The Columbian / Associated Press

Senator: Share marijuana money to fight crime

Republican Sen. Ann Rivers of La Center is earning a reputation in Olympia as the lawmaker determined to tame the state’s great weed experiment she’s dubbed the “wild, wild West” of pot.

One of her biggest priorities: giving local cities and counties a cut of the tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales to boost public safety efforts.

“They are playing the game, they should get a cut of the take, from my perspective,” Rivers said.

And some of the stories she’s shared to illustrate the need — an armed intruder in a home invasion who “pistol whipped” a woman in an attempt to steal marijuana — sound barbarous.

“We were promised time and time again it was going to be a tremendous savings to public safety,” Rivers said. “Jails would be empty, we wouldn’t have any more marijuana-related crime. We’ve found quite the opposite.”

Clark County Undersheriff Mike Cooke, who previously served as a commander of the Clark-Vancouver Regional Drug Task Force, said the premise that legalizing marijuana would free up law enforcement resources was flawed from the start.

“It presumed we were spending an inordinate amount of time on marijuana enforcement. … The bulk of our work was high-level drug trafficking involving meth, etc.,” he said.

Rivers’ measure has received support, but even local jurisdictions cannot point to a definitive uptick in crime since the legalization of recreational marijuana.

“We have always had a significant number of robberies that have been related to marijuana pre- and post-(Initiative) 502,” said Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik, referencing the ballot measure voters approved to legalize recreational pot.

The effect is hard to illustrate, in part, because statistics by local jurisdictions do not track crime in a manner that would be easy to show the nexus between crime and the legalization of marijuana.

Rivers’ measure has the potential of earmarking millions for local jurisdictions to, in part, defray court and enforcement costs.

An analysis done by the American Civil Liberties Union, however, showed low-level marijuana offenses have dropped drastically since the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state. In 2012, the year voters approved the measure, there were 5,531 low-level marijuana-offense court filings for adults, according to the ACLU. In 2013, the number was closer to 120.

“The data strongly suggests that I-502 has achieved one of its primary goals — to free up limited police and prosecutorial resources,” Mark Cooke, policy counsel for the ACLU of Washington, wrote in an email. “However, there may be other good reasons to share I-502 revenue with local governments, such as for local public education, prevention, and youth engagement programs.”

Green market

Crime analyst John Laws, with the Vancouver Police Department, can recall two burglaries in the past two weeks that targeted an individual with marijuana.

“The fact is, before they wouldn’t call us and say, ‘someone broke in and stole my marijuana,’ ” Laws said. “Now they do, because (possessing marijuana is) not illegal.” Despite the anecdotes, Laws said the city of Vancouver, following a nationwide trend, has seen a drop in crime since 2012.

Property crimes including burglary, theft and vehicle prowls in the city dropped 14.6 percent from 2012 to 2014. Violent crimes such as homicide, robbery and assaults decreased by 4.6 percent during the same time period, according to information provided by Laws.

Recently, someone from New Vansterdam, a local marijuana retail business, called with a complaint that people were trying to sell marijuana in the store’s parking lot before customers made it to the shop’s front door.

Laws said the bulk of complaints he’s heard point to a thriving black market.

Rivers is also behind a measure to regulate the medical marijuana market, aligning it more closely with the recreational pot market. She said she hopes the bill will end or severely diminish the black market for marijuana. The measure would only allow medical dispensaries to sell edibles and hash oil rather than marijuana buds, it would create a registry of medical marijuana users, and it would ensure that the marijuana was tested.

Candice Bock, a legislative and policy advocate with the Association of Washington Cities, said regulating the medical marijuana market and increasing revenue for local jurisdictions would work together to ease the pressure on local jurisdictions.

“The recreational market will never succeed if the medical marijuana isn’t regulated and … if there isn’t any enforcement action on the black market,” Bock said.

Local prohibitions

Under Rivers’ proposal, only cities and counties that haven’t banned pot shops would receive a cut of the revenue. And that could entice at least some of the jurisdictions that prohibit the retail centers to reconsider.

Camas is one city that could reconsider its ban on the retail shops depending on what happens this legislative session.

“If I were guessing, it would be the deciding factor,” Camas Mayor Scott Higgins said.

The effort to legalize marijuana has often been compared to lifting the prohibition on alcohol, Higgins pointed out, adding that cities receive revenue from liquor sales.

“And if marijuana is the same, there should be some revenue that comes with it,” Higgins said.

Gareth Kautz, the owner of High End Market Place in Vancouver, said if more cities and counties lift their ban it would have the bonus of “opening up the markets,” which would bring in more revenue and hurt the black market.

But Cooke, the county’s undersheriff, said that despite law enforcement being in a perpetual state of “do more with less,” he personally is not a fan of the idea of receiving money from recreational marijuana revenue.

Cooke, who was opposed to legalization and noted using marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, said it feels wrong for law enforcement to benefit “from the proceeds of unlawful drug activity.”

‘The short straw’

Rivers did not set out to become the Legislature’s queen of pot.

“People ask me all the time, ‘why are you doing this?’ ” she said. “The reality is, I drew the short straw. I’m the only one in the caucus that would take it up and follow it through to the end, and it’s important work. It’s not something I ever saw myself doing, but I want to look at myself in the mirror and know I did the best for my constituents.”

In addition to funneling resources to criminal justice departments, her measure could provide money for health surveys and brain research, Rivers said.

Last legislative session, a bill by Rivers to regulate the medical marijuana market failed.

This session, she said, is different.

“I will tell you it’s reached its pitch at the Legislature that we have to do something,” she said. “We all recognize this is something we can’t put off.”

Source: The Columbian / Associated Press