Several marijuana-related crimes were struck from the books when California voters legalized the drug for adults 21 and over last week, and several others were reduced from felonies to misdemeanors. Part of the allure for voters was that police—free from enforcing antiquated and ineffectual laws outlawing the nation’s favorite illicit substance—would then spend less time on marijuana and devote attention and energy to other, more serious crimes.
It’s only been a week, but this hasn’t been the experience of Parker Sever.
Sever is police chief of Hanford, California, a city of 53,000 in the southern Central Valley. Somehow, Prop. 64 has had the opposite effect for Sever—in fact, it’s created crime and more work for him and his officers. Well, probably, anyway.
“There’s still a lot of stuff that’s illegal, and there’s probably more stuff that’s illegal now,” Sever told the local paper, the Hanford Sentinel. “So it’ll probably take up more of our time.”
Sever noted that he hadn’t seen any noticeable uptick in public marijuana consumption, but he did notice more ads offering marijuana-growing services, and several “mobile dispensaries” went as far as to call his office, asking if they could start delivering weed in town. You can guess his answer.
Legalization did not go over well in Kings County, where Prop. 64 lost resoundingly—57.5 percent no to 42.5 percent yes. Kings County is also Donald Trump country, with 56 percent of voters supporting Trump over Hillary Clinton. Trump is known for creating his own facts as he goes along, so maybe Sever is taking a page from the president-elect’s book when he posits that fewer crimes in the criminal code in fact means more crimes.
One could guess at Sever’s reasoning all day long. Meanwhile, other police officers in legalized areas across the country are pushing the same line: legalization of marijuana means more marijuana enforcement.
California is expected to reap in as much as $1 billion a year in tax revenue under Prop. 64. This should be a boon for many rural areas hit hard by the real estate crash during the recession, which forced some cash-strapped agencies to lay off police.
One county, Mendocino, managed to save its sheriff’s department staffing by charging marijuana growers to license their plants. The same won’t happen in Tuolumne County near Yosemite National Park, the local district attorney declared.
In fact, “I can tell you the resources that law enforcement will have to spend will far exceed any revenue that’s going into the law enforcement fund out of Prop. 64,” District Attorney Laura Kreig told MyMotherLode.com.
Cops in Maine, which passed legalization by barely a hair, are also echoing this unexpected hard line.
In Maine, Question 1’s promise—the same line used everywhere else, for obvious reasons—was that marijuana would be regulated and taxed in part so police could be freed up to worry about serious, violent and unsolved crimes, an argument used by advocate Mark Dion, himself a former sheriff.
His colleagues who are still in law enforcement demur.
“Well you know, that’s not true because we’re probably going to spend more time trying to figure out the marijuana law when we encounter these situations than ever before,” said Chris Greeley, police chief of Holden, Maine, in comments to WLBZ-2. This argument—that figuring out if an adult has less than the possession limit (in Maine, it’s 2.5 ounces and six plants) or not is difficult—is patently ridiculous, but since it’s coming from the mouths of police, it does not portend for a smooth rollout.
Not every jurisdiction shares this bizarre worldview.
In San Francisco, after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill decriminalizing less than an ounce of marijuana, misdemeanor arrests for possession plummeted from several hundred a year to under 10, and there’s every indication that police there will, in fact, observe legalization as just that.
After Schwarzenegger decriminalized limited pot possession, marijuana crime went down accordingly in Sever’s Hanford, too, though Hanford—a town of 50,000, compared to more than 850,000 in San Francisco—somehow still records almost triple the number of low-level cannabis busts as the big city to the north.
Change is never easy, but it is impossible if the participants are unwilling—particularly if those participants are the one sworn to uphold what is now the law. Police were legalization’s most strident foes from the beginning, and apparently they’ll continue this die-hard stance after what should have been the end.
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