News stories published over the past three months have said the Michigan State Police was preparing to both “crack down” on black market marijuana activity and also let it “slide” because of a lack of resources.
In reality: “I would like to think we’re somewhere in the middle of that spectrum,” said Lt. Chris Hawkins, who leads the MSP’s Marijuana and Tobacco Investigation Section.
Hawkins said the legalization of marijuana has caused a “major increase” in black market activity. For one, the state’s recreational and medical laws allow residents to grow up to 12 plants at home, creating a glut of supply that goes unregulated. Further, Hawkins sees brick-and-mortar dispensaries operating without licenses and “hundreds” of delivery and gifting services across the state.
“It’s all unlicensed, and it’s all illegal,” he said.
But enforcing black market marijuana activity is just a small portion of Hawkins’ section, and he doesn’t have the resources to target all of it. Additionally, the Michigan State Police will only bring evidence in a case that would be taken up by a county prosecutor, some of whom say they aren’t prioritizing marijuana crimes.
“We have to be careful where we divert limited resources. The No. 1 priority in any investigation is whether we think we can get a prosecution,” he said. “That is limited.”
Hawkins added that investigators “triage and prioritize” complaints that come from residents, but he wouldn’t give details about how that works.
While advocates suggest these black market concerns will taper off as the state’s regulatory structure takes shape to govern the growing and selling of recreational marijuana, Hawkins says it will continue to thrive as long as other states and the federal government maintain its illegal status.
“As long as there are states where marijuana is illegal, there will be a black market,” he said. “Unless we reach a point similar to the repeal of the prohibition on alcohol … there will always be someone willing to take the risk for a profit.”
Outside of the black market, law enforcement agencies say they’re also continuing to struggle to deal with drivers impaired by marijuana. Unlike alcohol, there is no roadside device to accurately determine someone’s level of impairment.
Allegan County Sheriff Frank Baker predicts driving while impaired will be his department’s biggest challenge following legalization. While officers can administer roadside sobriety tests, they would have to arrest a person and take him in for a blood sample, diverting time and resources.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, driving under the influence of drugs is increasing traffic crashes and fatalities, although states continue to seek better data as they take varying approaches to driving laws and legal limits for THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) in a driver’s system.
“It’s a bit of a challenge for us to investigate compared to alcohol,” Baker said. “Our fear is it’s going to cause an increase in traffic crashes.”