The police chief of Annapolis, Md., warned state senators mulling marijuana legalization Tuesday that dozens died after getting high in Colorado Jan. 1, when the nation's first recreational pot stores opened.
“The first day of legalization, that's when Colorado experienced 37 deaths that day from overdose on marijuana," Chief Michael Pristoop testified during a Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing, the Capital Gazette reports. "I remember the first day it was decriminalized there were 37 deaths."
Pristoop’s claim was immediately corrected by state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat sponsoring legislation to legalize possession of 1 ounce of marijuana by adults over age 21. Raskin's bill proposes regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol, but is opposed by Pristoop and other police officials who testified Tuesday.
“I'm afraid I've got to spoil the party here," Raskin said, according to the Gazette. "Your assertion that 37 people died of a marijuana overdose in Colorado was a hoax on The Daily Currant and the Comedy Central website."
The Daily Currant ran an article Jan. 2 with the claim of 37 pot-induced deaths. The satirical news website quoted a fictitious Denver doctor as saying: "We are seeing cardiac arrests, hypospadias, acquired trimethylaminuria and multiple organ failures. By next week the death toll could go as high as 200, maybe 300.”
The Annapolis Police Department posted an apology on its Facebook page after the hearing, but did not fess up to using the Currant as a source.
“Chief Pristoop, after conducting additional research, discovered that the numbers presented were not accurate but an urban myth,” the department said.
In an accompanying statement, Pristoop said: “I believed the information I obtained was accurate but I now know the story is nothing more than an urban legend. This does not take away from the other facts presented in opposition to legalization."
Deaths attributed directly to marijuana use are, in reality, extremely rare.
“The only person I've ever seen overdose on marijuana had a big snack and fell asleep," observed state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican, the Gazette reports.
Pristoop isn’t the first legalization foe accused of falling for the Currant’s fake story. In January, Sweden’s justice minister, Beatrice Ask, posted the article on Facebook, commenting: "Stupid and sad. My first bill in the youth wing was called Outfight the Drugs! In this matter I haven't changed opinion at all.” A spokesman for Ask denied she was duped, telling the Guardian she knew the article was phony.
Members of the pro-legalization group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition said Pristoop’s remarks harm the credibility of police and undermine the case for status quo drug policies.
“If police don’t bother to educate themselves before testifying before the state senate on the issue, how is anyone supposed to take seriously their commitment to establishing the best marijuana policy – not for the funding it brings their departments in asset forfeiture and federal grant revenue – but for the people of Maryland?” LEAP Executive Director Neill Franklin, a Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department veteran, said in a statement.
“[M]any police gave testimony that was so clearly flawed it no doubt caused a lot of people to lose respect for a profession of which I am proud to have been a part,” said LEAP board member Leigh Maddox, a retired Maryland State Police captain.
Colorado and Washington are currently the only states that allow possession of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use, but many more have reduced marijuana penalties or allow medical marijuana.
Support for legalization has soared in national polls, and the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted to legalize the drug Jan. 15. Although the Granite State bill isn't expected to become law this year, voters in Alaska are likely to cast ballots on legalization Aug. 19, possibly followed by November votes in Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington, D.C.