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If "Cops Don't Make Laws, They Just Enforce Them," Why Are Police Opposing Marijuana Legalization?

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Medical Marijuana States as of 2010Since fourteen states have legalized the use of cannabis for sick and disabled people we here at NORML have reported on numerous stories of medical users harassed, arrested, and jailed by police. We have also reported on healthy adults in all fifty states whose lives are turned upside down by an arrest, sometimes losing student loans, jobs, children, pets, dignity, property, and freedom over a single joint, seed, or even a cannabis stem. When we and others bring up these insane injustices to the police who are making these arrests, we often hear the platitude that "cops don't make the laws, we just enforce the laws."

So why do we consistently see representatives of law enforcement opposing medical marijuana, marijuana decriminalization, and marijuana legalization efforts in state legislatures?

In California, the California Narcotics Officers Association schools police officers to believe the public "have been misled... into believing there is merit to their argument that smoking marijuana is a safe and effective medicine." This is in direct contradiction of the stated position of the American Medical Association otherwise that "short term controlled trials indicate that smoked cannabis reduces neuropathic pain, improves appetite and caloric intake especially in patients with reduced muscle mass, and may relieve spasticity and pain in patients with multiple sclerosis."

In New Jersey, the medical marijuana law was severely curtailed when the Assembly heard the unfounded assertion by a representative of New Jersey's Fraternal Order of Police that "I've heard in California there's a lot peripheral crime around these centers [medical marijuana dispensaries], I get that from the different law enforcement agencies around the country who I have regular contact with." This is in direct contradiction of the findings of the Chief of the LAPD who stated: "Banks are more likely to get robbed than medical marijuana dispensaries." The Chief was responding to the notion that there is greater crime around dispensaries and said "I have tried to verify that because that, of course, is the mantra. It doesn't really bear out."

And in Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics & Dangerous Drugs Control publishes a "fact sheet" on marijuana that states: "Today's new cultivation methods are producing a drug with up to 30 percent THC, or 3,000 percent higher than the old 1960's-1980's available marijuana." This is in direct contradiction to the DEA's own figures on marijuana potency which find that today's average cannabis seizure may have doubled in THC potency (a 100% increase, not a 3,000% increase.) Oklahoma's bureau doesn't address why 30% THC marijuana is to be feared, but 100% THC Marinol pills are FDA-approved.

ABC News / Washington Post PollThe attitudes of most in law enforcement are also contrary to the attitudes of the public. A recent ABC News / Washington Post poll found that support for medical marijuana is now at 81% nationwide, with a majority overall (62% nationwide) who support a system at least as open as Oregon's OMMA where not-necessarily terminal patients can only qualify if they suffer a specific condition from a list and a majority of those who support medical marijuana (56% of the 81% who support it) supporting an open system like California's Prop-215 where "doctors should be able to prescribe medical marijuana to anyone they think it can help".

Police medical marijuana pollBut according to a June 2009 survey in POLICE Magazine, even though a majority (54.6%) of police say they support medical marijuana, almost all of those who support it (88%) say it must be only under stricter regulation than we have currently in the medical marijuana states.

Marijuana Legalization PollsWhen asked about marijuana legalization overall, even for healthy adults, the American Public are also contrary to the opinions of law enforcement. The latest Angus Reid poll is the first to show majority American support for legalization (53%), while the latest Gallup poll puts support at 44%, its best mark in forty years of polling.

Police say don't legalizeBut according to the same POLICE survey, marijuana legalization has less than half the support among cops than among the public they protect and serve. Only 23% of police supported re-legalization of cannabis.

When asked why, specifically, those police who opposed re-legalization felt that way, eight in ten said that marijuana is a "gateway drug", there was the danger of "people driving high", and seven in ten cited the "harm to user and society". Longtime NORML readers know that the gateway drug theory has been debunked by the Institutes of Medicine in 1999 and every reputable study over the past ten years. While everybody, especially NORML, discourages driving under the influence of cannabis, we understand that there are people behaving irresponsibly now and re-legalization would not encourage less responsibility, but more. Under re-legalization, money raised from taxes could sponsor anti-stoned-driving campaigns like the ones that have successfully reduced drunk driving.

Marijuana is SaferAs for the "harm to user and society", POLICE readers still felt by a margin of 3-2 that alcohol was "more of a threat to the community" than marijuana. (The survey does not record the support among police for reinstating alcohol prohibition to prevent alcohol's "harm to user and society", however.) This 39% of police who believe marijuana is safer than alcohol comes closest to matching public opinion, which shows now a slim majority (51%) believe marijuana is safer than alcohol.

Decrim PollWhile the general public is barely approaching majority support for outright marijuana legalization, the public has long held the belief that any punishment for adult marijuana possession should be a fine only. Three out of four Americans (76%) believe that if marijuana users are to be punished, they should only be fined and not arrested and sent to jail. Yet the POLICE Magazine survey finds that two out of three cops (65%) think it is "worth law enforcement's time to bust marijuana users".

Another area where police opinions differ from the public is on the issue of the murderous Mexican drug gangs that have assassinated, kidnapped, murdered, tortured, and beheaded over 15,000 Mexicans in just two years. The Arizona Attorney General has cited that "marijuana sales make up 75 percent of the money that Mexican cartels use for other operations, including smuggling other drugs and fighting the Mexican army and police." But in the POLICE Magazine survey, two-thirds of cops (68%) believe marijuana legalization would have no "favorable impact on problems associated with gangs and cartels."

So do the police know something about the dangers of cannabis use that the American Medical Association, the American people, and the Arizona Attorney General do not? A cynic might think that police are merely acting in their own best interest, protecting their source of easy statistic-padding arrests and asset forfeiture bounty, but I'm more inclined to believe many of these front-line soldiers in the War on Marijuana are acting in good faith based on terrible misinformation about cannabis.

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