Colorado’s Legalization of Marijuana and the Impact on Public Policy: A Practical Guide for Law Enforcement

Project Description/Goals

Marijuana legalization in Colorado has posed significant challenges for law enforcement resulting, stemming from the unanticipated consequences it has had on crime and public safety. Colorado law enforcement formed diverse partnerships to address the difficulties caused by conflicting state legislation and local ordinances, policies, and procedures. The situation was even more complex because marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. The Police Foundation partnered with the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police to produce a guidebook illustrating the challenges in policing legalized marijuana and the law enforcement practices that have been most successful in Colorado.

Study Design & Methods

Very little data was collected on how Colorado law enforcement was dealing with legalized marijuana before the beginning of 2015. Additionally, law enforcement agencies in the state have not conducted rigorous, evidence-based research to draw conclusions regarding the impact of legalized marijuana. This guide is based on interviews with 23 subject matter experts representing state and local government, state attorney’s office, city and local attorneys, and national police associations. Two focus groups were held with law enforcement executives, detectives, and officers selected based on their experience and knowledge of marijuana legalization and location in the state to get a diverse representation. Interviews were recorded whenever possible with the permission of the interviewee and then transcribed.


The legalization of marijuana produced many unintended consequences, which led to a number of challenges and issues. Some of which have been addressed through ordinances,

policies, and procedures, while other issues are more complicated and have not found total resolution. The findings that make up the guidebook show:

* Data to determine the impact of legalized marijuana on crime and safety is limited and is a significant problem.

* Banking systems are unavailable to the marijuana industry because of federal laws, creating a dangerous level of cash that can lead to robberies.

* Difficulties in establishing what is a legal marijuana operation have created problems in conducting investigations, determining probable cause and search and seizure procedures.

* Marijuana illegal trading through the black and gray markets has not decreased, law enforcement agencies have found. Diversion across state boundaries has created issues for bordering states who do not have legalized marijuana laws.

* Public health and safety impacts concerns have occurred through the increased THC potency from marijuana hash oil extractions, which are used in making laced edibles and beverages. People have overdosed on the higher levels of THC leading to potential psychotic breaks and suicide attempts.

* Youth use and addiction rates have increased due to ease of accessibility.

* Detecting driving under the influence of marijuana is a significant challenge for law enforcement.

Funding and Collaboration

The Police Foundation funded this research and guide and partnered with the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police in its production.

Implications for Policy & Practice

The findings from this exploratory research suggest that, in states where marijuana may become legalized, law enforcement should establish data collection systems, licensing and registration protocol. Guidelines should be established in advance for search and seizures in illegal home growing operations. Impacts to minors using illegal marijuana have significant health and potential crime problems for the community. The lessons, challenges, and successful measures applied by law enforcement and their partnerships need rigorous research in those states that have legalized marijuana. The dichotomy of state and federal laws compromise officers’ actions.



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