Law enforcement officials: Legalizing pot will be ‘like opening Pandora’s box’

Pro-marijuana lawmakers have sent Gov. Phil Scott a revised legalization bill ahead of next week’s veto session, but police are warning that recreational pot will bring big problems to the Green Mountain State.

While Scott has said he isn’t philosophically opposed to legalizing the recreational use of the psychoactive drug, he remains concerned about related public health and safety questions.

Photo courtesy of Marketing and Communications Office of the Community College of Vermont

Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley on legalizing pot: “It’ll be like opening Pandora’s box.” (Photo courtesy of the Vermont State Colleges)

Among those concerns are how police authorities will accurately test for the drug when impaired motorists are pulled over, keeping marijuana out of the hands of young people, and preventing a black market of dangerous cannabis by-products.

Scott recently vetoed S.22, Vermont’s cannabis bill, sending it back to legislators to answer his concerns. While a new pot law is uncertain this year, the push for legalization by Democrats and Progressives — and even some Republicans like state Sen. Joe Benning — is not going away.

Although many lawmakers seem almost gleeful at the thought of legalized pot smoking in Vermont, law enforcement officials are expressing serious concerns.

Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley is among those who feel unsettled about opening the lid on pot.

“It’ll be like opening Pandora’s box,” Hanley told True North Reports. “Just look at Tiger Woods — he blew 0-0 (on an alcohol breathalyzer) yet he was still impaired.”

The golfer was arrested while driving in Florida on Memorial Day. Woods told police he was not drinking but had an unexpected reaction to prescription medications while behind the wheel.

“There are so many social and legal ramifications when it comes to legalizing marijuana,” Hanley said. “And then there are so many other problems, too, in schools. And then there are the carcinogenic effects — so why?”

Hanley’s disquiet stems from the current inability to accurately test for marijuana impairment. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive constituent of marijuana, remains in the bloodstream long after a cannabis high wears off.

One idea to test for THC impairment is for local police to make more use of Drug Recognition Experts, also called Drug Recognition Evaluators. DREs are trained professional law enforcement officers who can recognize impairment in drivers under the influence of drugs such as cannabis, or even prescription medications.

While it’s an inadequate system, Vermont nevertheless began its DRE effort in 2005. That effort has now expanded to 38 certified DREs pooled from state, county and municipal law enforcement agencies.

According to Hanley, when a Middlebury Police officer pulls over an impaired driver, there isn’t much he or she can do to ascertain if cannabis is involved.

“Since there’s no real standard here, it’s like we’re back in the old days,” Hanley said. “It’s up to the officer on the scene to make the evaluation of the driver based on the operation of the vehicle.”

Middlebury Police Department doesn’t use DREs, but Hanley said he hopes to have a drug expert on call soon. So far, the request hasn’t been approved by higher-ups.

DREs and ARIDE

Rutland County Sheriff Stephen Benard said that his deputies attend a 40-hour-long course on how to detect and collect evidence relating to drug use. The course is held at the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford.

Photo by Lou Varricchio

Most law enforcement officers in Vermont are in agreement when it comes to legalizing recreational marijuana: they’re against it. Rutland County Sheriff Stephen Benard said legalizing pot in the Green Mountain State is “asking for trouble.”

The training is thorough, and after the course is over, officers put the training to use with real impaired drivers. According to Benard, the officers use a variety of “clinicals” to determine impairment: odor of intoxicants, horizontal gaze, the one-leg stand, the walk-and-turn and other standard field-sobriety tests.

“If you get enough clues, since it’s number-based, it helps you determine whether they should be brought in and tested,” he said. “Then you have another test: If they’re a .08, you bring them in and process.”

But when it comes to drugged driving, things get complicated.

Last week, Benard put 11 of his team members through a two-day course called Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement, or ARIDE. Unlike the 40-hour DUI training course, DREs must meet up with trainees at the office or at the roadside.

“The problem is, right now we have only 38 DREs in the state,” Benard said. “Nearby Rutland City has a DRE, and the Vermont State Police Rutland Barracks has one, too. So we work with both of them here in the sheriff’s department … but we’ve had occasions when we needed a DRE to help and there’s just none available. So what do we do?”

In driver impairment situations where a DRE is not available, officers must make a defensible decision on whether or not to get a blood test.

“Most of the time the decision isn’t made in a positive way,” Benard said. “Yes, the ARIDE course will help, but it’s really a roll of the dice.

“We’ve had cases when we felt that someone was under the influence of drugs and we couldn’t get a hold of a DRE; we had to let those persons go. We sure don’t want bad case law or to falsely arrest someone, so we will err on the side of caution.”

Benard says his goal is to get every municipal and county law enforcement officer in Rutland County ARIDE trained. But, he admits, it will be hard for small municipal departments such as Brandon and Castleton, which are understaffed.

The law of unintended consequences

Police will face many new challenges if recreational pot becomes legal. Benard agrees with Middlebury’s chief that legalization will be like opening the Pandora’s box of legend.

