Police Chief Dominic Rizzi Jr. says the risks of social problems and crime outweigh the financial benefits from retail marijuana sales

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YAKIMA — Even though marijuana can be legally bought just down the road, Yakima’s top cop wants to keep marijuana shops out of his city.

“I don’t see anything positive coming out of it,” police Chief Dominic Rizzi Jr. said of a proposal to allow retail sales of marijuana in Yakima.

Rizzi sees any financial benefits to the city outweighed by increases in crime and other problems related to addiction.

But police in two cities that allow marijuana sales said the shops do not appear to increase crime.

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While Yakima residents may legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use, and the city is home to a state-certified marijuana-testing lab, Yakima has banned marijuana shops since January 2014, citing the 56 percent of city voters who opposed the 2012 initiative that legalized marijuana in the state.

The city’s first — and so far only — marijuana shop briefly opened last year when Jaime Campos unsuccessfully challenged the ban. The city shut down the shop, and a Yakima County Superior Court judge upheld the ban.

But this month the City Council, acting on a motion by Councilwoman Kathy Coffey, voted to have city staff begin the process of lifting the ban, citing her own experience watching two husbands die from lung cancer.

Cancer patients sometimes use marijuana for pain relief and to treat the nausea and lack of appetite that accompany chemotherapy.

“I’m tired of the stigma. Can’t we make life a little more comfortable for people that really need it?” Coffey said in an earlier interview.

Coffey has since said she will asked the city to postpone action on her request — which was approved in a 4-2 vote — until May.

Coffey said one of the reasons she asked for the delay is to allow city staff to review evidence regarding what effect marijuana has on factors such as crime.

“There is information on both sides that we need to look at,” Coffey said, adding that Rizzi “was entitled to his opinion.”

But Rizzi would rather see the issue dropped permanently.

Making marijuana more available would increase the number of DUI cases and assaults from people acting under the influence of marijuana, Rizzi and Sgt. Dave Cortez warned.

Cortez, a patrol sergeant who headed the gang unit, said gang members have been known to use marijuana to calm their nerves before going out to commit a drive-by shooting or assault.

Yakima police had to deal with a noninjury accident Feb. 9 where the driver was suspected of being under the influence of marijuana, Cortez said. Toxicology tests are pending, but witnesses told police the driver had used marijuana just before the accident, Cortez said.

Since the marijuana initiative passed, the State Patrol’s toxicology laboratory reported a statewide increase in the number of impaired drivers testing positive for THC, the chemical that gives marijuana users the “high.”

The crime lab’s statistics show an increase in those tested for marijuana, said Brianna Peterson, manager of the crime lab’s toxicology division.

In 2012, the year the initiative passed, 18.6 percent of suspected impaired drivers tested positive for THC, compared with 28 percent in 2014, the year marijuana shops first opened.

But statistics from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs show that marijuana-related crimes investigated by police such as possession, manufacturing and delivering marijuana, dropped almost 63 percent from 2012 to 2014.

In Yakima, the number of drug crimes decreased by almost 45 percent, from 398 in 2012 to 222 in 2014.

The data also show that of the drug arrests made in 2012, slightly more than half were for marijuana, compared with 30 percent in 2014. But the percentage of arrests for stimulants such as heroin and cocaine went up from 28 percent to 45 percent.

In Ellensburg, where there are two marijuana shops, police have not seen any shift in crime that could be attributed to the stores, police Capt. Dan Hansberry said.

Likewise, Greg Cobb, Rizzi’s counterpart in Union Gap, said crime statistics for 2014 and 2015 show increases in theft, robbery and DUI cases, but he said there is no data showing whether retail marijuana or other factors contributed to it. There are three retail marijuana shops in Union Gap.

Permitting marijuana sales, Rizzi said, would send children the wrong message. If the city is permitting the sales, he and Cortez argued, kids may think that it is OK to use it.

But Coffey said there is another important principle at play as well, and that is respect for law.

“This is a state law, and we need to follow the law,” Coffey said.