P1 Research: The marijuana conundrum in law enforcement

The promise of less crime and calls for service that would accompany legalization of marijuana remains unfulfilled


In March 2020, Police1 and Louisiana State University (LSU) conducted an expansive survey capturing law enforcement attitudes toward marijuana use and enforcement. A total of 3,615 sworn LEOs weighed in on a range of topics, from the use of medicinal marijuana off duty to decriminalization. 

Our special report features expert analysis of the survey findings, covering critical topics like police recruit marijuana use and how marijuana legalization impacts highway safety. Click here to access all our coverage.

In March 2020, 3,615 sworn officers participated in an online survey, a joint project between Police1 and Louisiana State University (LSU), regarding attitudes to marijuana and responses to marijuana issues among active members of law enforcement agencies.

The quantitative survey used a Likert scale with specific and limited answers and did not allow for qualitative comments. It is important to note that officers were queried at large and small departments, in states with both legal and illegal laws regarding marijuana. In the end, roughly all law enforcement professionals answered along the same lines, whether from a large or small agency.

Results from the survey focus on issues surrounding recruitment, driving impairment issues, attitudes and drug use by active officers. Some of the answers were predictable while others were surprising. It should be noted that not all of the questions were answered by all who took the poll. In some cases, qualified answers only numbered roughly 400 to 1400 or so respondents.

Results from P1/LSU survey focus on issues surrounding recruitment, driving impairment issues, attitudes and drug use by active officers. (Photo/Getty Images)
Results from P1/LSU survey focus on issues surrounding recruitment, driving impairment issues, attitudes and drug use by active officers. (Photo/Getty Images)

View the full results of the survey here.

Qualifying questions determined that the majority of the respondents (57.6%) currently serve at a municipal agency at a city police department or sheriff’s office.

The majority of those surveyed had from three to 25 years of service. The most (61.60%) serve in law enforcement operations, followed by nearly 18% in investigations and intelligence. Nearly 33% have or currently serve in a narcotics unit or division.

Almost 32% of those who responded to the survey were from states with legal marijuana statutes (Alaska, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, or Washington state).

Personal Drug Use History

Regarding the question of “How many occasions have you used marijuana or any derivatives containing THC…” close to 60% responded “zero” occasions. This was a staggering percentage that surprised me and made me proud at the same moment. Of those remaining who said they had partaken in marijuana use, only 3.49% said they had ingested marijuana or a derivative during their active career.

As someone attempting to interpret the research, I know that those taking anonymous surveys rarely are deceitful, and I felt a sense of pride and renewed faith in my fellow crime-fighters as I read through the results. I believe that active-duty personnel understand the enormity of their duty and their requirement to be clear-headed in carrying out their duties.

In other careers, it may not be dangerous to partake in marijuana, on or off duty, but with the knowledge of the unpredictability of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the system, coupled with the powers of arrest and use of force, the majority of law enforcement professionals take their jobs and duties seriously.

The possibility of impaired driving, through on- or off-duty marijuana use, combined with long hours, fatigue and lack of sleep, is a recipe for disaster. In addition to simulations involving acute drivers under the influence of marijuana showed impairment similar to alcohol use, even residual effects have been shown in recreational users. Certainly, most officers are aware that “this isn’t your high school weed.” THC levels have noticeably increased in potency over the last few decades, with further refinement in the form of derivatives such as edibles and “Honey Oil” estimated to have THC at 40% to 80% higher in these concentrated forms

Cannabidiol or CBD is a chemical compound derivative of the cannabis sativa or marijuana plant. It is being heavily marketed for many uses beyond recreational use, often cited as a supplement to help with pain relief, in both topical and ingested forms, ranging from creams, powders, gummies and oils, to ingredients to be ingested in coffee drinks and workout smoothies.

The World Health Organization (WHO) cautions that side-effects of CBD can include “nausea, fatigue and irritability.” Although technically legal in states with legal marijuana, CBD technically remains on the Schedule 1 of drugs from a federal perspective.

