Government, Law, and Retail

Marijuana shops, approved by voters, now face regulatory gauntlet

With recreational users currently having no legal means of purchasing, law enforcement officials worry of growing black market.

February 1, 2019
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Marijuana stock photo
Individuals could legally farm up to 84 ounces, but the maximum amount of marijuana adults are allowed to possess in their home is only 10 ounces. Courtesy Thinkstockphotos

Possessing and growing large quantities of recreational marijuana are now legal under a ballot proposal passed by voters in November.

But buying and selling even the smallest amount isn’t.

That may sound confusing, and some law enforcement officials worry this distinction will create a perfect storm for a growing black market this year.

Until a licensing and regulatory process is finalized for retail shops — a complicated dance between state and local governments that’s now entering its second decade for medical marijuana — recreational users are in limbo with no legal means of purchasing their pot.

Yet, the black market will remain a problem even after retail regulations are finalized, said Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. He cited pot-friendly Oregon as an example, where an oversupply of retail weed has pushed some growers to recoup production costs through illegal interstate trafficking.

In Constantine, a St. Joseph County village of 2,000 people, 11 medical marijuana permits were granted, although no one has received state licensure yet, according to village manager Mark Honeysett. He said there’s little concern about an oversupply or unsold quantities leaking out to the black market once the facilities are licensed.

If facilities conduct their business “the way they’re supposed to be,” the state’s tight regulations on growing medical marijuana from planting to cultivation gives him some peace of mind, he said.

Under the new law, individuals 21 and older may grow up to 12 plants. The yield from a single plant varies greatly, but conservative estimates range from 3½ ounces per indoor plant to 7 ounces per outdoor plant, according to a Bulletin of Cannabis Reform study.

That theoretically means individuals could legally farm up to 84 ounces. But in another complicated twist, the maximum amount adults are allowed to possess in their home is only 10 ounces, leading to the possibility of pounds of excess marijuana per person.

Honeysett, who also serves as Constantine’s police chief, said individual growers and the potential for excess weed is a lesser concern for his village than the lack of quality control that personal growers face.

“You don’t know the strength of the plant or product, you don’t know for sure there hasn’t been any contamination,” Honeysett said. “The nice thing about the medical marijuana laws is that the product is tested.”

As marijuana — both regulated and illicit — becomes more accessible, police worry about the residual effects, as well.

For example, Stevenson said there’s a common, inaccurate perception that driving stoned is less dangerous than driving drunk. He said he worries that users who are high may feel emboldened to drive under the new law.

Since there’s no straightforward measurement of marijuana’s effects as there is with alcohol, detecting its influence on a driver takes an officer with “specialized training,” he said.

The state police’s Drug Recognition Expert Program exists to fill that need, training officers on the “signs and symptoms” of drug-impaired driving. But the program requires 112 training hours and nearly a month away from their regular duties, and is available only to officers who have completed 80 hours of prerequisite training, according to the Office of Highway Safety Planning.

Smaller law enforcement agencies struggle to send officers away — particularly their most highly skilled ones — for weeks of training with such a narrow focus, Stevenson said. Even if they’re able to, the enrollment in the selective program is regularly “maxed out,” Stevenson said.

There are 21 officers in this year’s crop, making it a “pretty full” class, said Jon Ross, a senior editor with the Office of Highway Safety Planning’s communications department.

While small agencies have sent officers to the expert training, which requires two weeks in Lansing and one week in Arizona, there are logistical challenges to overcome, Ross said.

“They have to take an officer off the road for three weeks,” Ross said. “It’s not as easy for them to make up their patrol or their duties, but it does happen.”

With the concerns that legalization is creating, departments need to keep an eye to the future, Stevenson said. Impaired driving, unlicensed marijuana dealers and policing challenges won’t disappear when retail shops arrive — in fact, the problems may be exacerbated, he warned.

“The good news is that it’s going to take about a year before all the regulations are set up before the retail pot shops open,” he said. “Common sense just says if something’s a lot more available, there’s going to be more of it out there.”

It may be “a little naive,” but Honeysett said he doesn’t foresee any significant new problems stemming from legalization. He said that once recreational retail regulations are finished, he doesn’t expect pot sales to differ much than those of alcohol in terms of policing.

“There’s always potential, just like at a liquor store or something like that, for nefarious activity,” Honeysett said. “There might be a learning curve that we all have to negotiate. I’m not necessarily thrilled about recreational marijuana passing, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world.”

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