Police Chief Ricky Hayes of Putnam, Connecticut, is not too worried about Massachusetts legalizing marijuana — yet.
“I don’t think we’re that concerned right now,” Hayes said. “Once they get into the dispensing and selling, we may have a lot of people traveling from Connecticut into Massachusetts to try to do some purchasing.”
Recreational marijuana became legal in Massachusetts on Thursday, the result of a ballot vote in November. Residents can now grow a limited quantity of marijuana plants at home and can possess marijuana legally.
Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and transporting marijuana across state lines is a federal crime. But a state like neighboring Connecticut could still see an increase in people bringing marijuana across the border.
After Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, attorneys general in neighboring Nebraska and Oklahoma filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the law because their states were seeing an influx of marijuana coming from Colorado. The Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit.
Connecticut law enforcement officials say they will be vigilant in looking out for cross-border impacts. In the Nutmeg State, possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana is ticketed as a civil infraction, and possession of more than that is punishable with a criminal arrest.
“Troopers will continue to enforce the law regarding possession of marijuana and drugged driving the same as they always have,” said Trooper Kelly Grant, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut State Police. “Troopers will patrol roadways and highways focusing on all motor vehicle and criminal violations.”
Some Connecticut law enforcement officials say the bigger impact of Massachusetts’ legalization is likely to hit a year from now. Although marijuana was legal to possess as of Thursday, legal retail sales are not expected to be up and running for at least another year, since the state must develop regulations and a licensing process. So there is still no legal method for buying the drug in Massachusetts.
Putnam is about 10 miles from the Massachusetts border. Hayes said there may be some Connecticut residents who will drive to Massachusetts to smoke pot at a friend’s house or buy it from a friend. But, he said, “I don’t think that’s going be a major problem.”
“Once the dispensing comes around, that will be a bigger issue,” Hayes predicted.
Some Connecticut lawmakers have been pushing for a bill to legalize recreational marijuana in that state. Although the bill did not pass in 2016, the Legislature is expected to consider it again, and it is possible Massachusetts’ legalization could boost that effort.
— Brian Foley
Hayes said he and other law enforcement officials have attended seminars on the results of legalization in Colorado. “We’re just going sit back and watch and see what happens,” he said.
Deputy Chief Brian Foley said Hartford police are working to train officers in how to detect drugged driving, which is harder to measure and has different legal standards than drunken driving.
“It’s already been an issue, but legalization in Massachusetts will certainly make it a bigger issue for us,” Foley said. Hartford is less than 30 miles from Springfield.
Monroe Police Chief John Salvatore, president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said similarly that law enforcement is worried about a possible increase in driving while under the influence of marijuana as well as about the availability of marijuana to children.
Salvatore said it can already be difficult to prosecute driving while drugged, and more training will be necessary.
“There’s no standard, no widely accepted system to conclude the person’s under the influence, as there is with a blood alcohol test,” Salvatore said. “Those are issues that will confront our personnel and society.”
Another question is what impact Massachusetts’ legal marijuana will have on Connecticut’s medical marijuana program. It is illegal under state law for a Connecticut medical marijuana patient to buy marijuana in Massachusetts or anywhere other than in a licensed dispensary in Connecticut. But that does not mean some patients, or potential patients, will not find it easier to bypass Connecticut’s medical system and buy marijuana across the border.
Lora Rae Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection, which oversees the medical marijuana program, said she hopes patients have been satisfied enough with the medical marijuana system not to buy their marijuana in Massachusetts.
“We want patients to have an experience that is medical, supported by doctors, that helps remedy their severe debilitating condition and is compliant with state law,” Anderson said.
A medical marijuana patient in Connecticut must be certified by a doctor, then discuss their needs with a dispensary pharmacist.
“We have a very highly regulated and specific medical model to our program here, so people here have a very different experience going to a dispensary facility, which is regulated like a pharmacy, than you would going into a store where you purchase medical marijuana,” Anderson said.
She added that the types of marijuana that are sold in dispensaries are different products from what a person would buy in a retail store. “It’s a medication, not a drug,” Anderson said.