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Police officer legally stoned on marijuana? Could happen

Niagara Regional Police Service

While Albany is on a rush to legalize marijuana, it also will have to deal with the potential problems that may bring, from even more people toking up to finding out it's a crime to be driving while stoned. New York State can learn some lessons from Canada, which legalized pot two months ago.

The beginning of legalization across the border on Oct. 22 is bringing wrenching changes to Niagara Regional Police Service. Police Chief Bryan MacCulloch said it has been a mental change in a traditionally conservative field.

"I've been policing now for 34 years and for 34 years, I've been arresting people for being in possession of cannabis," MacCulloch said. "So it is a complete mindshift for all of us to get our heads wrapped around."

The chief said one thing that has not changed are the people caught by his officers driving under the influence of marijuana. Officers have been trained on what to look for and when to call in specially trained police to go through the process of further tests.

"We were arresting people for being under the influence of drugs before the law came into effect," he said, "and so the fact that we're arresting people now is no different in that respect."

Legalization has created the situation of crimes hitting legal marijuana growers, with medical marijuana long legal in Canada. For the police chief, there is the potential problem of one of his officers showing up stoned.

"There's some self-policing that will go on," he said. "Obviously, the job is dangerous enough as it is, with enough safety and health issues that you don't want anybody that's not on their game to be involved in calls for services."

MacCulloch said there is precedent for what to do.

"It's the same rules that apply to alcohol, that apply to prescription medications, as applied to cannabis and obviously illegal drugs. We draw the line there," he said, "but if it's legal, then it's a matter of reporting to work fit for duty."

Illegal drugs remain illegal for police officers. The chief said this has all been worked out with the officers' labor organization, since the pot rules are essentially the same as the alcohol rules, covering fitness for duty.

MacCulloch says officers will watch each other for personal safety. For the rest of Canada, he said everyone is watching this first full year.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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