Question on recreational marijuana sales back up for a vote in Yellowstone County

Voters in Yellowstone County will decide next year whether to overturn the legalization of recreational marijuana sales, just months after they're set to begin. After an almost hour-long public hearing Tuesday, county commissioners agreed to send the question of legalization back to voters during the June primary.


To: Kurt Alme, United States Attorney for the District of Montana
From: Dannette Blain, Intern
Re: Recreational Marijuana’s Effect on Law Enforcement


In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize
recreational marijuana. As of 2020, eleven states and the District of Colombia have legalized recreational marijuana: Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, and Vermont. 1 Marijuana has had an image transformation over the past 40 years. Once known as a frightening gateway drug during the eighties, it is now thought of by many as a relatively harmless and natural substance. This transformation has led to the tidal wave of states legalizing marijuana for recreational use. In November 2020, marijuana legalization will be on the Montana ballot, creating a question in many what the consequences will be for Montana if marijuana is legalized, especially to law enforcement officials in Montana. Looking to Colorado, Washington, and other states that have legalized marijuana, legalization has an impact on crime, increases traffic incidences, leads to further illicit drug use, negatively impacts the environment, and costs societies and employers.

1 Sushree Mohanty, U.S. States with Legal Recreational Marijuana Use in 2020,
MARKET REALIST (Aug. 3, 2020),


In 2016, a Colorado District attorney stated, “Marijuana is the gateway drug to homicide.”2 This comment was made after a crime spike in Colorado following legalization in 2014. Crime in Denver increased 6% from 2014 to 2016, violent crime in Colorado increased by 18.6% from 2013 to 2016; in comparison, violent crime only increased by 1.2% from 2009 to 2012.3 Many thought with the legalization of marijuana crime would drop, but in most states the crime has increased or remained the same. Further, in a study in 2010, researchers found frequent use of marijuana in adolescence has a strong correlation to adult crime consequences.4

3 Id.
4 Kerry M. Green et al., Does Heavy Adolescent Marijuana Lead to Criminal Involvement in Adulthood? Evidence from a Multiwave Longitudal Study of Urban African Americans, 112 Drug and Alcohol Dependence 117, 117-25 (2010).


The legalization of recreational marijuana has led to many consequences on the roadways. Following marijuana legalization, Washington reported twice as many fatal car crashes involving drivers who had recently used marijuana. 5 In Colorado, following legalization, the percentage of people involved in fatal car accidents who tested positive for THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) doubled from 10% of all drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2013 to 20% in 2016.6 Marijuana complicates the process of screening individuals for impaired driving. There is no technology like a breathalyzer to test for marijuana levels; instead police must get blood tests to screen individuals. Unlike alcohol, in which a person’s blood alcohol content directly correlates to their level of impairment, THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) does not correlate directly to one’s level of impairment. 7 One could be very impaired off a minor level of THC, or sober on a very high level of THC. States that have legalized recreational marijuana have struggled to determine consistent, fair guidelines; some states have set a standard amount of THC in a person’s system as being under the influence, while others have left it up to law enforcement to conduct roadside sobriety tests. 8

Montana currently has the second-highest DUI death rate in the United
States, with the rate of deaths of 21-34 year-olds due to drunk drivers being nearly four times greater than the national average.9 Increased use of marijuana following legalization will cause more DUI deaths in Montana and decrease the safety of Montana’s roads.

5 Rosalie L. Donlon, Fatal Crashes Doubled After State Legalized Marijuana, AAA Says, PROPERTY & CASUALTY 360, May 11, 2016,
6 Lauren Vogel, What really happened after Colorado legalized marijuana?, CANADIAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION JOURNAL, Vol. 190 Iss. 41, Oct. 15, 2018,
7 Id.
8 Id.



