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Is marijuana dragging us down?

Here's a look at marijuana's role in traffic fatalities, quality-of-life issues, crime

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
Published:
3 Photos
Associated Press files
Mike Boyd turns to the crowd outside, showing off the 4 grams of marijuana he bought as the first in line to legally purchase marijuana at Spokane Green Leaf on July 8, 2014.
Associated Press files Mike Boyd turns to the crowd outside, showing off the 4 grams of marijuana he bought as the first in line to legally purchase marijuana at Spokane Green Leaf on July 8, 2014. Photo Gallery

o No upswing seen in marijuana use among youths

o New Vansterdam sharpens security measures

When recreational marijuana was legalized, Washington entered the unknown, triggering questions — and predictions — about what might happen. Would drug dealers hang around the pot shops? Would it bring riffraff into the neighborhood and make shops easy crime targets? Would people abuse the drug? Or smoke and drive, putting others in harm’s way?

As is evident by millions of dollars in sales each month at Vancouver’s retail stores, people certainly use marijuana. And it has had some consequences on the community, but there’s apparently no evidence of major behavioral shifts.

For starters, it’s unclear what percentage of the population uses marijuana.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health for 2012 and 2013 found that 17.58 percent of all Washington adults used marijuana. That was before the retail shops were up and running.

Driving high

One of the more measurable and pressing questions that arose from Initiative 502 debates was whether more people would drive stoned, endangering others on the road.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission found that marijuana has increasingly become a factor in fatal crashes. Most drivers in fatal collisions are tested for drugs. In 2014, among 619 drivers involved in fatal crashes, 89 tested positive for cannabis, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. Of those marijuana-positive drivers, 75 had active THC (the psychoactive compound in cannabis) in their blood, meaning they had recently used the drug. That’s twice as many drivers with active THC in their blood than there were in 2010. About half of those 75 drivers were above the legal limit of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, the traffic safety commission said. The driver with the highest THC level tested at 70 nanograms of marijuana per milliliter of blood — 14 times the legal limit.

Half of last year’s THC-positive drivers were also under the influence of alcohol, and most were above the 0.08 blood alcohol concentration limit, the traffic safety commission said. Marijuana and alcohol used together has a compounding effect.

Shelly Baldwin, spokeswoman for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, said drugs have surpassed alcohol as factors in fatal crashes.

“Marijuana ends up being the most frequent drug, but certainly we see methamphetamine and opiates and cocaine, prescription drugs. There’s a long list,” Baldwin said.

Several issues come up when trying to measure marijuana in suspected impaired drivers. Unlike alcohol, marijuana leaves the blood system and gets into the brain, causing a euphoric feeling. That means blood testing is not the best measure, Baldwin said.

“It may be such a different processing in the body that we won’t really know,” she said.

With alcohol, she said, it’s easy to connect blood alcohol concentration levels to impairment. There’s no such way to attach active THC levels to a certain manifestation of impairment.

In fatal crashes, blood tests can get done fairly quickly. However, with cases of driving under the influence, the blood test is prefaced by a search warrant.

“How efficient that is varies from county to county,” Baldwin said.

Hours could pass between stopping an impaired driver and drawing his or her blood for testing, which has to go to a lab.

In 2014, 703 Washington drivers tested positive for being above the legal marijuana limit of 5 ng/mL. That’s a fraction of the total DUI violations, which were 25,795 statewide last year. In general, though, driving under the influence violations have gone down in Washington. That means the increase in marijuana detection among drivers is a new, unnerving trend for traffic officials.

Among impaired drivers, Washington State Patrol’s Vancouver crime lab saw an increase in blood that was positive for THC and the metabolite carboxy-THC, which indicates marijuana use at some point in time. The drug remains detectable days or weeks after somebody has used it and the psychoactive effects have long since worn off.

The lab’s data indicate that while more impaired drivers are getting pulled over and testing positive for THC, a smaller percentage of them are above the legal limit.

Most of these drivers, according to a study led by state toxicologist Dr. Fiona Couper, are young and male.

Crime level

Crime analysts at the Vancouver Police Department haven’t found any indication that pot retailers are contributing to increased crime or calls for service, said agency spokeswoman Kim Kapp. There hasn’t, for instance, been a single robbery or attempted robbery at any of the city’s six pot shops.

That’s not to say one couldn’t occur. A Spokane shop called Greenlight made headlines this month when it was robbed by two people armed with guns, handcuffs and plastic ties. They bound two employees and a customer before leaving with cash and marijuana. Six months earlier, a different Spokane pot shop, Green Leaf, was robbed. Recreational pot shops in the Puget Sound area also were robbed this year.

Vancouver stores haven’t been associated with any crimes that wouldn’t already occur, Kapp said. An auto prowl, for instance, can happen anywhere there are cars and opportunities for prowlers, not necessarily because a certain type of business is nearby.

That doesn’t mean the shops aren’t potentially situated within crime hot spots, because there are many spots throughout the city that police monitor and patrol, Kapp said. The who, what, when, where, why and how of crime is always changing. Officials are hesitant to say what leads to crime, given its ebb and flow, making it difficult to discern whether legalizing pot affected public safety.

Marijuana-related crimes, such as possession and selling of drug paraphernalia, have dropped off, which makes sense given it’s now legal to have pot and a pipe. In general, crime has gone down around Clark County, though it increased about 1 percent for the whole state last year, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. Drug violations accounted for nearly 13,700 crimes reported statewide last year — an uptick from 2013’s almost 13,000 violations.

