Policing pot in Florence

Impact of legalization negligible, according to FPD

May 11, 2022 — Editor’s Note: This story is a companion piece to “4-20 Aplenty In Florence,” which ran April 20, a look at how cannabis businesses are operating, and even thriving, on the Oregon coast.

Since marijuana was legalized in the summer of 2016, dispensaries that sell the product and its derivatives have sprouted up all over the coast. 

This seems to be especially true in the Florence and Mapleton area, which counts five cannabis dispensaries. According to dispensary owners and budtenders that are manning the counters at these pot shops, business is booming (see the article in the April 20 edition of the Siuslaw News).

In 2015 and 2016, the City of Florence, along with communities all over Oregon, was discussing what effect this newly legal industry would have. The stigma surrounding what was for decades called a dangerous drug was partly to blame for people’s concerns. Initially, there was also a misconception that the legal cannabis industry would not be regulated and that the quick roll out of legal weed meant that the program had been created haphazardly. Local law enforcement definitely had concerns. It appears most of those were unfounded.

“It was kind of like the wild, wild west when this first started,” said Florence Police Department (FPD) Commander John Pitcher. “From the police perspective, we wondered, ‘What is this going to be like? Is this going to be chaos?’”

Pitcher says he and the FPD have been pleased by the relationship they’ve had with Florence’s dispensaries. The fact adults can grow up to four marijuana plants in their own backyard, combined with having five dispensaries for adults to purchase marijuana, has certainly increased the amount of the products on the streets of Florence. 

It seems that distributing cannabis through dispensaries is creating a safe situation, because law authority and legal pot shops can work together to fight the use of marijuana by minors, as they have in this area.

“We have no complaints about the dispensaries. They’ve done what they need to do to make sure they stay in business,” said Pitcher. “We are seeing more juveniles in possession of marijuana, and we think it’s mostly coming from adult friends and family. As far as we know, though, [dispensaries] are doing a great job not selling it to minors.”

Occasionally, FPD does catch minors with marijuana. 

“We’ve been able to track down how they got it with help from the dispensaries, because we can often identify the original source of by its packaging,” Pitcher added.

The commander said the increase in minors in possession (MIP) of marijuana has come at the same time that there has also been an increase in MIPs issued for alcohol.

“I’m not saying they’re tied together, but we have seen an increase in MIPs for marijuana and for alcohol,” he said. “There has just been a general increase in MIPs.”

Though determining cannabis intoxication is still an inexact science, the FPD has a drug recognition expert, Sgt. Denton Tipler, who receives extensive training in the recognition of all drugs of impairment. Unlike alcohol, there is currently no way to accurately measure the amount of cannabis in a driver’s system, so marijuana intoxication must be determined using other means. The FPD must rely on the expert opinion of Tipler. 

Pitcher said, “I looked at the last 10 years of DUI (driving under the influence). They go up and down within about the same range each year. I can’t say we’ve seen an increase since legalization. I will say that, statewide, they have definitely seen an increase in DUIs, but not here in Florence.”

Pitcher noted that legalization has, in some ways, lightened the workload of the FPD. 

“We no longer have to store marijuana in the evidence room,” he said. “We’re not writing a lot of ‘less than an ounce’ citations, so it’s lowered the workload of our officers to a point.”

From his perspective, legal weed hasn’t been completely devoid of issues.

“Some people think marijuana is a gateway drug to other things,” said Pitcher. “There’s no question being under the influence of marijuana does affect people’s decision making skills, so we have definitely seen an increase in people whose cognitive abilities are impaired. I’m not saying there are more robberies because of legalization, but if you couldn’t afford it before, you can’t afford it now. Legalization didn’t make it a whole lot cheaper, so if you were stealing to get your marijuana before, that hasn’t changed. The crimes that were attached to marijuana before legalization are still there.”

Illegal marijuana grow operations haven’t been a big problem in Pitcher’s time here, but his colleagues in other parts of Oregon have run into big problems.

“We’ve never had a lot of growing here in Florence,” Pitcher said. “There are a lot of illegal grows down in Southern Oregon. Those are dangerous and are all black market. I can’t say why they have become more of a problem since legalization, but they definitely have.”

Six years in, it appears legal cannabis has had its pros and cons in regard to policing in Florence, but has been nowhere near the “chaos” that was expected. 

For Dustin Foskett, CEO of Buds4U, a local cannabis sales and production company, “We have a lot of conversations about the steps taken to make sure the products are safe. It’s important people know that legalization comes with regulations on how the products are processed and produced.”

For more information on the cannabis rules and regulations in Florence, go to www.ci.florence.or.us/planning/marijuana-business-regulations.