Albuquerque is no stranger to poor relations between police and the citizenry as protesters so dramatically demonstrated last summer. But tensions go back much further—years in fact. In the midst of federal investigations over use-of-force, drastic policy overhauls, protests and adult toys attached to drones, cannabis policy reform can go a long way in repairing burnt bridges. Now that adult-use cannabis has been legalized in New Mexico, police departments across the state are adopting new policies that align with the law and protect legal cannabis users from harassment.

New Detection Methods

The New Mexico Department of Public Safety recently received $750,000 from the state to train state police in the Drug Recognition Expert certification program.

The program is designed to teach officers how to determine if a driver is operating their vehicle while impaired. State Police Captain Micah Doering told reporters that officers in the Drug Recognition Expert program are trained to evaluate signs of impairment rather than rely on the smell of cannabis.

The program reflects the progressive attitudes presumably being adopted by the State Police. Current methods of detecting impairment through drug testing have proven insufficient and can even be dismissed in court. That’s because THC can stay in a user’s system for up to 90 days and is present even when the effects have long since worn off.

Field sobriety tests and evaluations based on driving, appearance and impairment of speech are much better indicators of impaired driving by comparison, and NMSP seems ready to adopt new standards. State Police say they will also no longer suspect illegal activity based solely on the presence or smell of cannabis during a traffic stop.

While State Police have made it clear that they will be operating within the spirit of the law, county and city police have so far declined to outwardly make any major policy changes regarding how they deal with the public. But this isn’t actually discouraging in the least, considering that many of New Mexico’s major metropolitan centers, including Albuquerque, had already decriminalized cannabis or deprioritized the enforcement of cannabis laws even before the drug was legalized.

No Room For User Cops

In states like Colorado and Washington, employers are finding it harder to attract viable job candidates who haven’t used cannabis in the past. This has affected law enforcement just like any other industry. Here in New Mexico, the Santa Fe Police Department has decided it will be relaxing some of its drug testing policies to avoid missing out on good candidates.

Under the old policy, applicants who had used cannabis within three years of applying would not be eligible to join the force. In an interview with KOB, SFPD Deputy Chief Ben Valdez said the department would be changing its policies. “With the legalization of recreational cannabis,” he told reporters, “maintaining the three year disqualifying factor would likely make an already challenging recruiting environment much more difficult. This also would present the potential of losing out on well-qualified candidates.”

Albuquerque Police Department, however, has said its policy will not be changing. APD currently requires candidates have two years free of any drug use or misdemeanor charges prior to application.

Drug Dogs Say Goodbye

Human officers can be trained to comply with new state laws, but police canines don’t have that luxury. Drug-sniffing dogs across the state are being retired, as their particular set of abilities are no longer required. The New Mexico State Police told reporters in July that it will be replacing all nine of its drug canines this fall, now that cannabis has been legalized. The dogs will reportedly be retired or donated to states where cannabis is still illegal. The agency plans to replace the dogs with canines trained to detect drugs other than marijuana.

Santa Fe Police Department was apparently ahead of the game. The city decriminalized the possession of small amounts of cannabis in 2014, so the department decided to avoid investing in training any new dogs to detect the drug. Deputy Chief of Police for SFPD Benjamin Valdez told KRQE that training new police dogs can be expensive. “It’s a significant investment,” he said. “It costs about $13,000 per dog, and it can go up from there. For us it wasn’t worthwhile to train a dog that can detect cannabis.”

Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe told reporters that his departed department would be retiring its drug-detecting dogs, because cannabis-detecting canines could lead to problems with establishing probable cause. Handlers of canines that have been taught to detect multiple drugs, including cannabis, would be unable to tell whether the dog has smelled an illegal drug.

“So now marijuana is legal. If the dog alerts on it, and we got a search warrant, we’d be violating somebody’s rights,” said Chief Hebbe. “That meant the easiest, simplest thing was to just stop using those dogs for that purpose.”

Farmington police luckily purchased two new dogs only recently. They were not trained to detect cannabis and will be taught to detect other drugs like methamphetamine and heroin.

Albuquerque Police Department again seems reluctant to change current policies and has reportedly said it will not be retiring any of its canine officers. The department currently has nine canines, but only one is a drug detection dog. APD spokesperson Rebecca Atkins told reporters, “We will not be getting rid of our drug detection canine as there will always be a need for drug detection canines, especially when making large drug seizures. There are many other drugs besides marijuana that canines can detect.”

Legalization and Public Relations

The good news is that no police in the state of New Mexico will be able to arrest you if you are within your legal rights of possessing cannabis, regardless of local policy changes. That will have effects on police public relations that could change general sentiment for cops in New Mexico for the better.

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