Justice

A Police Veteran Explains Why Law Enforcement Should Embrace Marijuana

The relationship between law enforcement and marijuana is complicated, especially in America.

police-searching-through-bag-of-marijuana

Police are required to enforce the law, and marijuana is illegal on a federal level and strictly prohibited in half of the states in the U.S. Police departments may also have a financial interest in prohibition because they receive federal funds for their enforcement efforts.

But there's a growing movement within law enforcement circles to embrace marijuana legalization for a variety of reasons. They consider prohibition more dangerous than legal regulation, which takes money away from the black market, leaving criminal organizations at a disadvantage. Criminalizing marijuana users also disproportionately affects Black Americans and hurts community-police relations.

The nonprofit group LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) is made up of law enforcement personnel and others who believe that America's War on Drugs has failed. LEAP has campaigned to support state legalization measures in California, Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon. Since forming in 2002, the group has attracted more than 150,000 police officers, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, DEA agents, and other supporters.

LEAP member Tony Ryan, a Denver Police Department veteran, explained to ATTN: why law enforcement should support marijuana reform. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

LEAP

ATTN: Can you describe your law enforcement background?

Tony Ryan: I was with the Denver Police Department for 36 years: patrolling for five years, investigations for five years, [and] then the rest of the time, I was the supervisor in command of three officers. So 12 years as sergeant and 14 as a lieutenant on the street.

ATTN: What are some of the advantages of marijuana legalization for law enforcement?

Tony Ryan: It would free us up. Rather than pursue the drug war and chase around drug users and sales, they could concentrate on things that really are more important to the average citizen in terms of law enforcement, because you only have so many police officers.

[The federal government] came up with a big program four years after I joined the police force in 1967 — Nixon's War on Drugs — and, all of a sudden, there's a lot of special units being set up and [officers] being diverted without hiring more officers to go out and chase drug users and sellers. We don't have much use for people who are selling drugs and taking advantage of this law.

ATTN: How does marijuana prohibition benefit criminal organizations?

Tony Ryan: It gives [criminal organizations] something illegal [to] sell that they know there's a definite market for. We're talking human beings here, you know? And sometimes people acquire bad habits and get hooked on whatever their bad habit might be, legal or not. But as we found with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, it just creates a mess. It diverts law enforcement from other duties, and it's not the way to go. We proved that way back then, but we seem to have forgotten that lesson.

ATTN: What would you say to someone who argues that legalization will lead to increased drugged driving?

Tony Ryan: I would say we should have laws that say driving under the influence of whatever is an offense — without making the substance completely illegal. Some people have prescription drugs that they take, which make them ineffective or dangerous drivers. Yet we don't put them in prison when they do go out, even when they may have been advised by their doctor, 'You really shouldn't drive when you're on this.' The bottom line is that whether or not it's good to do something, the common sense has to prevail, and sometimes people fail on that, but it doesn't mean you should put them in prison for a ridiculously long time.

ATTN: Why haven't police departments adopted a field testing program for people who drive under the influence of marijuana?

Tony Ryan: We don't have a science yet. There's no distinct evidence that a certain level of marijuana in your system — as we do with alcohol per se — is going to cause a problem or make someone a worse driver. It depends on the person, as it does with alcohol, and how their body reacts to it.

ATTN: Is law enforcement starting to embrace marijuana reform?

Tony Ryan: I think so. I think they're beginning to look at [legalization] more seriously than they used to. But, you know, there's a lot of money for law enforcement that comes from the feds to enforce drug laws and so forth. There's a lot of money involved. But I think if you've got this money floating around, and you can straighten out the issue of the drug war and find a better way to deal with people that have problems with drugs, then perhaps we can use that money to deal with other problems that have gotten a little worse over the years that the police departments are tasked with handling and give them a little money to pursue those problems and go from there.

RELATED: How the DEA Profits off the War on Drugs