The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced that it does not intend to challenge policies in Colorado and Washington state that legalized the sale and recreational use of marijuana to adults — despite the fact that these state laws are in opposition to federal law.

As president of the Major County Sheriffs’ Association, I have joined a broad coalition of law enforcement officers from across the country to express our extreme disappointment with this unprecedented decision.

A letter of opposition to the DOJ and the White House was endorsed by the association, along with the following law enforcement groups: the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Narcotic Officers Associations’ Coalition, the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, and the Police Executive Research Forum.

As law enforcement officials with decades of experience, we know that keeping neighborhoods safe will become more difficult for our men and women on the front lines because of the DOJ’s decision.

This will encourage other states to legalize marijuana. There is an increased likelihood of trafficking problems across state lines. Last week, during congressional hearings about DOJ’s decision, U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, discussed concerns about the transport of marijuana across state lines, to states that have not legalized it. He pointed to audits that found problems in Colorado’s medical-marijuana program even before the state legalized recreational use.

Increased availability of the drug will mean the number of drugged-driving crashes will increase. In Colorado, fatalities involving drivers testing positive for marijuana increased 114 percent between 2006 and 2011. Also in Colorado, youth admissions to emergency rooms for marijuana-related injuries have increased.

Marijuana is an addictive gateway drug that harms Minnesota’s children and public safety in every community in our state. As sheriff of Hennepin County, I am concerned that legalization of marijuana in other states and reduced federal prosecution will increase the availability of marijuana in Minnesota.

I have seen firsthand in Hennepin County that there is a direct connection between marijuana and violent crime. Drug task forces here have linked marijuana to assaults and homicides. In the Hennepin County Adult Detention Center, marijuana is the most commonly detected drug among the 36,000 inmates who are booked into the facility each year. According to our most recent data, approximately 54 percent of males arrested for violent crime test positive for marijuana in Hennepin County.

The DOJ announcement sends the wrong message about the dangers of marijuana, especially to youths. Scientists have concluded that it harms adolescent brains and is linked to both lower IQ scores and learning problems. More teenagers are treated for marijuana abuse than for alcohol plus all other drugs combined.

Those in favor of legalizing marijuana argue that it would eliminate the criminal gangs and violence that result from illegal sales. These are false promises. There is no silver bullet that will eliminate the crime associated with marijuana sales. Governments will put restrictions on legal marijuana such as age limits and, potentially, limits on the potency of the drug. The criminal gangs will conduct illegal sales to those who want to avoid the restrictions.

Marijuana is illegal under federal law and should remain that way. We have seen decades of declining crime rates in Hennepin County and across the country. Law enforcement agencies and our community partners have worked hard to achieve these gains. The DOJ decision will make it more difficult for law enforcement nationwide to maintain public safety in our communities.


Rich Stanek is the Hennepin County sheriff.