If there’s anyone qualified to speak about the effects of decriminalizing, legalizing, and commercializing cannabis, it’s Marc Vasquez.
The retired police chief from Erie, Colo., was one of the guest speakers at the Cannabis Legalization: What it Means for Local Governments seminar held in Fort Langley on April 26.
The seminar happened on the day the province of B.C. began to make way for legalized recreational marijuana by setting new rules for retail stores and establishing a new penalty for drug-impaired driving.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth confirmed the age limit for buying recreational marijuana in B.C. will be 19, and the province’s Liquor Distribution Branch will control wholesale distribution of cannabis products for sale.
The B.C. rules reflect federal legislation, limiting adults to possession of no more than 30 grams in any public place. Adults will also be allowed to grow up to four cannabis plants per household, but they must not be visible from public places and will not be allowed in homes used as daycares.
Vasquez has seen, firsthand, the implementation of legalized marijuana.
He is one of the leading authorities on the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, and served in the state’s law enforcement for four decades.
In 2011 Vasquez became the first chief of investigations for the newly created Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division and assisted in developing Colorado’s Legalization of Marijuana and the Impact on Public Safety programs.
“We went through a progression where it was decriminalized (in 2000), ultimately legalized, and then one step further, commercialized where we started out in 2011 with the commercialization of medical marijuana, both the cultivation of marijuana and the distribution through medical marijuana centres… retail stores, from about 2011 to about 2014,” Vasquez said.
“Then in 2014, Colorado started the first recreational retail stores.”
The legal sale of recreational pot changed the way policing was done in Colorado, Vasquez explained.
“In Colorado it’s kind of complicated because there are different layers of legalization. We have the commercial medical, the commercial recreational, but on parallel tracks you also have caregivers who are still able to grow marijuana for patients in non-commercial settings. And also, anyone 21 and over can grow up to six marijuana plants by virtue of the fact they are 21 or over.”
That, Vasquez said, has spawned “co-op growth” where groups of people create community gardens of sorts to grow the plants.
“For law enforcement, it became very complicated and very confusing trying to determine, ‘Is this a legal grow? Is this an illegal grow? That type of thing.’”
That’s because people outside the state, where marijuana remains illegal, were renting homes in Colorado, cultivating pot, and then shipping it out of state for profit.
“It really became more of a resource-intensive endeavour for local law enforcement to try to figure out what they’re dealing with as far as these grows and marijuana being cultivated, ” Vasquez said.
Vasquez said pot usage spiked in Colorado “pretty much across the board” once the state made it legal four years ago.
“What we’ve also seen is the increase of abuse in other substances, such as opioids, heroin, cocaine, and alcohol,” he added. “We didn’t see a decrease in some of those other substances, we actually saw an increase.”
That said, Vasquez is reluctant to call marijuana a “gateway drug.”
“If you talk to someone who is using or abusing other substances… virtually all of those folks have or (currently) use marijuana,” Vasquez said.
For B.C. municipalities facing the eventuality of legal marijuana, Vasquez advises they do their homework.
“What’s really important to do is collect data,” he said.
“You are going to be asked this question early and often: ‘What has the impact of marijuana legalization been in your community?’ Colorado is still struggling in collecting accurate data to determine what we are seeing in increases and decreases in marijuana use by youth, impaired driving, crime… I would advise municipalities to start (collecting data) right away because they’ll want a baseline for pre-legalization as compared to post-legalization.”
Municipalities will also have to be prepared for complaints for such things as noxious odours and public consumption, and Vasquez believes that’s better handled by policing it through municipal code enforcement.
Locally, City of Langley Mayor Ted Schaffer said the City is waiting for more information from the provincial government before moving forward with any kinds of bylaws and legislation.
“It’s still in the hands of staff,” Schaffer said. “We as a council haven’t had any discussions on the subject. That’s the bottom line.”
Senior advisor to Township council Bill Storie said the legalization of marijuana remains “convoluted” at this stage.
“The federal government says one thing, the province says what they’re looking for and it’ll be up to the municipalities with downloading, to try to monitor these things,” Storie said.
Dispensaries aren’t permitted anywhere in the Township under current zoning. Whether this situation will change “will be a council decision down the road,” Storie said.
“At the present time, if you came to the Township and said, ‘I want to open up a dispensary, we would tell you no. It’s not a permitted use.”
Storie predicted that, once cannabis legalization is passed on either July 1 or sometime after that federally targeted date, it will be “difficult for the province to figure out what their system is going to look like and then everything else will be downloaded to the municipalities.”