Regina's police chief talks 'hidden' costs of marijuana legalization

Regina Police Chief Evan Bray says there needs to be more money for training and course offerings to get front-line officers ready for pot being legal by July 1, 2018.

'We know alcohol can cause problems in domestic relationships; marijuana is no different,' says Evan Bray

Regina Police Service chief Evan Bray says the legalization of pot will add to the force's workload without taking anything off their plate. (CBC)

The planned legalization of marijuana next year is concerning to the Regina Police Service, its chief says. 

Possession of recreational pot will become legal in Canada — in small quantities — on July 1, 2018.

That would presumably mean fewer people will be charged with possession offences.

But Chief Evan Bray says more widespread use of marijuana may actually mean more work for the police.

"We are worried that it's going to have a negative effect on the community," Bray said Thursday.

"We're prepared to work hard to see that it doesn't, but it is going to be work and it is going to take resources."

He said the worry is based on the rates of alcohol abuse in the city and the access minors have to booze — a substance that's been legal for a long time.

Impact on mental health, addictions, organized crime

For Bray, it's not a question of if the legalization of pot will be costly for the police service, but just how much, both in terms of money and workload. 

He said there will be costs associated with enforcement, and legalization will also bring with it a number of potential "hidden" costs in the form of social issues that would fall to frontline officers to handle.

"It's easy to talk about driving while impaired by the use of marijuana, but what about what the use of marijuana does in a domestic relationship?" Bray said. 

"We know alcohol can cause problems in domestic relationships; marijuana is no different." 

The impact weed legalization will have on the prevalence of mental health issues, gambling and addictions are also concerns for Bray. 

He added that "marijuana's going to be legalized and now that people are going to be able to go to a location and buy it, what about the underground market that undercuts the price often is spearheaded by organized crime and organized crime falls under the mandate of policing?"

"Being able to set what the distribution or the selling price is, what the taxation level is, to me will have a direct correlation on whether or not this is appealing for organized crime to come in and try and undercut that price."

Training can't start yet

Bray called the federal government's legalization deadline of July 1 is "aggressive."

Until the type of roadside screening devices are chosen and the legal consumption limit is set for driving — questions in the hands of governments, not police — officers can't start training, he said. 

He said officers can still receive drug recognition expert training, which is a federal program. It's costly, so only a handful on the force get trained each year. 

Right now, Bray said only 10 Regina police members have received this training. 

"If we are expecting the legalization of marijuana and if we're expecting this to potentially have a fairly significant impact on roadway safety, we need many more than 10. I would say we need five, six times that many." 

A sign stands outside Rainforest Farms, a retail marijuana shop in downtown Juneau, Alaska. (Becky Bohrer/The Associated Press)

'Doom and gloom scenarios' haven't happened: U.S. group

Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, which works to reform laws around marijuana in the U.S., says critics of legalization made similar arguments there.

"In all of the states we've had legalization laws passed, none of the doom and gloom scenarios our opponents predicted have come to pass," he said.

Fox said the change from an illicit to a regulated market where sellers have disincentives to sell to minors reduces teens' ability to get pot. A non-criminal marketplace for marijuana also reduces people's exposure to harder drugs, he said. 

"People working at a wine store are not going to try and sell you crack," he said.

Fox said critics also warned of "carnage on the roadways," but there's been no data accumulated yet to show whether there's been any increase in impaired driving. Making marijuana legal doesn't make people want to behave irresponsibly, he said.

"People that are going to be driving impaired after legalization are the same people that were going be driving impaired before legalization," he said.

Saving money on pot arrests

As for the increased costs of policing, he said Oregon is the only jurisdiction putting part of the tax revenue collected on marijuana sales toward law enforcement. He said in most cases, the cost of regulation is borne by the licensing fees collected from marijuana businesses. 

"All the resources that police save by not arresting otherwise law-abiding adults for marijuana possession can now be diverted into solving real crimes," he said.

He said Canadian jurisdictions should consult with the U.S. states that have legalized pot for tips on best practices in regulation.

With files from CBC's Alec Salloum and CBC Radio's Morning Edition