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Recreational pot: Colorado officials’ suggestions for Michigan

DENVER, Colo. -- There are a lot of questions still lingering after Michigan voters this month approved the use of recreational marijuana.

In Colorado, one of the first states to legalize, Health officials still don't have a good sample size for figuring out what legalization will mean down the road, and the same goes for public safety.  In Colorado, it's legal to possess one ounce of pot; Michigan voted to allow ten times that.

"We were a little nervous in the beginning because we didn't know what was going to take place," said Denver Police Sgt. Bret Hinkle. Hinkle has been with Denver Police for over 20 years. Only recently he has taken on a new beat, marijuana, and the move came with a learning curve.

"Researching it, researching the laws, training our officers, making sure everyone was on the same page and knew the law," he said.

Because new laws can mean new obstacles.

"Licensed facilities, there was a little bit more burglaries," Hinkle said. "We have a lot of backyard grows which are illegal unless they're in a locked and enclosed structure."

Denver's marijuana unit has three full-time sergeants and 10 full-time detectives. It's the most expensive unit on the force because police say new problems are popping up.  Police aren't the only ones learning on the fly, though.

Mike Vandyke with the Colorado Department of Public Health says the prevention of problems is all in the numbers. "I think that's really the most important thing, is collecting the data not only on health outcomes but on who is using," he said, "and trying to get really good data on baseline rates like that."

There are exceptions, even though most people are following the state's marijuana laws.

"We do see more visits to the emergency room for things like psychosis related to marijuana," Vandyke said. "We see more visits for things like nausea and vomiting due to long-term chronic use of marijuana."

"We've definitely seen increases in things like child poisonings due to marijuana, but the overall numbers are not huge," he added.

There is a positive figure that the department is seeing, too. "I think one of the most surprising things that we've seen is that high school use has not increased since legalization," Vandyke said.

It's not every man for themselves in Colorado. Sgt. Hinkle says that for any city department, collaboration is key "with the fire department, with our neighborhood inspections, with all the other entities in the city.

"For Michigan and other places, you're gonna want that collaborative approach. That's gonna be huge for you, because marijuana is a big beast, and you can't tame that without all the other city agencies."

Another big concern for both departments is impaired driving. Right now, the only surefire way police have to test for drivers who are high is a very expensive blood test. The'll do them regularly, but it's also difficult to track the number of high drivers, because, for anyone caught operating under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or any other substance, the charge is the same: DUI, or driving under the influence.

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