If cannabis is legal at the state level, can police use cannabis? In this post, we’ll examine how law enforcement officers’ opinions of cannabis have changed in recent years and how different law enforcement agencies in states where cannabis is legal have embraced or rejected consumption among their own officers.
For decades, law enforcement in the United States engaged in a wide-reaching crackdown on cannabis growing and consumption that devastated communities across the country, often targeting people of color and fueling mass incarceration that has drawn criticism from members of both major political parties.
With the failed War on Drugs drawing to a relative close (at least in relation to cannabis), a small number of police officers have taken a more positive view towards cannabis — if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, as the saying goes. Still, based on the limited data available, it’s apparent that many police officers still hold negative beliefs on cannabis and generally oppose legalization.
Very few studies have been conducted to examine how legalization has impacted police officers’ perceptions of cannabis, and there appear to be significant differences between individual officers’ opinions based on geographic location and the specifics of local laws.
A 2022 study using a relatively large sample size of 92 officers from 35 agencies across Washington State (where cannabis is legal) and Idaho (where cannabis remains illegal) found that many officers — especially “those working in larger urban areas,” — favor cannabis legalization as it was implemented through Washington’s I-502 bill.
The most prominent concerns expressed by the interviewed officers were in regard to the potential for increased youth consumption (the rate for which has been consistent with illegal states, suggesting that legalization didn’t play a major role) and cannabis-impaired driving (which researchers have suggested might have more to do with the specifics of legalization laws and other factors rather than legalization itself).
Still, another study available demonstrates that at least some police officers continue to carry negative views about cannabis and legalization.
A 2020 dissertation published by UMass Global, which drew on interviews with eight officers from the Denver, Colorado police department and eight officers from the Larimer County, Colorado sheriff’s department, uncovered views rife with cynicism towards public opinion and out-of-date perceptions about cannabis consumers.
For example, 37% of the interviewed officers stated that they “feel the only reason the state legalized recreational cannabis is for the tax revenue it generates for the state,” and 40% stated they “believe that Amendment 64 [the bill which legalized cannabis in Colorado] was designed to override how people view legalization by changing their perception of marijuana.”
The dissertation author also highlights a theme in which 40% of the interviewed officers stated a belief that the legalization of cannabis in Colorado led to an increase in burglaries — a claim refuted by a formal study conducted by The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice and the Colorado Department of Public Safety.
Notably, neither study asked officers whether they consume cannabis themselves or whether they believe off-duty consumption would negatively impact an officer’s on-duty performance.
Whether police officers can or cannot consume cannabis is typically determined not just by local laws, but also by the policies of their specific agency — even when those policies conflict with local laws. In fact, a state or other locality’s policies might not actually protect police officers who consume cannabis.
A recent dispute between four officers from New Jersey who were fired for off-duty cannabis use despite a memo from the state’s attorney general explicitly allowing off-duty consumption showcases how law enforcement agencies are reckoning with legalization after years of making cannabis-related arrests.
Under New Jersey law, no employer in the state can fire or otherwise discipline an employee because of a positive drug test for cannabis. According to the AG, this policy should be extended to law enforcement officers as well.
The first of the four officers was reinstated in late August 2023 after being fired in January of the same year, while the remaining three cases have yet to come before the state’s Civil Service Commission. In her decision, the judge overseeing the case determined that state law should be prioritized over federal law when it comes to labor practices regarding cannabis, the New Jersey Monitor reports.
The New York Police Department, the nation’s largest local law enforcement agency, briefly allowed off-duty cannabis consumption before walking back its policy in a moment of tension with the city’s Law Department. Under New York State law, public and private sector employers are not allowed to test employees for cannabis and cannot use a positive drug test as justification for disciplinary action against an employee. Some exceptions are included in the law for jobs that involve a lot of driving which, arguably, could include on-duty NYPD officers.
Despite those legal protections, one officer filed suit against the department and claimed he was forced into retirement due to his use of medical cannabis, which he says was approved by an NYPD doctor. Another officer brought legal action against the department after being fired over a positive drug test for cannabis, arguing that the test’s outcome wasn’t the result of cannabis consumption but of having used Dr. Bronner’s hemp soap.
In both conflicts above, as well as in others, disputes over whether police can use cannabis, those attempting to enforce an anti-cannabis policy against police officers cite a federal law prohibiting gun owners from using cannabis.
“Right now, it remains illegal for anyone who uses marijuana to own a firearm,” James Shea, the public safety director for Jersey City, told the Monitor regarding his support for the officer’s firing. “By my reading of my federal law, they’re telling me to commit a crime. And they can’t make me commit a crime.”
In a legal brief, the attorney representing the fired officer argued that New Jersey police officers don’t need federal approval, “so even if a Jersey City police officer lost their federal firearms license, they could still lawfully carry their weapons on duty,” according to the Monitor. This first case’s outcome may now serve as precedent for future disputes — at least in New Jersey — including the remaining three fired officers from the Garden State.
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