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Billings police chief says recreational marijuana brings new challenges for law enforcement

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Posted at 9:19 PM, Oct 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-27 23:19:16-04

Regardless of whether Billings voters decide to allow marijuana businesses to set up shop inside city limits in next week’s election, police say they will face challenges when recreational marijuana sales become legal in the county and across much of the state on Jan. 1.

“It's going to adversely affect law enforcement for a myriad of reasons,” says Billings Police Chief Rich St. John.

Adults over the age of 21 can already legally possess up to an ounce of recreational marijuana in Montana, but they can’t yet legally buy it.

That’s about to change in many Montana counties, including Yellowstone. The chief thinks that will bring some problems.

“We are going to be the only state in this part of the country. So, you are going to have the Dakotas coming over and other people coming to get your marijuana and then traveling back across. It’s going to be challenging for law enforcement,” said St. John.

Other states that have legalized the drug have run into a challenge of how to tell if drivers are impaired or not. Unlike with alcohol, cannabis blood levels are not directly correlated to impairment levels.

Officers are trained in other recognition techniques to be able to tell if a person is driving high.

“It’s going to be challenging for law enforcement. I am certainly not a proponent of marijuana and anything we can do to keep it at bay has my support,” the chief says.

When the prohibition on alcohol ended, it drove some criminal enterprises out of business. It might seem logical that the same thing would happen with marijuana, but the chief doubts that.

“I can tell you from our experience and empirical evidence from our states surrounding us that those that have recreational marijuana that the black market is alive and well. One of our main concerns is product going out the back door, especially when you start having significant taxation on it. It doesn’t eliminate the criminal action,” he says.

Part of the reason for that may be because it is not yet legal in every state, but there is growing support. Pew Research reports the share of Americans who say marijuana should be legalized more than doubled in the last two decades-- with 60 now percent saying it should be legal for both medical and recreational use.

Montanans voted overwhelmingly to legalize recreational use in the 2020 election.