Policing pot: What Denver can teach cities like Ottawa

While chiefs of police across Ontario call for a delay to the July 1, 2018 deadline for marijuana legalization, Denver police have a few lessons to share.

Denver used a dedicated tax to fund extra policing expenses from impaired driving to black market

In this April 14, 2016 file photo, investigators load marijuana plants onto a Colorado National Guard truck outside a suspected illegal grow operation in Denver. (P. Solomon Banda/The Associated Press)

As Canadian police services call for a delay in the fast approaching July 1 deadline for legal marijuana, the City of Denver, Colo., presents some lessons on policing challenges, whether it's the black market, impaired driving, or managing public pot smoking.

The city's pot czar, Ashley Kilroy, the director of Denver's marijuana policy, said it took new funding to boost training, hire more officers, and buy the right equipment to get the job done. 

"Now you guys, it sounds like you'll have an even greater need if your police department is going to be charged with shutting down all of these illegal marijuana businesses," Kilroy told CBC News.

Ashley Kilroy, Director of Denver's marijuana policy, said the city brought in more than $36 million in recreational pot revenue in 2016, and projects a little more than that for 2017. (City of Denver)

During a press conference last Friday, Ontario's Attorney General laid down the law with a warning to illegal dispensaries: "If you operate one of these facilities, consider yourself on notice."

Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau said there are 17 pot shops in the nation's capital. 

New demands require new resources

Kilroy — a member of Denver's committee tasked with creating new regulations and finding resources to support them — said boosting policing was a priority for the U.S. city.

Right away we went to council to ask for more [police] officers.- Ashley Kilroy

"Right away we went to council to ask for more officers," Kilroy said.

"They wanted to know why we'd need more officers if pot was now legal," she said in an interview.

"We need policing because it's legal," she said. "It was easy before — everything was illegal." 

The current Denver Police Marijuana unit started with seven officers and now has 14 with more to come.

And officers had to do more than go after the black market. They needed to learn everything from what a gram of pot looked like to rules around open pot containers in vehicles.

The city dedicated a quarter of the revenue from a new 3.5 per cent Denver sales tax on retail pot to foot some of the bill. 

The budget grew for marijuana policing from $1.4 million in 2014 to a projected $2.6 million for 2017. 

"What I keep hearing," Kilroy said, "is we deal with officers every day and we have a specific marijuana unit, and they're busier than ever."

Black market persists

And though marijuana-related crime remains 0.42 per cent of overall crime, it requires special attention, according to Kilroy.

The black market persists, with the amount of illegal pot seized and processed by the Denver Police Department jumping from 238 kilograms before legalization in 2013 to 4,022 kilograms in 2016, according to the city's annual report.

Part of getting at the black market, however, has a lot to do with issues outside policing, such as available supply of legal pot, the price, and the level of taxation, Kilroy said. 

Meanwhile, the number of criminal incidents, she said, remains quite low, with most of industry-related marijuana crime related to burglaries and theft.

At the same time, citations for public smoking have seen a drop since 2014 from 762 to 590 in 2016, to which Kilroy credits public education campaigns.

Driving under the influence of marijuana, meanwhile, required additional training for officers, but also remains a small part of driving under the influence charges, though the rate rose steadily from 2013 to 2015. 

Colorado also had concerns about being ready

As for whether police officers were ready for opening day on January 1, 2014, Michael Hartman, director of Colorado's Department of Revenue, told a House of Commons committee in Ottawa this week: "We were flying the plane while we were building it."

Police services across Canada have been calling for a delay to Ottawa's July 1, 2018 target date. 

Bryan Larkin, president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, said this week pot legalization should be put on hold, despite assurances from Canada's public safety minister the timeline is reasonable.

"We don't agree," said Larkin, who is also the chief of the Waterloo Regional Police Service. He noted a city like Ottawa has approximately 1,200 sworn police officers to train on rules that have yet to be hammered down, and tools like breathalyzers that have yet to be approved.

Ottawa's police chief has also expressed concern that resources will be needed for training, and investigators will have to tackle issues ranging from driving under the influence to cracking down on illegal dispensaries still operating the city. 

The crackdown on illegal dispensaries

Kilroy conceded Denver did not have to deal with the problem of illegal pot shops because the medical marijuana storefronts were already well-regulated, and slowly given a chance to acquire retail licenses.

The Cannabis Culture marijuana dispensary on Bank Street was raided by Ottawa police on March 9, 2016. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

In Ontario, the province will only sell marijuana through an LCBO-type model. 

And though Chief Charles Bordeleau insists illegal pot shops have not been a focus for the Ottawa Police Service, the province's signal is clear, he said. 

​"The frustration is that we have limited resources to do these investigations," he said last week. "These investigations require a lot of resources."

Denver's tax advantage

Denver, meanwhile, had access licensing fees on some 500 marijuana-related businesses.  

The Colorado capital also received approximately $10 million through a Denver-only dedicated 3.5 per cent tax on retail pot. 

It's not clear whether or not Ontario cities will have access to the same source of funding.