THIRD IN A FIVE-PART SERIES
Read the other stories in the series: Legal pot or not?
Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Whether legalizing marijuana increases crime is open to debate.
The short history shows that several states that have legalized marijuana have not had big increases in crime tied to legalization.
But there are issues, and New Mexico will have to take steps to make sure it:
- Wouldn’t allow the expansion of the underground market, which could expand as illegal growers ship the drug out of state.
- Would keep marijuana out of the hands of minors in a state where more than one in four teenagers in a recent survey has used marijuana in the past 30 days.
- Would stop people from driving high – in a state that is among the worst in the nation for drunken driving.
Proponents of legalizing marijuana say all these things are happening anyway and that legalization would provide a framework for addressing the problems.
While opponents fear legalized marijuana would lead to a spike in crime, marijuana is already one of the lowest priorities in the criminal justice system. Crime associated with the drug wasn’t measured well in other states, if at all, before legalization, so “before” and “after” comparisons are difficult to make.
Bernalillo County’s top law enforcement officer, 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez, doesn’t view marijuana as substantially affecting public safety now.
Since 2017, his office has received fewer than 50 case referrals for prosecution of small amounts of marijuana, legally defined as less than an ounce.
“It is just not something we see a lot of here,” Torrez said. “In my experience, since being in this office, marijuana is not a driver of serious crimes. Methamphetamine, heroin and opioids are much more of a contributing factor.”
The one topic that isn’t open to debate: New Mexico already has a serious drug problem.
Until recently, New Mexico led the nation in the rate of drug overdose deaths from heroin, fentanyl, prescription opioids and other drugs. The state still ranks among the highest in the country in drug overdose deaths.
Proponents say marijuana could provide a less dangerous and less addictive alternative to opioids and other drugs, although there are few studies to support that contention. New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Advisory Board has declined to add opioid addiction to the conditions that would qualify a patient for medical marijuana.
People don’t die of marijuana overdoses, and as Torrez pointed out, the drug isn’t viewed as driving property or violent crime rates the way heroin and meth do.
“We know there is a big underground market going on right now. People are being hurt by that underground market,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, who said he will sponsor legislation legalizing a recreational marijuana industry.
“If we create a legal market, tax it and regulate it, we have a positive impact on those communities.”
Marijuana hasn’t been a priority for police or prosecutors in New Mexico for years.
But Jeremy Vaughan, president of the New Mexico State Police Association, said the Legislature is going to have to deal with at least two major issues if it approves legalizing recreational marijuana.
“We’re going to have increased drugged driving,” Vaughan said. “And we’re going to see a lot of illegal marijuana being grown.”
Vaughan said law enforcement in New Mexico isn’t equipped to deal with either problem.
“We need more officers who can tell if someone is driving while high on marijuana or a cocktail of different drugs,” Vaughan said. “And there are no resources to battle illegal growing operations in rural parts of the state.”
Emily Kaltenbach, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said drugged driving and illegal marijuana growing are “happening today prior to legalization.”
“Legalization will allow the state to put resources into studying driving impairment from marijuana use and law enforcement,” she said.
The New Mexico State Police Association, made up of current and retired State Police officers, has taken no position on whether the Legislature should pass a bill to legalize recreational marijuana.
“It isn’t our job to say we’re for or against legalization. That’s up to the Legislature,” Vaughan said. “But we should bring issues to their attention that need to be addressed if they do legalize it.”
Officials in other states have found that legalizing marijuana doesn’t do away with underground markets.
The underground market that exists in a state that legalizes marijuana continues, according to Kyle Williamson, special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s El Paso office.
“Juveniles are the biggest initial market within states that have legalized marijuana,” said Williamson, who oversees DEA operations in New Mexico.
People under 21 can get older people to buy marijuana for them from legal dispensaries. Sometimes, the youngsters pay a fee.
Or they buy marijuana that is supplied by illegal growers to the street market.
Most states that have legalized recreational use also allow individuals to grow a limited number of marijuana plants. That homegrown marijuana is supposed to be for personal use, but some of it finds its way to the street market.
Illegal commercial growers can undercut prices from the legal market because they don’t pay or charge taxes being paid on illegal street sales.
And in New Mexico, where marijuana is still illegal, there is already a big market.
More than 27 percent of New Mexico high school students under 18 reported current marijuana use, compared with 19.8 percent nationwide, according to the 2017 New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey. Current use is measured by using the drug once within the past 30 days.
That translates to an underground marijuana market of tens of thousands of people.
The rates of use in states that have legalized recreational marijuana were lower pre-legalization than in New Mexico, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 2017 survey.
According to the same survey, marijuana use among teens in states including Oregon and Colorado has either remained the same or dropped slightly after legalization.
Under proposed legislation in New Mexico, the sale to and use of marijuana by anyone under 21 years old would still be illegal but punishable by fines. Under current state law, sale and simple possession of small amounts of marijuana are punishable by jail time, although jail sentences are unusual.
Supporters say tax money from legalized marijuana would be used for education and prevention campaigns directed at teens. And they say that nationwide, marijuana use among teens reached its zenith in the mid-1990s and slowly dropped before leveling off over the past decade.
The second underground market for marijuana is aimed at states where it is still illegal.
That may start small with people driving into New Mexico from Texas to buy an ounce legally from a New Mexico dispensary and returning home. But as it developed in Colorado and other states, the legal marijuana industry provided cover for illegal growers – unlicensed and unregulated – who ship their product out of state.
A pound of marijuana legally grown in Colorado has an average wholesale price of $860 in the state.
Illegal growers can undercut that price for sales to minors in Colorado and double the price by shipping to a state where it’s illegal.
“In 2016, there were 8,000 pounds of marijuana seized in highway interdictions heading for 36 states from Colorado,” the DEA’s Williamson said. “There was an 844% increase in marijuana shipments through the postal system from Colorado to other states.”
Vaughan of the State Police Association says, “We’ve been warned by law enforcement officials that groups in Mexico and California will finance illegal growing operations using the legal homegrown plants as cover.
“They buy land and houses for illegal grows. As the competition for the underground market increases, that can also lead to violence.”
The DEA’s Williamson says New Mexico is geographically vulnerable to illegal growing operations because there simply isn’t the manpower to cover or devote to illegal grows on federal lands or rural areas.
“We don’t have the eradication capability to go into national forests and public lands to go after these operations,” he said.