Marijuana Legalization Means More, Not Less, Training Needed for Officers
By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
For decades, California has been at the forefront of marijuana legalization. In 1996, it was the first state to legalize medical marijuana. Then, in November 2016, California voters essentially legalized marijuana, approving Proposition 64, which allows individuals over 21 years of age to possess, cultivate and sell marijuana. There are now eight states, plus the District of Columbia, where recreational cannabis is legal.
Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under federal law; however, California lawmakers are aiming to change that too. In September 2017, lawmakers submitted a proposal to the federal government requesting a reclassification of cannabis, which would further lessen the penalties for possession. Proposed legislation on the federal level also calls for removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.
How Legalization has Changed Marijuana Law Enforcement
The legalization of marijuana has put law enforcement in a conflicted position said Keith Graves, who has a master’s degree in criminal justice from American Military University and recently retired after 29 years as an officer in the San Francisco Bay area. Graves was the 2016 California Narcotics Officer of the Year and has been a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) instructor for 25 years.
“I’ve heard from a lot of law enforcement leaders that the voters have spoken and they aren’t going to spend a lot of resources on drug enforcement,” he said. For example, in California, if officers discover a person with 1,000 marijuana plants in a warehouse, that’s just a misdemeanor. “Do agency leaders commit the manpower needed to process that evidence and investigate a misdemeanor crime?” asked Graves. “Some agencies are choosing not to.”
Another deterrent for drug enforcement is that many district attorneys (DA) aren’t prosecuting marijuana intoxication cases because there’s a lack of consensus throughout the state on how to go about it. For example, in cases of driving under the influence (DUI), many DAs want a concrete number. “The per se limit is .08 for an alcohol DUI charge, but for marijuana there’s not a per se limit,” said Graves. “The case depends on what an officer sees combined with field sobriety tests, but DAs are often scared to prosecute without clear numbers.”
Technology doesn’t seem to be providing the answers yet, either. While there are some oral swab test kits, they can be unreliable for testing the presence of THC. For example, if someone consumes a THC product without smoking it, they may test negative even though they have taken the drug. In addition, marijuana metabolizes in a way that stays in the system for a long time, so even if someone tests positive, it’s difficult to determine if it was used recently or days ago.
Therefore, the justice system must rely on officers’ observations for assessments of intoxication. That’s why it’s critical, more than ever, for agencies to have highly trained, drug-recognition officers who have the skills and credentials to verify drug intoxication.
Amended Drug Recognition Training
Agencies have been retooling their drug training programs to certify as many officers as possible. Ideally, all officers would be certified as drug recognition experts (DRE), but that’s just not practical, said Graves. DRE training requires two weeks of training and a recertification every two years. So many agencies are turning to drug abuse recognition (DAR) programs. “DAR training is only three days—it’s like DRE-lite,” he said.
The intensive DRE program teaches officers a 12-step process to determine when someone is under the influence of a controlled substance (as well as what drug they might be using). This includes gauging pupil size, checking reaction to light, and other standard field sobriety tests. Its scope includes checking pulse, blood pressure, temperature, and other biometrics to help officers investigate whether a person is under the influence.
The shorter DAR training teaches seven steps instead of 12 to identify when someone is under the influence. The DAR program does not include the in-depth evaluations like blood pressure, but rather relies on the standard field sobriety tests in addition to the DAR exam to determine intoxication.
Does the DAR training provide enough information for officers to determine intoxication? Graves believes officers trained in DAR are highly competent at identifying and determining intoxication, especially when it comes to marijuana. For one thing, the marijuana being consumed these days is so potent that it’s easier than ever for officers to spot someone under the influence. “When I first started in 1988, the THC in marijuana was about 1.3 percent. Now you can find marijuana bud that’s 30 percent and extracts, like hash oil, that’s more like 50 or 90 percent THC,” he said. “If you’re smoking weed that powerful, the signs and symptoms of intoxication are exponentially more pronounced.”
As legalization leads to increased drug use in public spaces, officers are encountering intoxicated individuals on a regular basis and gaining more experience identifying signs of impairment. “During my 29-year career, I’ve never seen as much marijuana on the streets as I’ve seen in the last few years,” Graves said. “Now, more than ever, we need to train officers in drug influence recognition so we can try to get drug prosecutions.”