“When asked to testify in the Statehouse in Montpelier last year, I cautioned the Legislature that we’re within a five-hour drive of 80 million people,” Benard said. “So, if you pass this law, there’s stuff you haven’t even thought about.

“For example, will we have enough hospitals to take care of those law-abiding residents and tourists who will say, ‘Hey, I’m now in a recreational marijuana state; I can get high!’ But then they’ll get high, maybe become paranoid, suffer an anxiety attack, and end up in the ER. If you bring even one-tenth of those 80 million people here, will Vermont hospitals be ready for this?”

Other questions arise about what marijuana arrests will look like when Massachusetts legalizes pot in 2018, as the Bay State plans. If pot isn’t yet legal in Vermont, how will it play out when Vermonters start buying pot across state lines?

“When we visited Colorado (where pot is legal), we heard of a rather affluent guy from Texas who bought nine pounds of high-grade, hydroponically grown pot over one weekend,” Benard said. “… He shipped it all back to Texas in a UPS box where he sold it for even higher prices than where he bought it. So, how do you deal with stuff like this in Vermont? The consequences are not being thought through.”

Homegrown pot legally flawed

Another problem with legalization is how homegrown pot plants will fit with other statutes. As envisioned by the Legislature, Vermonters will be permitted to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, plus two mature plants and four immature plants, starting in July 2018. This creates new legal problems for pot smokers.

As envisioned by the Legislature, Vermonters will be permitted to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, plus two mature plants and four immature plants, starting in July 2018.

“Did you know that you will have a felony issue right out-of-the-box? As soon as you harvest your plants you are committing a felony,” Benard said. “You will be able to possess up to an ounce, but anything over that is a criminal violation. One homegrown plant will produce more than an ounce, or (even) an ounce and a half of pot.”

Then there is the issue of illegal by-products. The plant matter remaining after a home-grower harvests the buds can be used to make potent honey oil and shatter — highly concentrated by-products of marijuana. These psychoactive products are likely to find their way into an illegal black market in Vermont.

Creative cannabis users have been known to pack honey oil and shatter into a PVC pipe and burn it with butane. What drips out at the other end is an amber-like material, shatter, which is 96 to 98 percent THC.

“Amber is to marijuana what crack is to cocaine — there’s just no place for it in society. You take one hit off it and you’re on the floor. We’re already seeing illegal amber and shatter in Vermont; it’s being shipped in from Colorado. It’s nasty stuff,” Benard said.

“So when marijuana becomes legal here, you still have two pounds left from your plants and then you might be tempted to butane it. A big problem in Colorado is people blowing up their kitchens using gas stoves to make shatter. It’s just nasty, nasty stuff.”

‘Perpetually high’ youth

But law enforcement officials foresee an even more sobering consequence of legalization — an entire youth culture addicted to marijuana and its by-products. Recent surveys place Vermont among the top states in the nation when it comes to marijuana use by young people.

“Drugs and youth are one of Gov. Scott’s big, big concerns. Mine, too,” Benard said. “Marijuana is far more commonplace now then it was back in the 1970s, when I was in high school. Now the kids are baking it into cookies and brownies and infusing it in teas. They are in a perpetual state of being high.”

Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at lvinvt@gmx.com.

9 thoughts on “Law enforcement officials: Legalizing pot will be ‘like opening Pandora’s box’

  1. If only the legislature put as much energy into creating an tax and regulatory environment that encouraged the individual to be industrious … 4-6 months of the same nonsense, year after year. But they do get voted back in every two years to do more of the same, so …

  2. It is difficult to read an article where some law enforcement officers recognize a problem but choose to continue to react to it with the suggestion we simply don’t change what hasn’t worked. Having practiced criminal law in this state now for 34 years, and having served on Senate committees that have been carefully studying what several other states have done right and wrong, and having a very clear understanding of what is going on in Vermont right now, permit me to offer some observations.

    First, let’s take the author’s statement “… law enforcement officials foresee an even more sobering consequence of legalization — an entire youth culture addicted to marijuana and its by-products. Recent surveys place Vermont among the top states in the nation when it comes to marijuana use by young people.” The emotional charge that suggests legalization will create an entire youth culture suddenly addicted to cannabis is a statement right out of the movie “Reefer Madness.” This is designed to inflame the passions of those opposed; it is not an intelligent response to the second sentence, which correctly states that Vermont CURRENTLY ranks among the top states with young people’s usage. At least one study indicates we are in fact in second place- right behind Colorado. So, should we continue to do nothing or, even worse, go back to jailing people? Permit me to suggest that maybe we should be rethinking how we deal with this instead of whipping up emotion and paranoia.

