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Wild West of legal weed has few sheriffs to keep people safe on roads and from overdoses

People at Allendale Bar & Grill talk on Friday, April 13, 2018 about the public fight going on between President Donald Trump and Former FBI Director James Comey, of Allendale.Marsha Stoltz and Marsha Stoltz and Marsha Stoltz and Marsha Stoltz and Marsha Stoltz and Marsha Stoltz, NorthJersey


NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif.— In a state of 40 million people and some 700 licensed marijuana retailers, Paul Tupy and his staff of a dozen field inspectors are responsible for keeping people safe from the dangers of pot-laced jelly beans, goldfish crackers and grape jelly.

Tupy, the assistant chief of enforcement for California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control, is tasked with the impossible: stamping out thousands of illegal dispensaries across the state while ensuring that the legal stores comply with an evolving set of regulations on security, hours of operation and the sizes and types of cannabis-infused food products they may sell.

Driving high is hard to police

On the streets of California, police like Ben Gomez face an even greater challenge. With no reliable blood or breath test for determining stoned drivers, Gomez and other officers must rely on their instincts and training to apprehend people who get behind the wheel after a toke or bag of marijuana jelly beans.

California had just over a year from the day voters approved marijuana sales to all adults until such sales began, and the haste shows in the state’s struggle to police the weed beat. From Tupy and his staff finding non-compliant food products at nearly every store they visit, to the shortage of specially trained police officers like Gomez, signs are everywhere that California’s marijuana enforcers are outnumbered and outmatched.

“It was certainly an aggressive schedule,” said Tupy, 41, who started his job last June after eight years of enforcing California’s liquor laws. “We could have benefited from more time. The industry could have benefited from more time.”

New Jersey is considering an even more aggressive timetable.

Under Gov. Phil Murphy’s plan, lawmakers would vote to legalize marijuana by the time they adopt a state budget June 30, and sales would begin next January — a ramp-up period of just six months. Even advocates of legal marijuana sales concede that’s ambitious.

In California, with just over a year to prepare, barely 2 percent of police officers are trained as drug-recognition experts, and there’s no legal maximum for THC — the psychoactive compound in marijuana — in the blood of drivers. There’s also no reliable way to test for THC, although San Diego police have piloted a saliva test that can detect it without determining the concentration.

New Jersey has the second-highest number of drug-trained police officers behind California, but they still account for fewer than 2 percent of officers statewide.

New Jersey has one drug-trained police officer per 100 miles of public roadways. Christopher Dudzik, who heads the New Jersey Association of Drug Recognition Experts, said the potential for legal marijuana has local and state police scrambling to train their officers, but retirements and reassignments have limited the number of drug-trained police on the streets.

California’s marijuana enforcement occurs on two levels.

The Bureau of Cannabis Control, with about 60 employees in all, issues licenses for as much as $72,000 to retail businesses and makes sure they comply with rules including limits on THC per serving of edible products, storage of surveillance video for 90 days, and checking ages of customers to prevent sales to anyone younger than 21. Some cities, such as Los Angeles, have smaller enforcement units of their own.

Police, meanwhile, are responsible for keeping drugged drivers off the road and can take action against the thousands of unlicensed retailers and street-corner dealers that remain in California.

Four months after legal sales began and even after the Bureau of Cannabis Control sent 1,800 letters ordering illegal operators to shut down, regulators concede that California still has a thriving black market.

Dosage for weed edibles can be too high

Tupy and his team have been visiting licensed stores on what he called “educational” visits — rather than fines or other sanctions, regulators are simply informing store managers of noncompliant products or practices such as giving away free marijuana products.

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Published: May 21, 2018

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