OnPolicing Blog

Tracking Data is Key After a State Legalizes Marijuana

May 12, 2016

Marco Vasquez

Chief Marco Vasquez

Erie Police Department, CO

Marco Vasquez

Chief Marco Vasquez

Erie Police Department, CO

My home state of Colorado recently released its first study of the consequences of legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

What surprised me the most is how much we still do not know after six years of commercial marijuana legalization. The study examined as much data as could be found. But therein lies the problem: No one had been effectively tracking marijuana statistics prior to 2010 when Colorado legalized the drug to allow for commercial, medical, and then, in 2012, for recreational use.

It’s why I am here to tell you something important: If your state has not legalized marijuana, you can expect that there is a pretty good chance that will change in the future. What I see across the country is that law enforcement leaders are generally in denial that it will happen in their state. And if it does, the reaction is, “Hell no, we are going to resist it at all cost.”

That was the thinking of Colorado law enforcement leading up to the vote. We simply did not think it would happen, and then when it did, the reaction was: Holy cow, what do we do now?

Looking back, I can tell you that was an enormous mistake. Don’t be like us and waste valuable time and energy trying to resist what may be something that is going to happen anyway. Certainly, if your state begins a discussion about the viability of marijuana legalization, it’s your job as chief or sheriff to educate them about why it is a bad idea. But once they have decided to legalize it, I believe police administrators need to focus on how to successfully implement marijuana legalization in their communities, while focusing on public safety as a priority.

It is essential to begin tracking data early so that you have a baseline to compare it to down the road. As we all know, law enforcement is a data-driven profession and that means it is critically important to set up data points early because it is unlikely that your state is already doing it.

In our case, Senate Bill 13-283 began to put us on the right track. The bill mandated that the Division of Criminal Justice in the Department of Public Safety would study the impacts of marijuana legalization, with a specific examination of how they impact law enforcement.

You can read the report by clicking on this link. In full disclosure, I must also add that I was a member of the Colorado Marijuana Data Working Group that helped develop this report. My thanks and congratulations to Division of Criminal Justice researcher Jack Reed, who authored this report and to my fellow working group members.

The resulting study is helpful and helps highlight some potential issues, but as the report states: “It is too early to draw any conclusions about the potential effects of marijuana legalization or commercialization on public safety, public health, or youth outcomes, and this may always be difficult due to the lack of historical data.”

There are a couple of important facts that I took out of the report. The first is to not expect a surge of money coming into the state’s coffers. Marijuana-based taxes only accounted for 1 percent of the Colorado budget.

The other aspect that I found interesting was the report doesn’t show a decrease in the number of alcohol users. One of the arguments by the pro-legalization crowd was that marijuana is safer than alcohol and it was presumed that many people would switch from alcohol to marijuana. The report found that alcohol consumption is staying steady or increasing in Colorado as marijuana consumption is also rising.  It appears that people are continuing to use as much alcohol as ever, while adding marijuana to their drugs of choice.

Currently, 24 states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana in one form or another. Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized it for recreational use. And 10 states are considering a form of legalization this year.

Think about how quickly things have changed.

For law enforcement, the time has come to adjust. So whether you agree with it or not, you need to start preparing for it. If it doesn’t, fine; you’re all set, just as you are if you do have to deal with it in the end.

In addition to compiling a data tracking system, I have some more advice. First, I would read this law enforcement guide for dealing with the legalization of marijuana. The National Policing Institute published the guide last May. You can read it here.

Next, you must train your officers to understand all of the nuances with the new law. In Colorado, we have already trained several thousands of officers on Marijuana 101, giving them an overview of the new statutes so law enforcement has a solid understanding of the rules. Let me add, do not underestimate how much it will cost because it will surprise you.

Then you have to train officers how to recognize impaired drivers. They will need a higher level of certification to be able to detect and make arrests for driving under the influence of marijuana, as opposed to alcohol. So far, we have trained nearly 300 officers in the state for it.

Lastly, you must work with all of the stakeholders because you want to prepare yourself for all of the unanticipated things that will happen. In our case, that meant such things as explosions at houses from butane hash oil extraction, issues that come with edible marijuana products, and youth and marijuana.

Keep in mind, too, that for commercial marijuana to succeed as a business, the only way the model can be sustainable ultimately is by adding consumers. Currently, there are a finite number of users in a state. So for the business to become successful, they are going to have to grow the number of users.

And that, I can tell you, is what I am most worried about. We have a lot of work to do because clearly the issue of marijuana legalization is not going away.


Marco Vasquez was appointed Chief of Police for the Town of Erie in Colorado in 2013, and has served for 43 years in Colorado law enforcement. Vasquez was named Chief of Sheridan (CO) Police Department in 2008, serving until 2010. The next year, he became the first Chief of Investigations for the newly created Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division for the Colorado Department of Revenue and served in this capacity until 2013. As one of the leading authorities on legalization of marijuana in Colorado, Chief Vasquez serves as the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) Marijuana Issues Committee chair. Chief Vasquez received a master’s degree in Management from Regis University and is a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Colorado Chiefs of Police Association (CACP) and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). Chief Vasquez has also graduated from PERF’s Senior Management Institute in Policing (SMIP) and the IACP Leadership in Police Organizations (LPO) course.

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Marco Vasquez

Chief Marco Vasquez

Erie Police Department, CO

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