07/30/2015 02:05 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2016

How Do Police Officers Feel About Legalizing Drugs?

What do police officers think about legalizing drugs?: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

Answer by Justin Freeman, Former Police Officer

I'll preface by saying that I can only answer as a former officer; I could pretend to be able to retrospectively muse about what I'd have said when I was on patrol, but that's all it would be. Here's the deal: I'm kind of all over the place in some ways. I grew up on a farm, went to college in a major metropolitan area, moved to a mid-sized city of tens of thousands, then moved to a city of under five thousand, then back to the previous city, and then to Canada. I have been a reactive police officer and a proactive pastor. I know the idealism of theology and the pragmatism of law enforcement. I don't know if what's swirling within me is cognitive dissonance or stupidity. I tend to use words like "centrist" and "nuanced," but as you might imagine, I'm pretty charitable when it comes to my opinion of, you know, myself.

With that out of the way, on to the question. Right out of the gate, I'm going to plead difficulty with the phrasing, since "drugs" technically covers everything from toothpaste to methamphetamine. For the purposes of my answer, I'll assume the intent was to discuss illicit drugs commonly sold on the street.

That said, let's make what I think is an important bifurcation: Marijuana, and everything else. Now, let's get something on the table before the screaming starts. I despise marijuana. Other than meth, it has got to be, on balance, the filthiest drug on the street — in a literal sense. If you buy from a typical low level dealer, I can almost guarantee that your product has been inside a sweaty sock. Or worse. And there is a definite slacker culture which has adopted its use that I have unconcealed contempt for in general. However, if I had a policy making throw switch, I would legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana. Yes, even for recreational use — let's just skip the charade of faux glaucoma and Generalized Anxiety Disorder epidemics.

There are tons of reasons for this. I could cite the quality control, the tax revenue, the frustration of networks and cartels, the fact that if we prosecuted actual warfare like the War on Drugs, we'd still be trudging around Vietnam despite the fact we'd turned its entire surface into smoldering glass. For the sake of our respective sanity, though, I'll refer you to much more salient voices on the broader topic and focus on the law enforcement angle:

  1. Marijuana is undeserving of being treated as proximal to other street drugs. It's not just that marijuana is lower grade, or that it can be considered a three or four if meth is a ten. Marijuana isn't on the same spectrum as heroin, cocaine, LSD, or meth. There are assuredly people out there who have suffered in one way or another because of marijuana, but that number is dwarfed by the swarms of people lain waste in the swath created by the War on Drugs. Productivity dip? Possibly. Intelligence quotient dip? Perhaps. Life destruction? Rare, and typically more a hallmark of the doom saying of the shrillest among us. Don't let me catch you lumping casual tokers with meth users, unless you like being laughed at and lectured. I've seen them both. One of these things is not like the other.
  2. Pot arrests are a monumental waste. Of everything. First you find it. Then you secure it as evidence. Then you handcuff. Then you search. Load. Radio. Transport. Drive time. Disembark. Secure duty weapon. Buzz into the jail. Paperwork. Property log. Ticket. Metal detect.

Then, while the jail is re-searching, fingerprinting, processing, photographing and securing, I'm leaving, going to HQ, into the property room, dime bag into heat seal bag, property form, evidence tape, and submission. Then comes the report, with its person tab, property tab, narrative. Then a sergeant reads, sends back, rereads, edits, and approves.

The ticket goes to records to be stamped, separated, and forwarded. The marijuana goes to the chronically (pun acknowledged) backlogged forensics lab, which must verify that the "green, leafy substance whose smell, based on my training and observation, matched that of marijuana" is, indeed, marijuana. They generate a report which is forwarded to me in the event of a trial. The prosecutor has long since received my ticket, and set a court date for the accused. A subpoena is mailed; they bounce back as often as they're delivered.

Suspect shows, pleads not guilty. Trial date is set. I get subpoenaed. There's a high probability the suspect doesn't show. The Prosecutor asks for and gets issuance of an arrest warrant. I leave after ninety seconds, but get paid the minimum for a court appearance: two and one-half hours' pay. Six months later I pull a car over; our toker is a passenger, whom I must now arrest because of the arrest warrant.

And the cycle repeats.

Now, think about the time you spent reading that very condensed version of events stemming from a misdemeanor marijuana arrest, and extrapolate it, across the span of months, and into real life. Now multiply that by hundreds of thousands of arrestees. Now you have a glimmer of a hint of the resource suck these represent. And while it's true that you can often cite and release in lieu of taking someone to jail for simple possession, all you're saving is the jail bit — I still have to process all the administrative stuff the exact same way. Compare this all to the process after legalization:

  • See pack of marijuana.
  • Warn or cite driver for the traffic offense I pulled them over for.
  • Bid driver a good day and drive away.
  1. Correctional facilities are sardine cans, at all levels, across the board. I was told more than once as a police officer, at different times, not to process non-mandatory arrests at the jail, because they were beyond overflow capacity. Sometimes, even when an arrest isn't mandated by state statute, somebody needs to go to jail — whether to provide separation from a victim, provide shock value, or just to provide a controlled environment to cool off in. Being told that I could not exercise this option chafed me, and represented a disservice to the community.
  2. Every gram of illicit marijuana currently on the street silently screams the lamentations of innocent blood; its smoke currently rises as unintended incense to the god of Chaos. I take back my earlier assertion about marijuana not destroying lives, but only because the supply chain is scuttled underground, and all means of regulation tend to have either blades or triggers.
  3. Police officers like gewgaws. If you chuck the marijuana pie slice of the War on Drugs, you're going to have more money trickling down for things like line-level equipment — not to mention having more to address actual horrors like methamphetamine. That way, we can start kicking in doors that are actually worthy of our boots.

As for other drugs ("hard" drugs, if you will, though I have issues with that term), I can't draw the same conclusions. The effects most or all of these drugs have upon the systems of the body and the functions of society are scourges beyond that which I feel our government can sanction legislatively. There is no way, within the bounds of credulity, to regulate substances like black tar heroin or methamphetamine.

Thus, the idealist within me yearns to usher people unto a life more abundant (in Jesus' sense of the word, not Madison Avenue's) where they wouldn't care to have their senses distorted to the point that illicit drugs distort, while the pragmatist within me realizes that I must instead advocate the greatest good.

This, friends, is not that.

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