Now that drug offenses in Colorado do not include arrests for pot, the time is approaching when long-term conclusions may possibly be made about the efficacy and safety of the state’s ground-breaking move. The fact is that about 42 percent of arrests for drug offenses throughout the country are for marijuana possession, and that was generally true in Colorado prior to the change. That begs the question of whether police will have large amounts of free time at their disposal if the a state legalizes marijuana.
Generally, the answer to that question is no, due to substantial enough workloads in connection with more serious crimes that can fill the void rather quickly. For one thing, an unscientific survey in Colorado indicates that many law enforcement agencies have been treating marijuana arrests as low priority crimes for years. Because the movement toward legalization in this state was a gradual process that took years, the changing values over this issue had already caused some police departments to take an easier approach to marijuana.
It may also be that the effect of the medical marijuana experience, which is something that will logically precede all-out legalization in most areas. It had an influence in adjusting the priorities in Colorado police departments long before legalization. Some counties in Colorado have only a small handful of marijuana arrests on the books over the past several years.
One 36-year veteran of the Denver Police Department who is now retired asserts the popular wisdom that legalization allows police to focus on more serious matters. The supporters of legalization are generally seeing some of their predictions come true. For example, crime has not gone up in Denver since the beginning of the year.
It decreased by 5.6 percent during the first four months of 2014. Most of the problems with marijuana in Colorado are now related to illegal sales that are not licensed under state law. We can hope that such regulatory busts do not escalate into a big new category of drug offenses that will occupy some authorities instead of the more serious crimes that need to be addressed.