10-43: Be Advised... with Doug Wyllie, PoliceOne Editor in Chief
Legalizing marijuana: Police officers speak out
This highly-debated topic has even infiltrated the law enforcement community, and a surprising number of cops are speaking out in favor of legalization
Want to start a fight on PoliceOne? Do an article on any one of these three topics: gun control, police unions, or the legalization of marijuana. Generally speaking, I do my best to stay away from those third-rail issues, but sometimes my responsibility to report the trends affecting LEOs forces me to suck it up and get zapped. Let me be clear in one thing right up front. I will not pretend to present an “answer” to this question — rather, I hope this to be an open forum in which everyone on PoliceOne can add their voice to the discussion. Let’s get started, shall we?
Are small pot busts taking cops away from "important" work?
By Doug Wyllie, PoliceOne Editor in Chief
CNN and other news agencies have recently run stories about an effort presently underway on Capitol Hill which would result in dramatically reduced federal penalties for personal marijuana use. New federal legislation, dubbed “Act to Remove Federal Penalties for the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults,” and known to political wonks simply as ‘HR 5843,’ was proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives on April 17th by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and co-sponsored by former presidential candidate Ron Paul, (R-Texas).
The website GovTrack.us, an “independent, non-partisan, non-commercial” entity that monitors activities of Congress summarizes the proposed legislation as follows:
• Prohibits the imposition of any penalty under an Act of Congress for the possession of marijuana for personal use or for the not-for-profit transfer between adults of marijuana for personal use • Deems the possession of 100 grams or less of marijuana as personal use (one ounce or less for a not-for-profit transfer between adults) • Allows the imposition of a civil penalty under the Controlled Substances Act for the public use of marijuana if such penalty does not exceed $100
A 2011 effort to decriminalize and tax recreational marijuana sales for adults in Washington state has won some high-profile endorsements and its sponsors are well on their way to collecting enough signatures to place the measure before the Legislature. (AP Photo)
This is a highly debated topic, and it has even infiltrated the law enforcement community, and even some cops are speaking out in favor of legalization.
A couple of months ago, I was sent an interesting email from a PoliceOne Member I’d never before had contact with — he said that there was an issue brewing related to cops being reprimanded and/or fired for voicing their opinion that pot could be legalized, regulated, and taxed with greater efficacy than the present enforcement of its legal prohibition. Further, he said that this was not limited to public commentary, but was happening for expression of opinion from one officer to another in private company.
Now, I can fully appreciate the notion that a cop can be reprimanded and/or fired for misrepresenting the uniform during attendance at an off-duty event that besmirches his or her agency in some way. I can equally understand that “free speech” doesn’t extend to making a wide variety of ill-advised “comments” on Facebook and other social networking sites. If what you say in public reflects badly on the PD, well, the PD can quite justly penalize you for it — that’s just a fact. But being canned for voicing an opinion in a one-on-one, cop-to-cop context? I’m pretty much duty-bound to look into that sort of thing. So, I posted a poll on the homepage, and reached out to a couple of sources I’d filed away in my dusty old rolodex — the following column is a collection of responses from that effort, supplemented by some additional stuff I’ve collected from around the Internet.
Surprising Findings We conduct a fair number of member surveys and polls here on PoliceOne — some of which produce relatively-predictable results. There are occasions, however, where we’re thoroughly and completely surprised by the vote tally. This, as you may have already figured out, is one of those occasions. We asked, “Should pot be legal?” and of the roughly 1,700 respondents (at the time this column posts to PoliceOne), a full 44 percent said either ‘Yes, that's where we're headed.’ or ‘Maybe, depending on specifics.’ The other 56 percent came down on the side of either ‘No, legalization is a bad idea.’ or ‘Are you high? Of course not!’
That 12 percent margin may seem to be a wide chasm, but compared to a somewhat similar poll conducted here on PoliceOne about two-and-a-half years ago, the split was far smaller — there was a margin somewhere along the lines of a 64-36 in that poll back in 2009.
