Q+A: Ex-law enforcement officer explains why he works to legalize marijuana

Fri, Sep 9, 2016 (2 a.m.)

Jason Thomas helped carry out the war on drugs, but what he saw convinced him it wasn’t always a just cause.

During his two and a half years in law enforcement, when he served as a corrections officer at a 120-bed corrections facility and as a small-town deputy marshal, the Colorado resident met people facing lengthy prison terms for marijuana offenses that, in his mind, came nowhere close to warranting that level of punishment.

“I worked both in the jail and on patrol, so I got to see both sides of law enforcement from first contact through incarceration at the county level,” he said. “What I found was that there was a disconnect there in the application of the laws and their consequences.”

Now the CEO and managing broker of Denver-based Avalon Realty Advisors, which specializes in the marijuana industry, Thomas advocates for reform of drug laws as a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group that supports legalization of recreational and medical marijuana. The organization says it has drawn 150,000 supporters, including police officers, judges and federal drug enforcement agents, and has assembled a bureau of 150 speakers in 20 countries.

With Nevadans preparing to vote in November on a ballot measure to legalize recreational use of marijuana — an initiative opposed by the the Nevada Sheriffs’ and Chiefs’ Association — the Sun recently interviewed Thomas to get an alternative perspective from a former law enforcement officer on the topic. Excerpts from the interview:

What prompted you to get involved in activism on this issue?

Meeting quite a few people, primarily in jail — young adults that were busted with maybe a joint. They weren’t criminals per se, but some of these people were going to be incarcerated for years, maybe decades, based on prior arrests. Not to take their culpability away from the issue ... but getting into a position in the system where it becomes harder to break out of it changes you in ways that you can never get back. So if you weren’t in that position to begin with, then that would be a significant difference in your life.

I met one guy in his 20s who was arrested while driving north through Colorado with maybe five pounds of marijuana in his car. And he was looking at five to 20 years of incarceration even though he was most likely a one-off (as opposed to a serious drug dealer) who was probably just going back to college to sell some marijuana to his friends. He was very mild-mannered; he could have been my college-age son.

There was another case in Texas where a guy in his early 20s made some marijuana cookies, got stopped, and was looking at 10 years to life. They weren’t packaged for distribution, and it was the equivalent to maybe a quarter-ounce of marijuana. I think the courts later threw it out.

But here was a guy in his early 20s facing potentially life in prison for a plate of brownies. It’s ridiculous.

What was your view of marijuana laws before you became a law enforcement officer?

“I grew up in Venice (Calif.) in the 1970s. Drugs were rampant. I encountered friends, family and friends, who got in trouble with the law for marijuana possession. I saw first-hand that what I came to know as the war on drugs seemed to be a disconnect.

When I got into law enforcement, I still held those beliefs but I wasn’t able to speak out against those laws because my job was to enforce them.

Among concerns that have been raised by enforcement authorities who oppose legalization is that it will lead to public safety problems, such as driving under the influence of marijuana. How do you feel about that?

It’s up to every person to be responsible for themselves. Driving under the influence of anything, whether it’s legal or illegal is always a poor decision. But aside from everybody’s personal responsibility, the last two years in Colorado we’ve shown extricably that legalizing and taxing marijuana works. It doesn’t have much detrimental factor. It’s not more easily accessible for kids, and it shuts down the black market.

How about the argument that given the social problems associated with other drugs, society simply doesn’t need another legalized intoxicant?

Let’s contrast marijuana to painkillers (which are often overprescribed). With marijuana, the amount that can be dispensed is regulated, so it’s up to the dispensary to follow the regulations. Because of the intense scrutiny of the industry, selling somebody more than they’re allowed to buy, the dispensary will get shut down. So in some ways it’s much more strictly controlled than pharmaceuticals, but it’s still controlled somewhat similarly to them in that it’s done behind the counter.

Are you concerned that legalization will make marijuana more easily available to minors?

No. In Colorado, it’s taken marijuana off the streets, off the schoolyard, and to a much greater extent put it behind a storefront. I think it’s helped curtail the availability.

Plus, this is one of the most tightly and highly regulated industries in the country. The compliance issues can bankrupt a business alone if they’re not prepared and make mistakes. In Colorado, we have a regulatory division within our overall regulatory government agency. They’re sworn law enforcement officers and their job is to make sure everybody’s in compliance.

Why else do you support legalization?

In Colorado, we’re going to be generating over $1 billion in gross sales for both medical and recreational marijuana this year. That’s income going into landords’ pockets, along with hundreds of millions of dollars going through consultants and attorneys, and really anybody who has a hand in the industry. Last year, we collected over $100 million in taxes.

It’s also allowed law enforcement officers to spend more time on more serious issues.

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