    Regarding the statement: “… they’ll get high, maybe become paranoid, suffer an anxiety attack, and end up in the ER. If you bring even one-tenth of those 80 million people here, will Vermont hospitals be ready for this?” I find it hard to believe someone is making this statement in the year 2017, especially someone in law enforcement. This claim is just not based in reality, either with the substance itself or the experiences we’ve learned about elsewhere. Colorado experienced a slight uptick in marijuana-related emergency room visits due to consumption of marijuana edibles by people not used to delayed reaction in how edibles produce a high. That is from a lack of education on what they were consuming. The bill before our legislature did not even allow for sale of edibles. A properly regulated retail environment (something our Senate has called for) can restrict what’s sold and provide any education necessary. We’re not restricting anything NOW and, as is unfortunately evident from the above quote, not getting enough education.

    Regarding the Tiger Woods comparison. One of the biggest impediments to addressing Vermont’s long-proved-useless war on drugs is the conflation of cannabis with opioids. Tiger Woods wasn’t high on cannabis, as even Chief Haley notes. He was high on prescription medications. But the Chief’s decision to try and equate the two easily seduces those who simply refuse to acknowledge facts on the ground and entices complacency when change is desperately needed.

    And what are those facts on the ground? Yesterday I received an email from the Vermont Research Center. A UVM grad student surveyed students at an Addison County high school. Her conclusion: 13% of student drivers at that institution had imbibed cannabis within thirty days of driving a car. A rather expensive and exhaustive study commissioned by your legislature two years ago, called the Rand Report, estimated 80,000 Vermonters are NOW using cannabis and spending upwards of two hundred million dollars annually while doing so. Those Vermonters are NOW getting their cannabis from the black market, which has thrived despite decades of aggressive law enforcement. It continues unabated, with drug dealers who have no compunction about selling to our youth and exposing them to far worse substances. Maine, Massachusetts and Quebec are about to legalize. This will only increase our own black market and we still (as both chiefs above have thankfully recognized) lack the DRE resources to deal with what we have NOW with drugged drivers.

    Regarding the lack of a roadside testing device. When I started practicing law 34 years ago there was no such thing as a DataMaster test, but we prosecuted people all the time for drunk driving. Officers were trained to ask the right questions, make the right observations, and search for the right evidence in order to secure a conviction. We are, perhaps, decades away from a perfected device that can test for drug impairment, but we are NOW facing drugged drivers with or without legalization. We need properly trained officers NOW! A properly taxed system legalizing for adults (who are currently using anyway) would provide a revenue stream to create more DRE’s- the very tool we need NOW. It would also provide money for education and prevention, which we currently need NOW!

    I’ll close with a reaction to the author’s notation that “at least one Republican” (me) is in favor of legalization. One of the tenants of the Republican Party is the notion of individual liberty. The thrust of that concept is the belief that I have the right to do what I like in my life so long as it has no impact on your ability to do the same. There is a major difference between an adult choosing to imbibe marijuana (which I have no personal interest in doing, by the way) in the security of one’s home and either drugged driving or exposing minors to this substance. Republicans should be the first, not the last, to be involved in a discussion about correcting Vermont’s approach to this subject while distinguishing between the two. And we should be doing it recognizing the facts on the ground without whipping up emotional arguments like those expressed above. A “Pandora’s Box?” I submit that a greater problem will face us if we don’t pursue a different path while our neighbors create conditions that will exacerbate our own black market. It’s time to get hold of reality. Thanks for listening.

  3. Non-medical pot legalization is an idea stupid enough to rival Bernie Sanders ideas. These two sheriffs are quite articulate on the subject and should be heeded. But will common sense be able to penetrate the bubble around the Statehouse?

  4. Congratulations to Lou – this is the finest, well-researched article I have ever read on the pot problem, which has confounded me for years. My libertarian tendency is to let people smoke what they want, and live with the consequences; but some consequences spill over into the public arena – impaired driving notable among them. Still thinking…..

  5. Phil Scott,

    It is prudent to listen to law enforcement.

    People high on pot behind the wheel of a vehicle, or operating machinery, are a danger to others and themselves.

    The police have the statistics.

    Legalizing pot is insanity on steroids.

    It is promoted primarily by left-leaning legislators as part of performing “constituent service” for their constituencies to ensure/increase votes for the next election.

    It would open a Pandora’s box, that would require MORE policing at MORE cost, including more healthcare costs.

  6. Tiger Woods was on prescription drugs. Opioid addiction from prescriptions is way out of control.
    Prohibition drives uncontrolled proliferation and organized crime.
    There’s no simple answer, but cannabis is the least dangerous of psychoactive substances. There needs to be a way to make it legally available, and of known quality. Just like booze. More enforcement can not solve this issue.
    Impairment can be observed, and police should have objective standards, provable by dash cams, for erratic driving. Going over the lines is a good way to tell. This should count for cellphone use, as well as impairment.

  7. Pandora’s Box was opened when our Elected Officials pushed the ” Pot Initiative ” through this session ,
    follow the money !!

    Instead of putting effort to the States Debt , Tax and Drug Issues ………… Oh wait they did work on the
    drug issue , Lets all smoke a bowl , maybe the Debt & Tax concerns won’t matter !!!

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