At some point in mid-2009, I got an email from someone representing LEAP — Law Enforcement Against Prohibition — an organization of criminal justice professionals who favor marijuana legalization. I tucked that contact away, and a few weeks ago sent him a series of questions to have his people look at. Those questions were:
1.) Will legalizing, regulating, and taxing marijuana create real revenue that can support state and local law enforcement of other drug violations (anti-meth programs, cocaine-traffic interdiction, etc.) as well as social programs to help people badly addicted to those more dangerous drugs? With state and municipal governments so deep in “the red” budget-wise, is it not a wee bit overly optimistic that those revenues will actually be applied to those programs, and not just thrown at whatever the “flavor of the day” is in the Capitol Building or City Hall? 2.) Along those same lines, there is a belief that the “utility cost” of putting police resources toward marijuana enforcement is, in effect, a poor application of police officers’ time and energy — that they could be doing stuff that takes violent offenders off the streets. Will the manpower gained when shifting law enforcement resources (time, money, etc.) from marijuana enforcement to other enforcement efforts lead to a significant increase in successful prosecution and incarceration of the true “bad guys” out there? 3.) On the opposite side of that coin, a certain number of individuals who are busted on a simple marijuana charge have committed a variety of crimes other than possession (burglary, battery, whatnot) but it’s the dope charge that gets them off the streets and away from potential victims of those other crimes. If police officers are denied that law enforcement “tool” would it not be logical that those violators would remain free to commit those other infractions?
Before I get into the comments from the folks at LEAP, and the Member emails I received as a result of that P1 poll, I should close the loop on something I mentioned at the top of this column — that some cops are being fired for their opinions on the legalization debate. Two weeks after I was “tipped off” to this issue — and to the fate of one LEO in particular — that same news broke on the pages of the New York Times.
It read, in part:
Border Patrol agents pursue smugglers one moment and sit around in boredom the next. It was during one of the lulls that Bryan Gonzalez, a young agent, made some comments to a colleague that cost him his career.
Stationed in Deming, N.M., Mr. Gonzalez was in his green-and-white Border Patrol vehicle just a few feet from the international boundary when he pulled up next to a fellow agent to chat about the frustrations of the job. If marijuana were legalized, Mr. Gonzalez acknowledges saying, the drug-related violence across the border in Mexico would cease. He then brought up an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition that favors ending the war on drugs.
Those remarks, along with others expressing sympathy for illegal immigrants from Mexico, were passed along to the Border Patrol headquarters in Washington. After an investigation, a termination letter arrived that said Mr. Gonzalez held “personal views that were contrary to core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication and esprit de corps.”
After his dismissal, Mr. Gonzalez joined a group even more exclusive than the Border Patrol: law enforcement officials who have lost their jobs for questioning the war on drugs and are fighting back in the courts.
According to that report in the New York Times, Gonzalez has filed suit in federal court in Texas and is considering pursuing a law degree.
As Seen On TV This same issue was tackled on the show Freedom Watch on FOX News.
PoliceOne Members Speak Out So, what do PoliceOne Members have to say on the matter? Well for starters, I must say that I was more surprised by the emailers than I was by the voters. I was, quite frankly, stunned to see that nearly every email I got on the issue was supportive of some manner of legalization. I’m not kidding — probably nine out of ten emails were pro-legalization. For example:
“I don't smoke pot and if were legal I still wouldn't. That being said, I believe first that if it were legal there would be fewer people abusing substances. It's hard for us as cops to admit that when it comes to drug laws, most people who abuse substances don't care about the law. Those few who don't smoke pot because it's illegal are probably drinking heavily. Would it make things worse if people stopped drinking and took up pot? When was the last time you arrested a domestic violence offender who was high on marijuana? OK, then when was the last time you arrested a domestic violence offender who was drunk? When was the last time you arrested a domestic violence offender who wasn't drunk? Legalization will take money and power away from the cartels and the gangs. Murder rates will plummet if gang bangers stop shooting each other, and innocent bystanders.”
Or this one, short and sweet, from someone who wished to remain anonymous:
“As an officer, I would rather deal with someone that has smoked pot, than someone who is drunk. I have never dealt with a violent pot smoker. Usually they are mild mannered compared.”
The opposing view, from an interdiction officer whose name — for OpSec purposes — I choose to keep close-hold.
