Pubdate: Sun, 23 Aug 2015
Source: Columbian, The (WA)
Copyright: 2015 The Columbian Publishing Co.
Author: Patty Hastings


Here's A Look at Marijuana's Role in Traffic Fatalities, 
Quality-Of-Life Issues, Crime

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.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom