Wild West of legal weed has few sheriffs to keep people safe on roads and from overdoses
Stoned driving enforcement is a serious challenge for cops. Even in California, where weed is legal, relatively few officers are trained to detect it. NorthJersey.com
NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif.— In a state of 40 million people and some 700 licensed marijuana retailers, Paul Tupy and his staff of a dozen field inspectors are responsible for keeping people safe from the dangers of pot-laced jelly beans, goldfish crackers and grape jelly.
Tupy, the assistant chief of enforcement for California's Bureau of Cannabis Control, is tasked with the impossible: stamping out thousands of illegal dispensaries across the state while ensuring that the legal stores comply with an evolving set of regulations on security, hours of operation and the sizes and types of cannabis-infused food products they may sell.
Driving high is hard to police
On the streets of California, police like Ben Gomez face an even greater challenge. With no reliable blood or breath test for determining stoned drivers, Gomez and other officers must rely on their instincts and training to apprehend people who get behind the wheel after a toke or bag of marijuana jelly beans.
California had about a year from the day voters approved marijuana sales to all adults until such sales began, and the haste shows in the state's struggle to police the weed beat. From Tupy and his staff finding non-compliant food products at nearly every store they visit, to the shortage of specially trained police officers like Gomez, signs are everywhere that California's marijuana enforcers are outnumbered and outmatched.
"It was certainly an aggressive schedule," said Tupy, 41, who started his job last June after eight years of enforcing California's liquor laws. "We could have benefited from more time. The industry could have benefited from more time."
New Jersey is considering an even more aggressive timetable.
Under Gov. Phil Murphy's plan, lawmakers would vote to legalize marijuana by the time they adopt a state budget June 30, and sales would begin next January — a ramp-up period of just six months. Even advocates of legal marijuana sales concede that's ambitious.
In California, with just over a year to prepare, barely 2 percent of police officers are trained as drug-recognition experts, and there's no legal maximum for THC — the psychoactive compound in marijuana — in the blood of drivers. There's also no reliable way to test for THC, although San Diego police have piloted a saliva test that can detect it without determining the concentration.
New Jersey has the second-highest number of drug-trained police officers behind California, but they still account for fewer than 2 percent of officers statewide.
New Jersey has one drug-trained police officer per 100 miles of public roadways. Christopher Dudzik, who heads the New Jersey Association of Drug Recognition Experts, said the potential for legal marijuana has local and state police scrambling to train their officers, but retirements and reassignments have limited the number of drug-trained police on the streets.
California's marijuana enforcement occurs on two levels.
The Bureau of Cannabis Control, with about 60 employees in all, issues licenses for as much as $72,000 to retail businesses and makes sure they comply with rules including limits on THC per serving of edible products, storage of surveillance video for 90 days, and checking ages of customers to prevent sales to anyone younger than 21. Some cities, such as Los Angeles, have smaller enforcement units of their own.
Police, meanwhile, are responsible for keeping drugged drivers off the road and can take action against the thousands of unlicensed retailers and street-corner dealers that remain in California.
Four months after legal sales began and even after the Bureau of Cannabis Control sent 1,800 letters ordering illegal operators to shut down, regulators concede that California still has a thriving black market.
Dosage for weed edibles can be too high
Tupy and his team have been visiting licensed stores on what he called "educational" visits. Rather than fines or other sanctions, regulators are simply informing store managers of noncompliant products or practices such as giving away free marijuana products.
During a visit to one store in North Hollywood, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, Tupy and a pair of inspectors ordered marijuana-laced grape and strawberry jelly, watermelon tarts, cannabis hazelnut spread, cheddar goldfish crackers, and cannabis protein bars off the shelves and told managers to end a promotion in which people who left a review on the website Weedmaps would get a free gram of marijuana.
The food products were deemed noncompliant because state law requires marijuana edibles to be broken down into doses containing no more than 10 milligrams of THC each. A bottle of Cannabis Quencher, no larger than a single-serving soda bottle, contains 200 milligrams but was allowed because lines along the side demarcate 10-milligram doses.
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Tupy said most store owners do want to comply with regulations, and nearly all have improved their practices since legal sales began in January.
"Things are becoming progressively more compliant as the word gets out," he said. "It's more the newness of the regulations. Some of it just takes time."
Owners of some licensed dispensaries welcomed the arrival of the law.
Unlicensed stores skirt marijuana tax
Angie Proshak, who owns North Hollywood Compassionate Caregivers, said that of the 27 marijuana stores in the neighborhood, 16 are unlicensed. The illegal stores have a competitive advantage because they don't pay taxes, which in Los Angeles come to 34.5 percent of retail value. Proshak said her business has been "very slow" largely due to illegal competition.
"I appreciate being regulated and organized and treated as a normal business," she said during an interview after Tupy found minor violations, such as a lack of video storage capacity. "It really comes down to the number of illegal dispensaries. It should be much easier for us to do business."
When she admonished Tupy to crack down on more illegal businesses, the state enforcer largely demurred: "It's a process to deal with the unlicensed. I can't get into everything."
Marijuana DUI tests mostly 'observation'
On the streets, the job of enforcement falls to police like Gomez, a 24-year-old California Highway Patrol officer with two years of experience.
He's one of about 1,700 police officers out of nearly 80,000 in California who have completed drug-recognition training, which means they're often summoned for backup by fellow officers who are unsure of the cause of a driver's impairment.
Gomez got his drug certification in July 2017 after 72 hours of intensive classroom training on all kinds of drugs, and another nearly 40 hours of conducting evaluations under supervision in the field.
Despite that, Gomez, whose graveyard shifts take him along the knot of freeways around downtown Los Angeles, said he can't recall issuing any citations for marijuana intoxication and just two for other drugs.
"If it's alcohol impairment, as soon as that window comes down you're going to be able to smell that odor of alcohol in the car, maybe observe the slurred speech and watery eyes," Gomez said in his Ford Explorer patrol vehicle as the sun dimmed over Los Angeles. "With marijuana, it comes down to observation — the individual's behavior when you're talking to them. The signs and symptoms aren't in your face like alcohol is."
Statewide, the number of drugged-driving citations issued by California Highway Patrol officers more than doubled in the first three months of legal marijuana sales.
Between January and March, there were 886 such citations, compared to 428 for the first three months of 2017, according to data from the patrol. During the same period, the number of drunken-driving citations increased much more modestly, from 11,488 in the first three months of 2017 to 12,195 in the first three months of this year.
Asked about the spike in drugged-driving tickets, CHP spokeswoman Jaime Coffee declined to pinpoint a cause, saying only that the agency "significantly increased" its training and enforcement after the passage of the legal marijuana law.
Gomez, who embodies that focus, pulled over one driver with possible marijuana impairment during a recent Friday night shift.
The officer said he smelled marijuana in the man's car and spotted a package with a green cross — the marijuana symbol — in the center console, but the man said he hadn't used marijuana since the previous day. When Gomez administered a field-sobriety test, using a red penlight to see if the man could cross his eyes, the officer said he found no obvious signs of impairment, so he let the man go.
"With marijuana, you can't go crosseyed," Gomez said. "That's what I look for."
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