Michigan Marijuana: Legalization delivers new challenges for law enforcement agencies

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Recreational marijuana has been legal in Michigan for just more than five months.

Over that time, marijuana-related arrests and citations are down substantially in southwest Michigan, but law enforcement officers worry legalization might be having some unintended consequences.


Van Buren County Sheriff Daniel Abbott said residents are mostly complying with the new regulations, but the updated laws are bringing in big changes.

“The guys on the road, when they do deal with folks with marijuana, the folks are very compliant,” Abbott said. “They’re good about not having over amounts, transporting it properly.”

Under the new law, people over the age of 21 are allowed to carry up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana in public, and keep up to 10 ounces in their homes.

Records show that in 2018 in Van Buren County, 113 people were arrested for possession of marijuana. So far this year, that number is down to three.

“Our complaint load in dealing with it, the citizens have been really good and compliant with stuff,” Abbott said.

Records from other departments show similar drops. In 2018, the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s office referred 176 marijuana-related incidents to prosecutors. This year, there have been four referrals — three driving offenses and one possession charge.

In Calhoun County, prosecutors have sent nine possession cases in 2019 compared to 160 in 2018; and the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s office did not make a single marijuana-related arrest through the first four months of 2019.

Over that same period, deputies in the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office made just eight marijuana-related arrests, compared to 130 in 2018; and the Branch County Sheriff’s Office made just one arrest.

While Abbott said the loosened marijuana laws have freed up law enforcement from policing small possession cases, there are some potential issues.

Traffic crashes

Multiple studies show that states with legalized recreational marijuana see an uptick in car crashes.

One study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute found car crashes were up 6% in the states of Washington, Oregon and Colorado compared to neighboring states without legal recreational marijuana.

“We’re concerned about that,” Abbott said. “Hopefully, it won’t happen here in Michigan, but only time will tell.”

A separate study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute showed a 5.2 percent uptick in crashes reported to police in states with legalized recreation marijuana.

“When you look at different states, in states that have legalized marijuana the accident rates regarding cannabinoids go up,” said Calhoun County Prosecuting Attorney David Gilbert.

He said his office is also concerned by the numbers.

“Just look at the other states that have legalized it. It’s going to go up. It’s a substance that affects your ability to do things, it affects your ability to operate a motor vehicle,” Gilbert said.

Impaired driving

Another driving-related concern is an increase in impaired driving.

Sheriff Abbott said he’s already seeing an increase.

“Once the recreational marijuana law was passed, our numbers here, I can’t say they skyrocketed, but we’ve seen a big increase as far as people driving under the influence of marijuana,” Abbott said.

Through May 8, 2019, there have been 10 arrests in Van Buren County for operating under the influence of drugs.

Abbott and Gilbert both said they’re concerned the number of crashes and OUI arrests will jump as recreational marijuana becomes more popular.

Currently, while medical marijuana dispensaries are open in the state, stores won’t be able to sell recreational marijuana the next several months.

“You look at those other states,” Gilbert said. “What’s happening there is going to happen here more than likely.”


Another concern for law enforcement is the potency of today's marijuana strains.

Decades ago, most marijuana strains were around 2% to 3% THC, the chemical in marijuana that gets the user high.

Today, there are some strains reaching 20% and even 30% THC.

“These folks using it, if they don’t realize the level it’s at, then we’re running into where they think they’re overdosing,” Abbott said.

While Abbott said law enforcement isn’t having problems with people using marijuana properly, they’re having problems with the people who once supplied it illegally.

He said Van Buren County has seen a large increase in methamphetamine cases since marijuana was legalized.

“The cartels are actually shipping meth in now as opposed to marijuana because of the money aspect of it. So that put a bad spin on it, which a lot of folks didn’t realize,” he said.

Records from the Van Buren County Jail show 88 people were booked on meth charges since the beginning of the year. In all of 2018, 170 people were booked on meth charges.