Initially, there was a hope that legalizing recreational marijuana would help the opioid crisis and reduce deaths. However, a peer-reviewed study released in August 2020 found no evidence that legalizing marijuana has any effect on the opioid crisis.10 The opposite may be true, as marijuana is often known as a gateway drug that can lead to further drug use. Following legalization in Washington, the number of young people under 18 using marijuana rose 2%.11 More young people using marijuana is concerning, as a robust predictor of future substance abuse is the use of that substance at an earlier age.12 Further, more teens using marijuana can lead to the initiation of drug use in other teens, as “the strongest correlate of drug use initiation is exposure to
substance-using peers.”13

As reservations in Montana already struggle with substance abuse disorders, the increased presence of marijuana may have a negative impact. One study found that 76% of youth receiving substance use disorder treatment in publicly funded programs were in the program to treat marijuana use disorder.14 Native Americans have been found to have a higher prevalence of marijuana use and marijuana abuse or dependence.15 If marijuana is legalized in Montana, the prevalence of young users may rise, increasing the likelihood of future substance use disorders and the initiation of illicit drugs.

10 J.J. Alcocer, Exploring the effect of Colorado’s recreational marijuana policy on opioid overdose rates, 185 PUBLIC HEALTH 8 (2020).
11 David Rettew, Does Legalized Marijuana Result in More Teen Use?, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY (APR. 20, 2017),
12 Michael Windle, Early Onset Problem Behaviors and Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Substance Use Disorders in Young Adulthood, DRUG AND ALCOHOL DEPENDENCE (Sept. 2011),

13 Roy Otten et al., The social exigencies of the gateway progression to the use of illicit drugs from adolescence into adulthood, 73 ADDICTIVE BEHAVIORS 144 (Oct. 2017), via%3Dihub#bb0190.
15 Li-Tzy Wu, Concurrent use of Methamphetamine, MDMA, LSD, ketamine, GHB, and flunitrazepam among American youths, 84 DRUG AND ALCOHOL DEPENDENCE (Sept. 2006),


Amongst the lesser-known problems concerning legalized recreational marijuana is the negative environmental impact. As climate change and conservation efforts rise to the forefront of public concern, the impact marijuana has on these efforts should be acknowledged. There are five main concerns regarding marijuana’s environmental impact: trespass growers, marijuana’s water use, pesticide use, electricity, and impact on the United States Forest Service.

A. Trespass Growers

Many marijuana crops are illegally grown by trespass growers on federal and tribal land.16 These trespass growers are often the worst environmental offenders, planting crops at headwaters and diverting water to their crops. 17 Many thought that trespass growers would disappear following legalization, but this has proven not to be the case. 18 Following legalization in Oregon, the number of trespass growers declined, however in states where marijuana is heavily taxed or regulated, there has not been a reduction in trespass growers.19 In Washington, which has a 37% tax on marijuana versus Oregon’s 17% tax, the number of trespass growers have not declined.20 Furthermore, following legalization, there is an increased demand for marijuana, and many growers chose not to go through the process of meeting regulations; in states like California and Colorado, demand for marijuana has continued to fuel the black market for marijuana and incentivize trespass growing.21 In Humboldt County, California, a county approximately 1.5 times the size of Yellowstone County, there were an estimated 14,000 trespass growers on federal and private lands in 2018—2 years after recreational marijuana was legalized.22 The locations chosen for illegal marijuana crops are often on public and tribal land in areas of pristine wildlife habitats, resulting in the destruction of public lands.23 The U.S. Forest Service estimates that several hundred new trespass grow sites pop up every year in the Western United States.24 If recreational marijuana is legalized in Montana, the state can expect to see increased demand for marijuana, resulting in increased trespass growers on federal and tribal land.

B. Water Use

Marijuana is an extremely water hungry crop, requiring 22 liters of water per
plant per day during the growing season.25 Between June and October, marijuana grown in a greenhouse can consume up to three billion liters per square kilometer.26 California has struggled with both legal and illegal growers using water; during low flow periods, the demands for irrigation can exceed the water in a river—this impacts aquatic wildlife negatively and has led to the endangerment of fish species as rivers dry up.27 In a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study in 2014, Montana was identified as the only state in the country that will experience statewide freshwater shortages in the next decade.28 The increased demand for water resulting in legal marijuana crops may negatively impact the state’s supply of freshwater during a time where water is becoming a scarcer resource.

