a result of that, a lot of other drug crimes are now coming to the fore," he said.

Badovinac explained while he used to prosecute one to three cases involving meth a month, since the passage of recreational marijuana in Michigan, he now sees four to 12 cases a week.

"There's a huge segment of society that sees absolutely nothing wrong with drugs, and that number is growing every day," he said.

While Badovinac and some others relate an increase in drug use and crime in the area to the legalization of marijuana, Purcell said it may be too early to draw this correlation.

"Marijuana has always been here, and the hard drugs have always been here, so it's hard to draw a direct relationship. The possibility is always there, but it's something we have yet to see," he said.