“Working in an Interdiction unit, I have talked with all types of growers and sellers. It is very apparent to me that many cops do not understand that legalizing it, will do absolutely no good, unless it is legal in every state. We all know that will never happen. On I-80, coming out of California, good weed sells for about two-thousand dollars a pound, but will bring even thousand when it reaches the east coast. A lot comes from Legal 99 plant grows, that California permits. If there is one state out there that keeps it illegal, there will always be a markets. Million-dollar loads, guns in more loads, Cartel-backed... wake up fellas, legalizing with a promise of taxes is a farce.”
Or this one, from Aaron Groves of the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office and the Mid-Iowa Narcotics Enforcement Task Force — who has enthusiastically given me permission to use his name in this report.
“Having worked in dope for over two years I have had the opportunity to send a few people to prison for drug related convictions. I interview everyone that I take to jail and I question them on how and why they got started using illegal drugs. Every single person I have sent to prison for methamphetamine or methamphetamine manufacturing started out using marijuana. Some say they weren’t satisfied with the high they got from marijuana and needed something more, others simply state that the drug crowd they were hanging out with exposed them to the new drug. If we legalize marijuana I think we risk exposing more people to other illegal drugs, methamphetamine, heroin, etc. Before working in narcotics I may have actually considered the legalization of marijuana, but now I’m adamantly against it.”
But once again, the inbox contained a much greater number of pro-legalization comments than those supporting continued prohibition. Here’s what I got from MacKenzie Allen, a retired King County (Wash.) sheriff’s deputy who was also formerly with Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office.
“I think the first thing with which we all must come to grips is the fact that drug use can never, will never be done away with. Humans have been intoxicating themselves (as have some lower orders of animals) throughout history. We will never “arrest” our way out of this. The drug problem is a health and education issue, no less so than alcohol and tobacco. We’ve been fighting the “War on Drugs” for more than 40 years. It has cost a trillion dollars and thousands of terminated and/or ruined lives with nothing to show for it but more drugs, cheaper drugs, higher quality drugs, more corruption and infinitely more violence. We need to legalize, regulate and strictly control all drugs. Continuing on our present course is insanity.”
Or this one, from Arnold Byron, a retired law enforcement officer who had also been an inspector for the United States Customs Service.
“It is evident that law enforcement measures cannot stop people from using marijuana. Marijuana is intoxicating and addictive yet the most intoxicating substance is alcohol and the most addictive substance is nicotine (tobacco). It seems that human nature wants to reject anything that it determines to be ‘icky.’ Have you ever seen a picture of a person smoking marijuana. How ‘icky’ is that, compared to the good times having a beer with your friends? If marijuana is legalized there will still be problems, but the problems will be different. After legalization the problems with marijuana use will be in the open and solutions will be seen to be working. Prohibition puts everything into the dark where the elements of greed and power exist.”
Finally, there was this one, from William VanderGraaf, a retired Winnipeg Police Service Staff Sergeant and homicide detective.
“I understand why law enforcement resists the legalization of pot. It can provide a foot in the door to detect more serious crimes, it gives us opportunity to arrest and charge a criminal, a gang member, who avoids detection and arrest on more serious crimes. It allows us to exact revenge on a guy who was disrespectful, and build an arrest record that may get you into exciting drug enforcement work. But it also turns other wise law abiding citizens into criminals, another advantage in building up police data bases, and one that has lead to an increasing disrespect for law enforcement and government as a whole. As a police detective I would ask all public officials, where is the evidence to support your view that pot is dangerous and warrants inclusion alongside heroin or even warrants prohibition. Show me the evidence. They cannot because it does not exist and the evidence that does exist contradicts them. Even the U.S. Drug Czar has been unable to articulate a good reason for prohibition on pot. However, even if there was evidence that it is as dangerous as alcohol, heroin or a detriment to ones’ health, this is a matter of personal responsibility and not one of true criminal intent. If they commit a crime like impaired driving, charge them. Other wise it seems to me to be a matter for social health professionals. That is the crux of the issue and prohibition does not allow us to determine how many people actually use it, particularly the affluent who easily avoid detection. Pot prohibition has undermined the entire justice system in both our countries. It is all about respect and our governments don’t care about placing the lives of officers on the line to stop people from using pot or any substance. It is as ridiculous as those governments and citizens who tried to prohibit rock and roll around 1960 to save our society.”
