As the pro-marijuana movement continues to gain national traction following an important concession from the Department of Justice, multiple local law enforcement agencies are adamant that enacting any measures to legalize the drug would mean treading down a dangerous path.
Recently, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the DOJ would not challenge state laws passed last year in Colorado and Washington state that allow the distribution and recreational use of marijuana. The announcement comes just months after a poll released by the Pew Research Center showed that a majority of Americans support legalizing the drug.
The tide shifting more in favor of legalization has certainly not escaped the attention of local police, some of whom say they'll do anything they can to make sure the marijuana laws in Utah never change.
"Will we fight to keep marijuana illegal in the state of Utah? Absolutely," said Davis County Sheriff Todd Richardson. "Right to the bitter end, I'll fight to prevent that from coming into this state. There are so many social ramifications of it, as well as legal and criminal ramifications.
"I'll tell you, it's discouraging, the fact the Department of Justice is picking and choosing which federal law it wants to enforce or doesn't want to enforce."
Local police opposition to marijuana stems largely from a belief that if the drug were legalized, it would cause substantial harm to society. Weber County Sheriff Terry Thompson pointed to problems in countries that permit the drug and said states that legalize it will soon begin to suffer from the same ills.
"When you talk about domestic violence, child abuse, economic and financial issues of needing that next fix or feeding that addiction, they're very prevalent in (countries that have legalized it)," he said. "These states that have legalized it recently haven't seen the affects of that yet, but undoubtedly they will.
"... Even as it is, with marijuana illegal, drug use and the need for that addiction to drugs contribute to so many crimes. Legalizing it would only aggravate that much further."
One of the largest societal problems police officers cite with marijuana is that it serves as a gateway drug. The belief is that legalization would not only mean more people using pot, but more people using harder, more dangerous drugs.
"I do a program in our jail, where we bring inmates in to talk to kids," Richardson said. "Every one of those inmates started somewhere with their drug problem, and guess what was the first drug they tried? They all start (with marijuana), and the theme is common across the board. It's not that these kids, 13 years old, walked in there and said, 'I'm going to try meth.' They don't do that. They start smoking dope."
However, advocates deny the gateway effect, as well as the idea that legalization would create more drug addicts. Many believe legalization would actually be a step toward solving societal problems associated with the drug.
"Continuing to put people in jail at great public expense is actually creating more problems than it's solving," said Morgan Fox, communication director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national legalization lobbyist organization. "I think a lot of these law enforcement officers, particularly, tend to exaggerate the harms associated with marijuana use. That's not to say it's completely harmless -- no drug is -- but the harms associated with marijuana are far less than other drugs and very much less than alcohol."
Additionally, Fox said, legalizing the drug would not necessarily mean an increase in marijuana users.
"What we've seen in other countries that have relaxed their marijuana laws is that they've seen a short spike in use rates that eventually levels off to use rates that are less than what they were before the change in law," he said. "I think we can expect to see the same thing here. But the point is that even an increase in marijuana use among responsible adults will not create many social ills at all -- nothing that we can't avoid."
Of course, the marijuana argument also features another element -- the drug's potential medical benefits. Both Richardson and Thompson agree that allowing medical marijuana leads down the same dangerous path as legalizing it for recreational use.
"I think that's a bunch of -- I have not read one study that validates what they're purporting with medical marijuana, number one," Richardson said. "Number two, they can synthesize THC (the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) out of marijuana and use it in a capsule form and use it in a controlled pharmaceutical method. But they don't do that. What they want to do is get a license to smoke and give it to their buddies."
Thompson said he wouldn't argue with a doctor who prescribed marijuana or touted its medical benefits, but he worries medical marijuana could create dependency in users similar to prescription drugs.
"These people didn't want to become addicted to (prescription) drugs, but because of a legitimate injury or illness, they became addicted to prescription drugs," he said. "Legalizing marijuana is the same thing ... I think it leads us down the wrong road. And that's just my personal opinion. I don't pretend to have all the answers."
Despite the national surge in support of legalization, it seems unlikely Utah will change its marijuana laws anytime soon. Local lawmakers, such as Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, have recently expressed opposition to legalization, and Thompson said he'd be surprised if marijuana is ever permitted in the state.
"I think Utah is a sensible state," Thompson said. "While our legislators have always done a few things that make us all go, 'What were they thinking?' on an overall picture, we have good legislators in Utah. They're really good people who are able to get past the emotion surrounding an issue and look at the facts. They have been sensible and reasonable. I believe that's why it's unlikely Utah will legalize marijuana."
However, if legalization ever happens in Utah, Richardson said, officers would double down on preventing associated crimes.
"Legalization of marijuana in the state would just mean we'd lose (the ability to fight) it on a certain level," he said. "You're still going to get associated downfalls with it. You're going to have DUIs and other associated crimes, and that's where we'd double and triple our effort."
Contact reporter Bubba Brown at 801-625-4221 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BubbaBrownSE.