Trespass growers increase this water shortage. Legal marijuana growers can be regulated by the state and required to limit their water consumption. Trespass grower’s often plant their crops at headwaters and divert water to their crops; this creates disastrous downstream effects.29 In Shasta-Trinity National Forest in California, a nonprofit organization removed five miles of irrigation lines that were irrigating marijuana plants, the pipes were diverting more than 500,000 gallons of water per day to the marijuana crop.30 The diversion of water to marijuana crops has led to streams in California to run dry, decimating native salmon and trout populations.31 Given Montana’s abundant public land and numerous reservations, the trespass growers are likely to be a chronic problem once marijuana is legalized.

C. Chemicals & Pesticides

Both trespass growers and legal marijuana growers require pesticides and other chemicals. One estimate states, “the amount of fertilizers and pesticides [found] on one half-are [of illegal] cultivation plot could be [used on] 1,000 acres of corn.” 32 Trespass growers pose further problems with their pesticide and fertilizer use, as they often plant at headwaters, which can then pollute the water supply in the area. The toxicants used by trespass growers have killed bears, foxes, hawks, and numerous other animals. 33 Because marijuana is federally illegal, there is no federal oversight. As a result, chemicals banned from food crops are being used on legal and illegal marijuana crops. 34 Illegal crops have no oversight, creating dangerous situations where potent neurotoxins and chemicals that are banned in the United States are being used on marijuana plants.35 Further, trespass grow sites can contain chemicals in unmarked containers that pose a severe danger to users of public lands. One insecticide is known to be stored in Gatorade bottles and left around on the ground, just a drop is sufficient to kill an adult human and the simple act of picking up the bottle without gloves may be enough to expose a person to the poison.36

D. Electricity

The marijuana market is one of the nation’s most power-hungry markets.37Following legalization, there is a sharp increase in marijuana cultivation after legalization strains local power suppliers.38 Legal marijuana growers often grow crops indoors, creating a 24-hour demand due to the air-conditioners dehumidifiers, and lights needed.39 For example, following legalization in Colorado, nearly half of all new power demand is from marijuana growers.40 This increased demand is taxing the aging electricity grids and reversing gains in energy conservation.41 This increased demand for electricity has been known to blow out transformer, resulting in wildfires. 42

E. Impact on U.S. Forest Service.

Cultivation of marijuana hinders the ability of the United States Forest Service to manage the national forests, as it takes time, money, and labor to investigate and remediate trespass grow sites.43 Trespass growers also remove vegetation, divert waterways, create chemical pollution, and dump waste.44 Trespass grow sites also threaten the safety of U.S. Forest Service personnel and visitors, as organized crime syndicates are hostile to those who stumble upon their grow site and can often booby-trap the grow sites.45 Growers are observed with firearms and are willing to use violence to protect their crops; the sites themselves can be protected with “improvised anti-personnel devices.”46
Following legalization, data shows a decrease in the number of trespass grow site discovered.47 The U.S. Forest Service disputes this correlation, arguing that the decline of discovered grow sites is attributable to decreases in resources and partnership following legalization which reduces the U.S. Forest Service’s capacity to discover and document grow sites, not to legalization.48 After legalization, state and local governments may choose to reduce or eliminate resources that aid the U.S. Forest Service in discovering trespass growers and remediating the grow sites.49 The U.S. Forest Service manages over 16,000,000 acres of land in Montana. 50 If Montana legalizes recreational marijuana, the U.S. Forest Service and tribal governments may need additional resources and aid to combat trespass growers.

16 Jodi Helmer, The Environmental Downside of Cannabis Cultivation, JSTOR DAILY (June 18, 2019),

17 Id.

18 Jennifer K. Carah et al., High Time for Conservation: Adding the Environment to the Debate on Marijuana Liberalization, BIO SCIENCE VOL. 65 NO. 8 (Aug. 2015),
19 Helmer, supra note 16.

20 Id.; Mark Klassen, The effects of recreational cannabis legalization on forest management and conservation efforts in U.S. national forests in the Pacific Northwest, ECOLOGICAL ECONOMICS Vol. 162 (Aug. 2019),

21 Helmer, supra note 16; Klassen, supra note 20.

22 Helmer, supra note 16.
23 Id.

24 Id.

25 Id.

26 Id.

27 Id.

PLANNING (2014).

