Why Are Some Cops So Hostile to Marijuana Policy Reform?
A few years ago, when the Marijuana Policy Project
was lobbying the Minnesota legislature to pass a modest medical
marijuana bill, the state prosecutors association led the opposition.
Rank-and-file police from the Twin Cities left their beats to fill up
committee hearing rooms -- in uniform, with handguns strapped to their
waists -- in an attempt to intimidate the state legislators on the
And law enforcement lied, lied, lied, so much so that we started
distributing daily "Law Enforcement Lie of the Day" videos to all state
legislators and political reporters in the state. We also slammed the
leading local prosecutor's office with phone calls from angry
constituents; he privately threatened to arrest us for "obstructing
justice." I almost wish he had arrested us so that he would have had to
explain why trying to help sick people interferes with justice, but he
For a couple years, it was all-out warfare, but we finally passed a
medical marijuana bill through the legislature in May 2009, only to see
Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) veto the bill, saying he preferred to "stand with
State prosecutors, police, sheriffs, and attorneys general -- not to
mention federal DEA and FBI agents -- are almost universally opposed to
marijuana policy reform measures in every state, to the point where they
actually spend time and taxpayer money campaigning and lobbying against
1. IGNORANCE: For the most part, rank-and-file cops aren't trained
scientists or policy experts. They don't spend much time reading medical
studies or public policy analyses, and they generally don't have much
knowledge about the issue beyond how it directly affects their jobs.
When presented with such information, they tend to listen to the people
they encounter most in their work. Unfortunately, those people are
almost always government officials or those with a vested interest in
keeping marijuana illegal, such as drug treatment specialists. Since
this information comes from "trusted sources,' it's usually accepted as
fact, and differing viewpoints are therefore ignored.
2. JOB SECURITY: Before MPP helped decriminalize marijuana
possession in Massachusetts in November 2008, we learned that
marijuana-possession arrests accounted for 6% of all arrests in that
state each year. So, to some extent, law enforcement was opposing our
ballot initiative because they were concerned that some of them might
need to be laid off if there were fewer "criminals" to arrest and
prosecute. As for me, I never thought that 6% of law enforcement would
be laid off; more likely, we were freeing up law enforcement to go after
real criminals. Which leads me to...
3. QUALITY OF LIFE: According to the FBI, 48
law-enforcement officers nationwide were feloniously killed in the line
of duty in 2009, and none of these were killed by enforcing drug laws.
It makes sense that going after murderers would be more dangerous than
sniffing under college students' doors. But policing exists to make
society safer, and hunting down nonviolent marijuana users at the
expense of thousands of unsolved assaults, rapes, and murders does
nothing to accomplish this.
4. COGNITIVE DISSONANCE: It's hard for any person to change his or
her political opinion after years of believing that opinion. So you can
imagine how it would be even harder to change your opinion on an issue
after you've ruined the lives of hundreds or thousands of people by
arresting them on that issue. In other words, once a cop arrests
marijuana users, testifies against them in court, and moves up the
political food chain because of all this, it's almost impossible for
that cop to then declare, "I was wrong."
Thankfully, there's an organization of principled law enforcement
professionals who are neither ignorant, self-serving, nor mentally
calcified. I'm talking about Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization that deserves your wholehearted support.
And there is another ray of hope: When I talk to cops on the beat in
the District of Columbia, where I live, I ask them, "What's the worst
crime you usually have to deal with?" They almost always answer,
"Domestic violence." I ask, "Is marijuana involved in that?" They
laugh and say, "Never. It's almost always alcohol." So should
marijuana be decriminalized, or maybe even legalized? "Probably, but
the higher-ups would never go for that," they say.
So there you have it: There are plenty of police officers who see
the futility and unfairness of marijuana prohibition up close, but most
law enforcement officials with real authority support marijuana
prohibition. Why the discrepancy?
The most obvious explanation is that the higher-ups are (1) more
likely to be appointed or hired by mayors and city councils, and (2)
responsible for presenting departmental budgets to those politicians
every year. So perhaps there's a fifth reason why so many law
enforcement officials are hostile...
5. FEAR OF OUT-OF-TOUCH POLITICIANS: Politicians are far behind the
public when it comes to understanding the harms of marijuana
prohibition. Whether politicians are afraid of being perceived as "soft
on crime," of sticking their necks out on what is still a fairly
contentious issue, or of offending particular special interest groups,
opposition remains high among elected representatives. Law enforcement
officials looking for bigger budgets and better jobs will echo these
politicians ad nauseum, providing them with political cover and
legitimacy. And there we have a self-perpetuating cycle.
This is why it's important to engage law enforcement on this issue at
every opportunity. Whether it is the cop on your corner or the chief of
police, opening the dialogue is vitally important.