Summit County sheriff talks marijuana — the good, the bad and the ugly
Since marijuana was legalized in Colorado, Summit County Sheriff John Minor has navigated choppy waters as a law enforcement officer. He’s responded to hash oil explosions, grappled with look-a-like edibles and intercepted thousands of drug dollars illegally sent through the mail.
He was the first speaker in a new series sponsored by SCOPE, or Summit County Open Podium for Excellence, a group that hopes to stir discussion on hot-button topics starting with the invitation-only event Monday, Aug. 17, at the Elks Lodge in Silverthorne about marijuana legalization.
SCOPE chairman John St. John started the event by sharing his mixed feelings. He spoke about a Widespread Panic concert decades ago and described concertgoers as a cult of long-haired hippie perverts. He compared the event to Armageddon.
However, St. John said he wasn’t against the legalization of recreational marijuana and talked about the battle between Medical Marijuana of the Rockies owner Jerry Olson and the Holiday Inn in Frisco.
The hotel filed a RICO lawsuit to prevent Olson from opening a dispensary next to the hotel. He ended up closing his business, the county’s first dispensary, because of the suit. St. John questioned the legality of the suit and then moved on to the issue of greed in the marijuana industry.
“They’re baling up money like you bale up hay,” he said before passing the baton to the sheriff.
Minor spoke first about the positives of recreational marijuana legalization including millions in state and local taxes and the benefits for Colorado entrepreneurs.
“We’re starting to see the new marijuana millionaires, and they’re business people,” he said. “It’s capitalism.”
He touched on the medical benefits of marijuana and then talked about how far fewer people are going to prison on marijuana-related charges, reducing the public cost of incarceration by $1 billion.
The industry has created jobs and more than minimum-wage jobs, too, he said, with dispensary wages starting at $10 an hour or $2 more than the state’s minimum wage.
With legalization, law-abiding local residents can use marijuana responsibly in private locations, but legislators and law enforcement have struggled with what private means, he said.
“Is smoking marijuana on your deck at your condo public or not public?” he said. Summit law enforcement decided it was private, “but sometimes, your neighbor gets mad. Sometimes the guy who’s had a few beers next door goes and picks a fight with the guy who’s smoking a joint.”
Moving to the downsides of marijuana, Minor talked about a hash oil explosion in Summit in 2009.
“Two people, naked, burned, show up at our ER in the middle of the night,” he said. “When you use butane indoors to extract hash oil from marijuana around a flame, really, really bad stuff happens, and we were one of the first in the nation to have it happen to us.”
He showed the group a photo from the incident of peeling drywall and scorched linens and talked about the fire hazards of grow operations.
Minor called unregulated pesticides another problem.
“I can’t even pronounce this stuff, but I remember reading it, and it wasn’t good,” he said.
While many marijuana growers are conscientious about what they put on their plants, he said, people could be eating harmful chemicals in infused baked goods and inhaling them in vaporizers.
The ugly aspects of marijuana legalization, he said, include cash-related crime, accidental consumption and unknown correlations with mental health.
A Summit dispensary owner once requested police escort to town hall, so he could pay about $60,000 in taxes that he was carrying in a shoebox, Minor said.
A local mother accidentally packed a marijuana-infused cookie in her child’s lunch box this past year, Minor said. When the student pulled out the cookie in the cafeteria, another kid told the child not to eat it.
“It’s not just a story that’s made up. It did happen right here at our middle school,” he said. “That’s what bothers me as a dad is that something as innocent as a Triscuit — now you got to be careful. It could be infused, and you don’t know it because once it’s outside of that container, you don’t know.”
Minor’s talk was followed by a Q&A with two local doctors and former Summit County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert.
The first person to pose a question asked about how marijuana can be legal in the state but not federally and if marijuana could become illegal in Colorado again.
“Is there any chance of the amendment being withdrawn?” he asked.
Hurlbert said, “Can the genie be put back in the bottle? Really, the answer is no.”
He explained that federal law enforcement have ignored marijuana in states that have legalized it with the exception of huge grow operations that leap beyond the boundaries of state law.
Dr. Justin Meschler, an anesthesiologist who moved to the county this summer and works at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, answered a question about the impacts of legalization in local health care.
“We get chronic marijuana users coming in with fractures,” Meschler said. “It’s incredibly difficult to control their pain with fractures. We don’t have any evidence of that. It’s just what my colleagues have noticed over the last few years.
“It’s something new and different, and the individuals (who) have a lot more pain requirements require a lot more time and effort and sometimes might have a longer hospital stays and cost more money to the system,” he added.
St. John asked Minor about when he stops someone who appears to have been drinking and smoking marijuana: “How do you know what you’re dealing with?”
Minor said, “Well first off, if I’m stopping someone, then someone screwed up at the sheriff’s office because I’m usually pushing paper and balancing budgets.”
Then he talked about Breathalyzer tests, taking people to the hospital for blood tests and his personal substance use.
“I don’t do dope, sir. No, I drink a lot of whiskey,” Minor said to a roomful of laughs.
Hurlbert talked about a rise in burglaries, robberies and murders in larger communities in Colorado related to the cash-only marijuana industry. He also spoke about continuing issues with marijuana smuggling from Mexico.
“Believe it or not, in Colorado, we can’t really grow enough to satisfy everybody,” he said.
Another man in the audience directed a question to retired doctor Ken Wiggins.
“Can you give us a feel for really how bad this is?” the man asked. “The strength of it seems to be getting worse and worse, or better and better depending on what side of the thing you’re on.”
Wiggins said today’s marijuana is 15 times more potent than it was decades ago and talked about the need for more research.
“This takes years and thousands of people. When I say we need more studies, that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. They’re essentially nonexistent,” he said.
Marijuana is federally classified as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has no therapeutic benefits and is dangerous and it is listed higher than cocaine, a Schedule 2 drug, he said.
“It’s been illegal to do research with it,” he said, but some is being done in other countries. “This is just getting started.”
St. John ended the event and said SCOPE plans to hold more in the future.
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