29 Jodi Helmer, The Environmental Downside of Cannabis Cultivation, JSTOR DAILY (June 18, 2019),

The Environmental Downside of Cannabis Cultivation

30 Id.

31 Id.

32 Helmer, supra note 16.

33 Susannah Shmurak, The Environmental Cost of Legalizing Marijuana¸ EARTHESSAY (Oct. 2017), -legalizingmarijuana/#:~:text=Marijuana%20has%20been%20legalized%20in%20more%20than%20half,to%20consumers%2

34 Id.

35 Id.

36 Craig M. Thompson et al., An Ever-Changing Ecological Battlefield: Marijuana Cultivation and Toxicant Use in
Western Forests, THE WILDLIFE PROFESSIONAL, at 43 (2017).

37 Jennifer Oldham, As Pot-Growing Expands, Electricity Demands Tax U.S. Grids, BLOOMBERG (2015),

38 Shmurak, supra note 33; Van Butsic & Jacob C. Brenner, Cannabis agriculture and the environment: a systematic, spatially-explicit survey and potential impacts, ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH LETTERS (2016),

39 Oldham, supra note 37.

40 Shmurak, supra note 33

41 Id.

42 Oldham, supra note 37.

43 Klassen, supra note 20.

44 Id.

45 Id.

46 Id.

47 Id.

48 Id.

49 Id.



A. Societal Cost

Advocates for legalizing marijuana tout the tax revenue marijuana can bring into the state. Once legalized, states can then regulate and tax marijuana. However, this is not the full picture. If states regulate or tax marijuana too much, it will drive growers underground, leading to increased trespass growers and an expansion of the black market.51 Furthermore, legalized marijuana can be an attraction for the state. Following legalization, Colorado’s homeless population spiked; in shelters, 20-30% of new people staying in the shelter came to the area specifically for legalized marijuana. 52 This creates costs to society that can negate any gains from the new tax base. In Colorado, it is estimated that for every dollar gained in new tax revenue, $4.50 are spent to mitigate the effects of legalized recreational marijuana.53 Aurora, Colorado is now redirecting millions of marijuana revenue to homeless programs following the surge in the homeless populations.54

B. Injuries at Work

Marijuana use while working can create dangerous situations. Employees who tested positive for marijuana while working had 55% more industrial accidents and 85% more injuries.55 Following legalization, workers testing positive for marijuana rose 20 % in Colorado and 23% in Washington. 56 The increased percentage of employees testing positive for marijuana following legalization poses serious risks of injuries and accidents at work. Given the large percentage of Montanan workers who are in manufacturing, logging, and other riskier occupations, increased numbers of employees using marijuana could result in more injuries and deaths in workplaces.

51 Helmer, supra note 16.
55 NIDA, How does marijuana use affect school, work, and social life?, NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON DRUG ABUSE(2020),
56 Workplace Impact of Marijuana Legalization, ASSUREX GLOBAL,

VII. Conclusion

Montana will likely follow the tidal wave of states that are legalizing recreational marijuana, either this year or at some point in the near future. Marijuana is not the harm-free drug society believes it to be, it has serious consequences and side effects. When Montana legalizes marijuana, there will be new challenges law enforcement and society must face.

Did your state legislators ask you for input before they voted to legalize recreational marijuana?

It is important for you to let them know how you feel. Their vote should be based on the will of the people in their districts not the will of outsider special interest groups.
The Emerson College poll, which was conducted just after the November vote, results should have opened some eyes as voters have clearly stated they would not have voted yes on I-190 if they had known all the facts. Now it’s your turn to open some ears.
Do you know whether your representative voted for or against the legalization of recreational Marijuana? This is your opportunity to ask her or him exactly how they voted and why.
Contacting your state senator or legislators is simple. Click here(  for easy lookup access to the names and contact information for the Senators and Representatives for your district or use the list here for quick phone and district number. Let them know how you expect them to vote on the repeal of I-190. Let’s keep Montana family-friendly and safe for us all.

The Big M(marijuana) is Not the Letter of the Law

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