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Clark County Council delves into marijuana

Members hear evidence as they weigh lifting ban in unincorporated areas

By , Columbian political reporter
Published: April 3, 2019, 8:36pm

Marijuana is a gateway drug that’s associated with violent crime. But kids in Washington aren’t using the drug at higher rates since it was legalized and it has no conclusive link to mental illness.

Those were two of the claims made respectively by local law enforcement and the county’s public health officer at a Clark County Council work session Wednesday morning. Although Washington voters legalized cannabis in 2012, Clark County passed a ban on recreational cannabis businesses in the unincorporated areas two years later.

The county council previously reconsidered the ban, but backed off last year. After the council’s composition changed following November’s elections, the council is again moving toward lifting the ban.

Councilors Temple Lentz, Julie Olson and John Blom have expressed varying degrees of openness to lifting the ban while council Chair Eileen Quiring has opposed it. Councilor Gary Medvigy, who was appointed to the council in January, said after the meeting that he’s undecided.

As the council has weighed the question, it’s considered how lifting the ban would affect youth, law enforcement and social services. All these topics were considered during the work session. At the end, no councilor seemed to have changed positions as the county moves forward, which will likely involve another work session on planning and zoning, followed by a public hearing.

At the end of the session, Quiring said she wanted to get perspective from the juvenile justice system. Medvigy welcomed the idea. But Olson questioned what that would add, since it’s illegal for minors to buy or use marijuana.

“Well, yeah, it isn’t legal for teens to use marijuana but because it’s legal for adults it affects teens and I really think that’s the largest danger that we enter into with legalizing this,” responded Quiring.

Here are a few takeaways from the work session.

‘The ranch dressing of drugs’

Sgt. Alex Schoening, who was part of a panel of officials from the sheriff’s office, said that since 2003, Clark County has either been at the state average or higher for impairment-involved fatalities. He said that the state average is 50 percent of fatalities involve impairment, and Clark County is trending at about 60 percent.

He said the sheriff’s office has seen a rise in “poly-drug collisions,” meaning that they involved a driver impaired by multiple substances. He said that 2017 was the first year that about half of the impairment-involved fatalities involved “drug use of some kind.” He did not specify if those involved marijuana.

“Marijuana is affectionately known in law enforcement circles as the ranch dressing of drugs because it’s good with everything,” he said. “And that’s how we are seeing it on the road. We are not typically seeing it by itself.”

He said that marijuana tends to enhance the impairing effects of other drugs. He said that impairment caused marijuana is determined using blood tests but a seven- to nine-month backlog at the state toxicology lab is delaying prosecutions.

Olson said that because the state toxicology lab didn’t previously test for marijuana it is difficult to say statistically there is a rise in poly-drug impairment.

“I tend to agree with you. I think the data is too new,” responded Schoening.

Later in the session, Washington State Patrol Trooper Ben Taylor told the council that the data is still new and that marijuana legalization hasn’t created a huge increase in traffic fatalities.

Apples to buds to police calls

Sheriff’s Cmdr. Duncan Hoss presented numbers showing that recreational cannabis businesses in local cities generated more calls for police service than nearby businesses. For instance, Main Street Marijuana in Vancouver generated 128 calls for service since 2016. That compares with nearby businesses such as Vancouver Pizza, 34 calls, Trap Door Brewing, 18 calls, and Hopeless Tattoo, two calls.

Quiring said it was interesting that the recreational marijuana store generated more calls for service than the brewery and tattoo parlor.

Olson asked why the sheriff’s office included some businesses but not others, specifically large nearby retailers, such as WinCo Foods and Fred Meyer. Lentz said that it was important to compare “apples to apples,” specifically businesses where consumers purchase items to consume at home.

“When you look at any set of data out of context it’s easy to draw conclusions that may not necessarily reflect the entire community,” she said.

Hoss responded that large retailers do more business.

Violent crime

Sheriff’s Cmdr. John Horch, a member of the Clark-Vancouver Regional Drug Task Force, said that Sheriff Chuck Atkins opposes lifting the ban on recreational marijuana businesses. He also said that marijuana is linked to violent crime and is a gateway to abusing substances like heroin.

“The last three homicides we’ve had in Clark County, two of them involved marijuana,” said Horch. He said that in one case a suspect told investigators he had been using dabs, a highly concentrated form of the drug. He also said there was another incident in Hazel Dell where someone was shot and killed in a marijuana deal.

Horch said that marijuana is involved with almost every search warrant served by the task force. He also said that he and investigators hear from suspects that marijuana use led them to heroin.

Social services

Clark County Director of Community Services Vanessa Gaston told the council she reached out to several of the county’s largest mental health and substance abuse treatment providers. According to Gaston, they said while they have seen people come in for treatment for marijuana use, it’s not increased.

Gaston also reached out to the Council for the Homeless. According to Gaston, the organization has found that homeless people do use marijuana. She said their marijuana use could prevent them from finding stable housing if a landlord objects to it, or getting a job if a potential employer requires a drug test. But she said the Council for the Homeless sees more homeless people who abuse methamphetamine, alcohol or opioids.

The youth

Dr. Alan Melnick, public health director and Clark County health officer, presented the council data from the Healthy Youth Survey, a biennial survey conducted by the state Department of Health that gauges adolescents’ relationship to drugs and alcohol.

He pointed to positive trends in the survey such as how adolescents haven’t reported increases in marijuana use since the drug was legalized. However, the percentage of 10th-graders who’ve reported vaping has risen. Also, 10th-graders see less risk from using marijuana than in previous surveys.

Melnick was asked by Quiring about links between marijuana use to suicide and mental illness. He responded that there has been a lack of research and good studies on the topic.

He said there was some “substantial evidence” of a statistical association between cannabis use and schizophrenia. However, he said while it may be a risk factor there is not enough evidence to prove causation.

He also said there is moderate evidence that cannabis use increases the risk of suicidal ideation and attempts, as well as other mental health problems. He said there is some moderate evidence that cannabis use helps the cognitive functioning of people with psychotic disorders.

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