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Just say yes: Some California law enforcement leaders support legalizing recreational pot

Not all California law enforcement leaders are opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana.

Not all California law enforcement leaders are opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana.

(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

As the movement to legalize pot for recreational use heads closer to a November ballot initiative, California law enforcement leaders are taking some very different positions on the matter.

While Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said he’s still reviewing the 62-page initiative, he offered this assessment of the proposal: “My basic view is we have enough problems caused by intoxicating drugs that are already legal.”

Legalization, he argued, would only increase use of a product that “causes significant mental and physical impairment.”

Beck said also that federal laws would ensure that marijuana sales are conducted on a cash-only basis, and that “cash businesses are targets for crime on many levels.”

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However, a former member of the LAPD brass who stood with Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom at an initiative kickoff event Wednesday took a very different stance.

“The war on drugs was a failure, I should know as I once led it,” said Steve Downing, a former LAPD deputy chief. “Our policies have done more harm to people and community than marijuana. We demonize people. We unnecessarily criminalized people.”

Downing said research has shown marijuana isn’t a “gateway drug.”

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“Marijuana’s continued criminalization benefits the cartels, street gangs -- they are the ones regulating it now,” he said. “When prohibition on alcohol ended it killed off the businesses of men like Al Capone. The same will happen here.”

The former deputy chief argues that police now waste thousands of hours dealing with minor pot possession cases instead of chasing serious crime on the streets.

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The Adult Use of Marijuana Act would allow adults age 21 and older to possess, transport and use up to an ounce of marijuana for recreational purposes and would allow individuals to grow as many as six plants.

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The measure would also place a 15% tax on retail sales of the drug and bans its use in public or while driving.

If elections officials verify that the signatures turned in Wednesday are sufficient, and voters approve the initiative, California would join Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon as states that allow the recreational use of marijuana.

San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon, who is a former police chief of that city and LAPD assistant chief, said he supports legalizing marijuana but that he had yet to analyze the specifics of the proposal. “It must avoid the mistakes in Washington state and Colorado,” he said.

Any system will need to be able to test drivers for being under the influence of pot. Something similar to alcohol intoxication levels will need to be set, he said.

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Gascon said regulators must be able to determine levels of THC, marijuana’s active ingredient, in cannabis products to avoid issues that Colorado has run into with potent batches. He said keeping it out of the hands of children must also be a priority.

In Orange County, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said they would oppose the measure.

“I think all one needs to do is look at Colorado and the skyrocketing use by young people as a reason to not legalize it,” Hutchens said. “Today’s marijuana has a much higher THC content and is in my opinion a gateway drug.”

The measure is also being opposed by the California Police Chiefs Assn., partly because of the impact of legalization in other states, it said.

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After Colorado voters legalized recreational use in 2013, marijuana-related traffic deaths increased 32% in one year, according to a report by the Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area enforcement initiative.

Ed Medrano, Gardena police chief and a former president the police chiefs association, said he was particularly concerned about minors and the dangers to the development and the brain from consuming marijuana.

Despite the defeat of a 2010 legalization initiative, a poll last year by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 55% of likely voters in California favor full legalization.

Downing said he believes it will succeed because marijuana isn’t such a taboo issue. “The rank-and-file officers tell me it is a waste of time” to enforce laws against marijuana use, he said. “A lot of rank and file see what is happening, and they question how harmful it is to the community at large.”

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For SoCal crime and investigations follow me on Twitter: @lacrimes

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