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Conference looks at marijuana's impact on crime, road safety in Colorado since passage of Amendment 64

By: Chhun Sun
March 16, 2016 Updated: March 16, 2016 at 10:58 pm
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photo - FILE - This Sept. 2, 2010 photo shows a marijuana plant as it matures in a grow house in Denver. Colorado emerged as the state with the second-highest percentage of regular marijuana users as it began legalizing the drug, according to a new national study.  (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)
FILE - This Sept. 2, 2010 photo shows a marijuana plant as it matures in a grow house in Denver. Colorado emerged as the state with the second-highest percentage of regular marijuana users as it began legalizing the drug, according to a new national study. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File) 

DENVER - Law enforcement officials, prosecutors and lawmakers are debating whether marijuana has increased crime or made roads less safe in the two years since recreational use of the drug became legal in Colorado.

George Brauchler, 18th Judicial District Attorney, said Wednesday that it has decreased road safety. But he has other concerns, too.

"What we can't say is is this mixed use of marijuana and alcohol," he said. "I can't tell you how many (arrests are) out there."

Brauchler was among the speakers at a media session Wednesday that was a part of the Colorado Two Years Later - Law Enforcement Marijuana Conference at the University of Denver, which focuses on what law enforcement and district attorney offices have learned since the passage of Amendment 64 made recreational marijuana use legal in Jan. 1, 2014.

Up to 700 attendees are expected during the three-day event - about a third of them from out of state. The conference, which is not open to the public or media, will go over felony DUIs, marijuana and driving studies and techniques to identify motorists suspected of driving high.

The event was organized by the Colorado Marijuana Training Curriculum Committee, which is made up of law enforcement agencies and state government departments.

John Jackson, the Greenwood Village police chief, said he hopes law enforcement could be the middle person between prosecutors and lawmakers to help them find unity and clarity as they try to navigate through new marijuana laws. The General Assembly has seen the introduction of 20 marijuana bills this session, he said, adding that law enforcement agencies are trying to keep pace with any upcoming changes to the law.

Of those proposals, "a couple may or may not turn into law," Jackson said. "It's critical when we get to the point where we can do that - adopt a way where it can be pushed out systemically so law enforcement can understand."

He added that the work of his officers have shifted.

"Our property rooms are loading up with medical and recreational marijuana," Jackson said. "Our officers are calling dispensaries to see if someone's a patient. There's no way to say if you stop doing this, you'll get back 'x' amount of time. It's just a different time, is what we're experiencing."

There's not enough data to show what kind of impact the legalization of marijuana has made on the roads and everyday crime.

The Colorado State Patrol recently released a report stating that troopers handed out 347 citations involving only marijuana in 2015, which is seven fewer than the year before. Still, an agency spokesman said it was still too early to determine if roads are more dangerous because of the drug.

"I want numbers," said Brauchler, the district attorney. "I have a worst-case scenario in my mind but I don't want to act on that. I want to see what the numbers are, so I can say, 'OK, this isn't nearly as bad as it could have been.' Or, 'Oh my goodness, this one area is out of control.' We just don't know."

In the meantime, law enforcement are working on improving techniques to determine if a motorist is driving high. Roadside maneuvers used for marijuana are the same for alcohol.

Drivers found to have more than 5 nanograms of THC - or tetrahydrocannabinol, a psychoactive ingredient in marijuana - are considered impaired. They can decline the blood test at the risk of losing their license for at least one year, according to State Patrol. Critics have argued that the test only proves that the drivers use marijuana, not that they were high while driving.

Law enforcement is working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to implement new tests that will focus on identifying weed-impaired drivers.

"Every year we're going to get a better view of this thing," Brauchler said. "My hope is that other states that are thinking going down this road slow down a bit and give us a chance to make some more mistakes and let us correct those mistakes so they don't have to make them."

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