Taking a Flying LEAP The abovementioned Arnold Byron, MacKenzie Allen, and William VanderGraaf are, apparently, “approved” spokespersons from LEAP. I had not directly solicited their opinions — they merely were among the many people who emailed me on the topic during the past few weeks. However, I did want to get comment from three specific individuals at LEAP, and what follows are their respective replies to the questions I’d mentioned at the top of this column.
Judge James P. Gray (Ret.) of the Orange County (Calif.) Superior said, in part, “As a former federal prosecutor and trial judge in Orange County, California for 25 years, I have seen first hand the results of our War on Drugs. Mostly I have seen that the tougher we get on non-violent drug offenders, literally the softer we get on offenders involved with robbery, rape and murder. Why? Because we only have so many investigative and prosecutorial resources to spend. I have further noted that even when we arrest, convict and incarcerate heavy drug dealers, that does not reduce the availability of any of the drugs for more than a short period of time. Why? Because of the obscenely large profits to be made in dealing these drugs. So the better alternative is to regulate, control, and tax these drugs, and then hold people accountable for their actions. The Criminal Justice System was designed to hold people accountable for what they do, and not for what they as adults put into their bodies. We should start with marijuana, and then observe and quantify the results. That will better manage the problems, and start focusing more upon the harms caused by drug money, which in so many ways are far worse than the harms caused by the drugs themselves.”
Kyle Kazan, a retired officer from the Torrance (Calif.) Police Department added, “There is no question that money will be saved from top to bottom in the justice system, from the officer who takes time away from other duties to the lab who verifies that the green leafy substance is marijuana to the court system, and finally, to the jails and prisons. On the other side of the ledger, money that is being made by the underworld (i.e. gangsters) would now be regulated and taxed. I have saw estimates of $1B to $2B in a net gain to the state of California had Proposition 19 passed. There is no control of government spending on any level, but there are many needs for the money, including law enforcement jobs and their underfunded pensions. If nothing else, since the true bad guys aren't doing anywhere close to the sentenced time in many California counties (Los Angeles is a prime example), existing resources won't be spent on marijuana sentencing. If nothing else, refocusing on handling 911 calls and lowering response times will be appreciated by the taxpaying public.”
Stephen Downing, who had once served as Deputy Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department said, “I think this is a great opportunity for our current ‘on-duty’ police professionals to ponder, and perhaps even persuade to alter course before their careers end, as did mine, before realizing all the good we could have done for our communities had we had stopped to examine and discover the folly of the war on drugs, especially marijuana, during our career arc. and refused to participate with — and become corrupted by — the federal government, their drug czar, DEA drug warriors, drug grant money, surplus weapons, armored vehicles, body armor, military training and the glow of asset seizure dollars to offset our budgets — all of which militarized and diverted our resources away from victim related crimes in order to satiate the horrors launched by Richard Nixon and his failed 40 year war on drugs.
“Today, I ask myself,” Downing continued, “wouldn’t any right-thinking police administrator want to call for the re-examination of a policy that has failed for 40 years? When Nixon announced the war on drugs I was a commander in South Central Los Angeles, having just discovered two gangs, the bloods and the crips, with a membership of about 75 total. The cartels were something we heard about in Latin America. Two years ago the DOJ announced that the cartels controlled drug traffic in 250 American cities. This year they tell us they are in 1,000 American cities. The street gangs who support them as distributors, collectors and enforcers have grown from the two I discovered 40 years ago to 38,000 with a membership of 1,500,000. Should that not give policy makers pause? Why has it not? The only answers I can come up with is, myth and money.”
Now, It’s Your Turn Okay, this column has been a beast to complete, and quite bluntly (pun very much intended!), as I post at 1500 hours on a Friday following the company Christmas party, I’m just glad to be done with it. But our work here, my friends, is sadly not yet done. I have yet to hear from you, gentle reader, on this matter, so I encourage you to post your comments below, or (gasp!) send me an email.
As always, stay safe folks.
About the author
Doug Wyllie is Editor in Chief of PoliceOne, responsible for setting the editorial direction of the website and managing the planned editorial features by our roster of expert writers. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 800 feature articles and tactical tips on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA). Even in his "spare" time, he is active in his support for the law enforcement community, contributing his time and talents toward police-related charitable events as well as participating in force-on-force training, search-and-rescue training, and other scenario-based training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.
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