Quality-of-life issues

Undersheriff Mike Cooke was the commander of the Clark-Vancouver Drug Task Force when I-502 was being considered, and he was a vocal opponent of the initiative. He’s still against it and considers the new law bad for the community. Even though there are no retail marijuana shops in unincorporated Clark County, the sheriff’s office continues to field marijuana-related calls, including some quality-of-life issues.

“I have taken calls from people very frustrated that they now see marijuana growing in their neighbors’ yards openly,” Cooke said. “It’s the secondhand smoke that comes over the fence line.”

The skunklike odor from plants and people smoking marijuana wafts into neighbors’ backyards, making parents hesitant to let their kids play outside. There’s nothing deputies can do about those complaints.

I-502 and medical marijuana laws have started normalizing marijuana use, Cooke said, and he believes that’s led people to use more potent versions of the drug, such as wax or hash. He thinks youth are getting the message that marijuana is harmless.

“I come from the school of thought that as adults maybe we should curb our behaviors to set a good example for youth,” Cooke said.

In the same way that adults shouldn’t down a six-pack of beer in front of children, he believes that adults also shouldn’t take bong hits. On and off duty, Cooke has seen people smoking marijuana while driving, and heard similar emergencies called out over 911 dispatch.

He acknowledges that his conservative outlook on marijuana is rejected by the growing number of people embracing the new industry.

“It’s become not cool to be against marijuana. … Regardless of how I feel about marijuana, as a police officer I’m bound to uphold the law how it stands,” Cooke said. “We’ve made adjustments to how we do business.”

The agency focuses on people who are illegally selling the drug on the black market, or people who are growing pot in mass quantities without a license.

Addiction issues

Lifeline Connections, a Vancouver drug and mental health treatment center, sees a handful of people who struggle with marijuana addiction. Last year, 25 clients listed marijuana as their primary substance, which means it’s the drug that’s had the most adverse effect on their lives. Seventy-three such clients sought treatment in 2010. Marijuana is more often listed as a client’s secondary drug — not as destructive but still used by people struggling with substance abuse.

“Yes, marijuana can be addictive and have an adverse effect, but it’s to a lesser extent than those hard-core drugs,” said executive director Jared Sanford.

Lifeline Connections primarily treats people with opioid, or heroin, addictions. Alcohol is the second most commonly abused substance. Although some have touted marijuana as a gateway drug to harder substances, that’s not accurate, Sanford said.

“There are so many variables that go into why someone uses drugs or other substances,” he said. Adverse childhood experiences, mental illness, stressors and genetics are among the many factors. Some can move on to harder drugs, while others may stick with marijuana.

Sanford has asked people recovering from marijuana addiction how they stay clean and sober now that the drug is legal. Those people said they still have to commit to recovery each day and avoid people, places and things that may trigger a relapse. These days, they might not, say, go to a restaurant that’s next to a pot shop.

It’s similar to those struggling with alcohol addiction who have to avoid bars and drinkers. Recovering addicts can’t shelter themselves from the world, though, and the legal substances they will inevitably come across, whether it’s at a work party or while running errands.

“Just because you’re in recovery doesn’t mean you live in a bubble,” Sanford said.

Alcohol is a more accepted, ingrained part of society, and those with alcoholism can be seen as people who “can’t hold their liquor,” Sanford said. Marijuana is so new that it hasn’t reached that acceptance level yet, making it unclear how the majority of people view marijuana addiction.

“Whether things are legal or not legal, our treatment approach is going to be what we’ve always done,” Sanford said. “We’re going to help people look at their behavior, their thought process, and find supports.”

Neighborhood stores

Pot shops have settled into the retail landscape, looking like any other storefront aside from the marijuana-pun business names and mandatory blacked-out windows.

High End Marketplace is in a house that’s been converted into a business, nestled between law offices in the Arnada neighborhood. Nearby, Main Street Marijuana is operating among popular Uptown Village’s restaurants and antique shops. The Herbery’s east Vancouver store is in a strip mall next to a pet supply shop and a pizza restaurant.

In a shopping center, landlords can be more reluctant to lease to a pot shop, said Deborah Ewing, vice president managing broker at Eric Fuller & Associates, a commercial real estate broker.

“Often landlords are protective of the existing tenants,” Ewing said. “Many, many landlords have refused that use in their properties. … Now that a year’s passed, people might feel differently.”

Vancouver already has its six allotted shops, so the city won’t find out anytime soon whether property owners have relaxed their standards.

Passersby and neighboring businesses see that pot shops are like any other business with customers coming and going, and regular hours, Ewing said. People aren’t allowed to use marijuana inside the stores, which may help that perception.

Ewing compares the initial stigma attached to pot shops coming into a neighborhood as similar to years ago when landlords didn’t think leasing to a gun shop was a good idea. Who were these places more likely to attract, lawful gun owners or criminals?

“It’s just an educational process,” Ewing said.

Real estate contracts happen on a case-by-case basis, so if there’s a complex with an existing business that really doesn’t jive with having a marijuana shop nearby, it probably won’t happen. The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board stipulates where marijuana stores can be located. They can’t be within 1,000 feet of any elementary or secondary school, playground, recreation center or facility, child care center, public park, public transit center, library, or game arcade that allows minors inside. That limits the commercial real estate available to them.

With only six shops allowed in Vancouver, though, entrepreneurs had plenty of locations to choose from. Marijuana shops haven’t affected commercial real estate prices, Ewing said. It’s primarily demand that sways prices, and demand naturally went up after the recession, she said. When alcohol was privatized, nothing happened. The change didn’t influence real estate prices, and there were no stipulations on where stores that sold alcohol could be located.

The rules for marijuana retailers have restricted their visibility.

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Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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