A Wary Adaptation: Cannabis and the Small-Town Cop

Dire sky-will-fall predictions from small town police departments weren’t entirely unreasonable, given the circumstances. Many rural communities are struggling with epidemics of heroin, meth, and other hard drugs. In Washington, Oregon, and California, small-town cops have first-hand knowledge of the role that organized crime has played in black market cannabis farming, especially on remote sites in national forests, which can encompass tens of thousands of miles in rural Western counties. Further, small-town cops, like their big-city counterparts, have grown concerned over the popularity of new products like as dabs and edibles.

Station 420, one of three cash-only, <strong>licensed</strong> <strong><a href=marijuana retailers in the Yakima Valley, photographed Wednesday, October 12, 2016, in Union Gap, Washington. (Jordan Stead for Leafly)" width="840" height="526" />Station 420 is one of three licensed, cash-only cannabis retailers in Washington State’s Yakima Valley. (Jordan Stead for Leafly)

That said, in many rural communities, the day-to-day law enforcement realities of recreational cannabis so far have been mundane: Mostly complaints from neighbors about the location of a retail store, amateur extraction fires, or the smell of a flowering crop. Also, employee theft. Brown and his colleagues in Okanogan County, which has nearly 60 grow operations, initially worried that the new farms would be picked clean at

“If you were a banker, would you give all your tellers access to the vault?”

Steve Brown, Chief Deputy, Okanogan County

harvest time by nighttime fence jumpers. Yet of the two major thefts at county pot farms thus far, both are believed to be inside jobs by employees or ex-employees. In one case, surveillance video caught the thief using the access code for a cannabis storeroom. That might say more about a farm’s security protocols than the overall success of legalization.  “I don’t know what kind of businessmen any of these people are,” Brown says of the farm owners. “But if you were a banker, would you give all your tellers access to the vault?”

Still, legalization has added real complexities to police work that can be burdensome in small town departments. Drug-sniffing dogs, for example, must now be “detrained” for marijuana. If they aren’t, suspects caught with heroin or meth can claim in court that their arrest was illegal because the police dog might have smelled their legal weed, the scent of which is no longer probable cause for a search and arrest. While detraining dogs is fairly easy, doing so has meant cops can’t use dogs to look for pot on minors, for whom pot is still illegal.

Likewise, while it’s still unclear whether recreational cannabis has been associated with higher rates of stoned driving, it has made traffic stops more complicated. Because a dependable pot breathalyzer doesn’t exist, cops who suspect a motorist is high must either do a blood test, which requires a warrant, or wait for an assessment from a specially trained drug-recognition expert. “It’s just a lot more of a process,” says Chief Deputy Steve Groseclose, who oversees drug enforcement in Douglas County. “And it’s a challenge for us to be able to investigate those [cases] and at the same time handle emergency calls.”

Union Gap, Washington, photographed Wednesday, October 12, <strong>2016</strong>. (Jordan Stead for Leafly)Union Gap, Washington, in late autumn. (Jordan Stead for Leafly)

Small towns and tiny budgets

These problems aren’t unique to small towns. Seattle is also grappling with blood tests and drug dog re-training, in addition to enforcement issues that most small towns don’t see. The difference is that big-city police departments can more readily absorb the cost of these new cannabis enforcement issues. Small town budgets can’t. Legal cannabis “has increased our calls,” says Groseclose, “we’re not getting more money for law enforcement. I mean, the state passes a law, and they collect the money from taxes, but I don’t see it filtering down to the local sheriff’s offices or counties very much.”

This points to another sore spot for small-town cops. Legalization advocates promised a flood of cannabis tax money to help defray law-enforcement costs. Yet many rural cops say the actual dollar amounts so far have been tiny. 

The black market is more resilient in rural areas. Locals “don’t want to be seen as doing it,” say police, “so they are keeping those backdoor connections.”

Money isn’t the only promised effect that hasn’t materialized. The argument that legalized marijuana would bankrupt the black market hasn’t been borne out in many rural communities. Part of that is economic. In the early days of the legal market, legal cannabis was more expensive than the black market variety, thanks to supply shortages and hefty state taxes. Prices have since dropped—substantially—and yet a shrunken black market still exists. For that, police blame the social stigma. Many small-town residents fear being judged by their neighbors for going to a licensed cannabis retailer. “They don’t want to be seen as doing it,” says Cobb, “so they are keeping those backdoor connections.”

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