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Colorado police chief warns pot legalization could lead to more traffic fatalities

WATCH: With legalization imminent, driving while high the new challenge for police

A Colorado police chief is warning Canadians to be ready for serious challenges once marijuana is legalized north of the border.

The federal government has set July 1, 2018 as its goal for legalizing pot and implementing a regulatory scheme.

But Chief John Jackson of Greenwood Village, Colorado says changing the law will only be the first hurdle.

LISTEN: Colorado police chief warns major challenges coming with pot legalization

In 2016, Colorado saw its highest number of traffic fatalities in more than a decade, a factor that Jackson is convinced is linked to legalization.

“For people to say it has nothing to do with legalization, it’s absolute false logic,” Jackson told CKNW’s Steele & Drex.

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Canada’s own task force on marijuana legalization produced its report last December, and recommended against setting THC (pot’s psychoactive chemical) limits in drivers’ bloodstreams until the science is better understood.

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READ MORE: Two decisions Parliament will have to make about pot-impaired driving

Several other countries have set legal limits for THC found in the bloodstream of drivers, in micrograms, or millionths of a gram, of THC per litre of blood (µg/L). But the limits vary: Britain’s is 2µg/L, while Colorado and Washington have set 5µg/L. 

Canada’s report did make several recommendations regarding impaired driving.

Those include researching the effect of THC on crashes, looking at consumption limits, developing and investing in a new roadside pot “breathalyzer” and more training for police.

It also called for zero tolerance for new and young drivers.

WATCH: How Regina police are handling drivers influenced by marijuana

How Regina police are handling drivers influenced by marijuana
How Regina police are handling drivers influenced by marijuana

Part of the problem with legalizing now, according to Jackson, is that police lack the tools for effective enforcement of impaired drivers.

“It’s very difficult for us to tell impairment in the field. And there’s a big difference between impairment and intoxication, we haven’t yet been able to define that science,” he said.

Because reliable technology akin to alcohol breathalyzers doesn’t exist yet, Jackson said police instead have to make a case based on factors like driving behavior, smell, and appearance.

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But even when they do, they run into trouble getting prosecutors to proceed with the case, or juries to find guilt he said.

READ MORE: Nine questions Parliament will have to answer before we legalize marijuana

He added that police are also dealing with people’s different physiological reactions to pot, and the fact that some people are consuming concentrates or edibles with extremely high percentages of THC.

He believes police are years from having the solid science to effectively gauge impairment on the road.

“I have no doubt that in 15-20 years from now, we will be [where we are now regarding alcohol],” he said.

“We’re building the data sets right now to get there, the unfortunate part is the data sets involve human life. This is not just numbers on a page, it is family members who are dying.”

WATCH: How has pot legalization affected Colorado?

How has pot legalization affected Colorado?
How has pot legalization affected Colorado?

On top of the roadside enforcement challenges, Jackson said there are other social costs associated with legalization.

Those include setting up a regulatory regime, education, treatment, and he claims, a spike in the homeless population.

READ MORE: Medical journal condemns Liberals’ marijuana legalization bill

“The major city here in Colorado calls them urban travellers who come here to smoke marijuana. They’ve overtaken a lot of our natural forest areas, growing and using.”

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As Canada approaches legalization, Jackson said it should look closely at Colorado’s example and be sure it’s weighing the profits from marijuana taxes against those social costs.

-With files from Patrick Cain