British Columbia

Legalizing marijuana was for the best, says Washington state county sheriff

King County Sheriff John Urquhart says the war on drugs was an 'abject failure,’ and praises the residents of Washington state who decided to legalize marijuana.

Sheriff says it’s time for police and politicians to ‘listen to the people of British Columbia’

After recreational marijuana was legalized in Washington state, the first store to open to customers sold out of pot in one day. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Seattle's first legal recreational marijuana store opened one year ago today. Over that time, there have been more than a quarter-billion dollars in cannabis sales and more than $70 million generated in taxes for local and state governments.

The legalization of recreational pot meant a significant change for the state's police approach towards the drug.

King County Sheriff John Urquhart spoke with The Early Edition's Rick Cluff about the impacts of that decision.

You are the sheriff for Washington's biggest county ... What were the biggest challenges you and your officers faced in adapting to marijuana as a newly legalized substance?

Really there was nothing to adapt to. My biggest challenge was letting my officers know that it's a different ball game now, don't worry about it.

From a crime standpoint, there was nothing to enforce anymore and the sky didn't fall. It was business as usual and no big deal.

Sheriff John Urquhart says the war on drugs was an abject failure. (King County)

One of the biggest concerns about legalization here in Vancouver and in Canada is that it might lead to increasing youth access to marijuana. How closely were your forces watching for that?

That just hasn't happened. All the studies that have been done show marijuana use in Washington State is down. With the tax revenue coming in, we'll be able to devote some of that money to education. The legalization has not increased the use of marijuana by youth.

What were your expectations as this law changed?

I was the only police chief in Washington state to actually support the legalization of marijuana.

I was a drug enforcement officer and arrested lots of people for every single drug imaginable and took them to jail. What I learned during that time was that the war on drugs hasn't worked. More than that it's been an abject failure.

The citizens of the state of Washington decided they wanted to legalize marijuana. The citizens have spoken and it's time for us, the police, to listen.

Recreational marijuana is still illegal at the federal level in the United States. Did you come into any conflict with federal law enforcement officials?

No open conflict. The federal government through the department of justice has said "we don't really like this, but we see the handwriting on the wall and as long as you do certain things, we will keep hands off."

Those things are making sure marijuana isn't sold to young people under 21, that we shut down shops that aren't licensed, and that we enforce DUI statutes.

What advice would you have for law officials and politicians in Canada who may be considered about what the legalization of recreational marijuana might mean?

Listen to the people of British Columbia — usually they're smarter than the politicians and the cops. Make your views known, but don't give the attitude of "we're the cops, you're not, so don't tell us how to do our job."

That's a situation that's occurred with police officers forever, and that's got to change. Just listen and it'll all be fine. 

This interview was edited and condensed. To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: Sheriff reacts to one year since marijuana legalization in Washington state.