Area law enforcement leaders raise concerns about marijuana legalization
Sales of recreational marijuana are set to launch before April 1 next year.
- The historic measure was approved by the state legislature in March and signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on April 12.
- Farmington police chief, county sheriff concerned about a possible rise of the number of DWI cases involving marijuana.
- Farmington police is working on purchasing a couple of new K9s that will not be trained to detect cannabis, according to Hebbe.
FARMINGTON — Two area law enforcement leaders have concerns regarding what they say is a lack of clarity in the new state law signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on April 12 that legalized recreational marijuana in New Mexico.
Knowing what law enforcement already faces on a daily and nightly basis, police are studying the tools they have now to deal with the anticipated addition of increased cannabis intoxication among drivers, and the tools they will need in the future.
“The alcoholism is very high in New Mexico. DWI is very high in New Mexico, and now New Mexico is going to get high as hell,” San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari said.
New Mexico has a history of people driving while intoxicated. The state is listed as fourth highest in the nation for impaired-driving fatalities during 2018.
Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe believes part of the problem is basic clarity and structure.
“My belief is (the legislators) still have not fixed some of the important parts of the bill that would prevent law enforcement from making arrests for people driving under the influence of marijuana,” Hebbe said.
Public safety, they say, could be at risk with an increase in DWIs. Without THC intoxication standards for felony arrests set into the new law, making DWI cases stick in court could be dicey.
Without specialized training that is not paid for by the law, confusion could result regarding what constitutes legal and illegal cannabis products.
And removal of the "sniff test" to detect the odor of burnt marijuana as probable cause for a warrant or arrest may also lead to the retirement of some highly trained drug detection dogs whose specialized services will be no longer required in New Mexico.
Hebbe and Ferrari discussed with The Daily Times potential and unintended ramifications they fear may arise from the historic measure approved during a special session at the Roundhouse.
Unknowns on marijuana worry those who keep order
Here's what is clear:
• The measure will allow those 21 years old and older to possess up to 2 ounces — or 56 grams — of marijuana on their person.
• People may start growing cannabis plants at home on June 29.
• Sales of recreational marijuana are set to launch before April 1 of next year.
Among the things that are unclear, police say, is how they can gather evidence of marijuana intoxication that will stand up in court, how officers in the field can easily differentiate between legally purchased pot and pot grown illegally, and the quality-of-life issues and conflicts legalization may bring.
Hebbe said he didn’t oppose the legalization of recreational marijuana, he just doesn't think the law addresses some problems that will arise.
Hebbe said the amount of THC a person can have in their system while driving isn’t legally defined for DWI arrests.
He added his biggest concern is if the legislation puts the public at risk for more people driving under the influence of marijuana.
Hebbe said that even if police wish to seek a search warrant for a driver’s blood to test, state law prohibits low-level DWI offenders from being subject to a blood draw until it’s a felony-level offense.
“In other words, for a first-time offender, we will not get the evidence that demonstrates whether or not they really were under the influence. We'll make the arrest, and the case will be dismissed,” Hebbe said.
The marijuana smell will no longer tell
One of Ferrari's concerns about the law is that it removes a well-used tool of law enforcement: the odor of marijuana no longer provides probable cause or reasonable suspicion to detain someone, or to seek a search warrant.
Ferrari was very specific when he said law enforcement officers need to smell the odor of burnt marijuana in order to ask the driver if they have been smoking cannabis while driving.
“You have legislators that aren't law enforcement officers. They make a lot of decisions on our behalf, yet they've never set foot in a cruiser and they don't understand the issues that we're faced against,” Ferrari said.
Ferrari said retraining deputies in a new way of identifying if people are driving under the influence of marijuana will be required of the San Juan County Sheriff's Office — but that task arrived at their doorstep as an unfunded mandate.
As for an increased number of calls for service, Ferrari believes there will be an increase in calls related to recreational marijuana, with some of them pertaining to quality-of-life issues.
Some of those complaints could include people complaining about the odor of marijuana smoke and people possibly selling marijuana illegally. Ferrari said it can be tough telling the difference between legal and illegal marijuana.
Ferrari used as an example putting two heads of lettuce next to each other and asking people to identify which one was grown in New Mexico while describing the difficulty of differentiating between different types of cannabis.
Few busts for small marijuana stashes
Hebbe said Farmington police haven’t been making a lot of low-level, small-quantity arrests for marijuana, as it’s largely been decriminalized, and he expects the number of those arrests to drop.
“What really is happening in New Mexico now is we went from decriminalized, which is the police don't make that many arrests, where to say, actually, it's just legal, you can go ahead and do it,” Hebbe said.
One unintended impact on law enforcement is the possible retirement of a number of dogs in the K9 program who are trained to detect the scent of marijuana.
The Farmington Police Department is working on purchasing a couple of new K9s that will not be trained to detect cannabis, according to Hebbe.
“As far as the dogs we have right now. I don't know that you can untrain them. It's possible that we will just not be able to use those dogs for any drug detection work,” Hebbe said.
Joshua Kellogg covers breaking news for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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