Police ready to handle gray areas with medical marijuana use - Your West Valley News: Topstory

Police ready to handle gray areas with medical marijuana use

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Posted: Saturday, December 18, 2010 4:45 am

Marijuana is one of many banned substances, one police have been trained to deal with for decades.

But what happens when that banned substance is only partially banned?

That is the situation law enforcement will be dealing with in a few short months, when medical marijuana dispensaries and facilities open for business and patients using marijuana become part of the equation.

So, how will police deal with the change?

Officials from the Surprise and Peoria police departments say, for the most part, it will be business as usual.

The Surprise Police Department treats all drug and alcohol offenders who drive under the influence the same way — and plans to patrol for medical marijuana the same way it does for other similar crimes, said Mark Ortega, the department’s spokesman.

Ortega said there must be some other primary offense taking place, such as the car’s headlight being out or the motorist speeding or weaving in and out of traffic, to stop the motorist in the first place.

Ortega admitted determining whether someone operating a vehicle is under the influence of marijuana “isn’t as black and white” as someone who’s under the influence of alcohol. Still, Ortega said officers will question drivers who they suspect to be impaired by marijuana about how the drug is affecting their ability to drive and answer questions.

Even for those who may receive a prescription for medical marijuana from a physician, getting behind the wheel and feeling the effects of marijuana — drowsiness, fatigue, feeling tired — could land that individual behind bars or with a citation.

Ortega said drug recognition officers can test a motorist for marijuana with a blood or urine test should they determine their level of impairment is high or they are a danger to others on the road. Officers could also conduct a urine or blood test on motorists based on them “wreaking of pot,” much like officers do for motorists who smell of alcohol, he said.

Just like police officers don’t target individuals who exit a bar, they will also not wait outside medical marijuana dispensaries to find people who are under the influence and are about to get behind the wheel, Ortega said.

Mike Tellef, spokesman for the Peoria Police Department, said his agency will adapt like they always do.

“It’s like any new law,” he said. “We just have to be sure people understand what the law says.”

While Tellef said he does not envision any new problems as a result of legalized medical marijuana, he did say some existing problems could gain a new dimension.

“We have a big problem with forged prescriptions already,” he said. “So we might see an increase in that area. We are also concerned that people might have a kind of misguided freedom that it is OK to drive under the influence. Those two things are the biggest concerns for us.”

Tellef said they will not know exactly what they are dealing with until March.

“We don’t know how well it’s going to go until it rolls out. It’s new to us, too,” he said.

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