Nearly 90% of law enforcement respondents to the Police1/LSU survey indicated they had not ingested CBD products.

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Of the 390 who answered a follow-up question, nearly 85% (84.87%) indicated they had used the CBD forms during their law enforcement career.

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This may be interpreted that officers are suspicious of CBD proponents heralding the substance as a wonder drug and of the claim that there is no THC present in CBD products. In fact, there have been cases reported by the New York Times, that some common drug tests had identified CBD as THC levels. 

Attitudes Toward Marijuana and Enforcement

Although more than 73% of officers who answered (3606) agreed that marijuana is less dangerous than the other federally illegal Schedule 1 drugs such as heroin, LSD, ecstasy, Quaaludes and peyote, an even higher percent (no pun intended) of 78% opined that marijuana is a gateway drug to other drug use.

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Still, more than 63% disagreed with the incarceration of marijuana users as effective in reducing marijuana violations and use.

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Moreover, 75% disagreed with the idea that law enforcement professionals should be able to partake in marijuana use, even in states where consumption is “legal.” Along the same lines, 59% did not believe that even medicinal marijuana use should be allowed by law enforcement officers, even in states where it was allowed. It is, therefore, not surprising that approximately 82% agreed that random drug screening for THC presence in law enforcement professionals is appropriate.

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These attitudes coincide with the fact that more than 90% answered that recreational marijuana was prohibited by their departments and more than 82% said that medical marijuana use was prohibited by their departments.

These large percentages show that new and old professionals abide by their own department rules. Anecdotally, I have heard from several retired law enforcement officers that even in “legal states” they would not consume marijuana or derivatives after all their years of arresting offenders usually for sales or trafficking of marijuana.

Decriminalization Attitudes

In answering survey questions regarding decriminalization, those surveyed were split.

When asked if decriminalizing marijuana should be done in their state, 51% answered “no” whether by those in either “legal” or non-legal states; 51% from both “legal” and non-legal states agreed that the medicinal variety should be legalized.

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When asked if recreational marijuana should be sold similar to alcohol in regulated distribution, again both “legal” and non-legal state officers said no to such accessibility.

Anecdotally, the reluctance to accept or normalize marijuana use and sales may be met with suspicion based on previous promises made by marijuana advocates for legalization. Early promises in the push for legalization suggested that marijuana would only be allowed for personal use and not allowed in public places or vehicles.

Law enforcement professionals in both states where marijuana use is permitted or still considered illegal said public use is more commonplace. Open use is seen in vehicles, parks and other public places.  Fear may be that further normalization would only worsen the problems associated with public use, already encountered.

Post-Legalization Changes

When asked if other Schedule 1 drug activity had increased over the previous six years, the “legal” states overwhelmingly (98%) agreed that use of the other drugs such as heroin, LSD, ecstasy, Quaaludes and peyote had “stayed the same or increased.” In non-legal states, the same observation was made with similar results.

Driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) seemed to remain the same or increase by a combination of over 96% in both categories of states.

Not surprisingly, marijuana possession rose considerably in both states’ categories, as did illegal distribution, with legal states noting a rise between 40% and 60%. In non-legal states, both large and small agencies noted an approximately 40% rise in illegal distribution.

In states where recreational marijuana has been “legalized” at the state level, a slight majority of officers did not report responding to calls for assistance at marijuana dispensaries. The same split was seen in response to the medical marijuana dispensaries.

In response to the question of whether the legalization of marijuana allowed officers to spend more focus on other aspects of their job, most disagreed. It can be interpreted that the promise of less crime and calls for service that would accompany the legalization of marijuana remains unfulfilled.

Conclusion

There are several positive takeaways from the survey:

Policing is a noble profession, inhabited by good men and women.

In the current climate of those who would attempt to gaslight the profession, with attempts to vilify and tarnish, the majority have virtues many of those on the outside do not understand. The federal standard remains that marijuana continues to remain on Schedule 1, atop the list of prohibited drugs and substances, along with addictive and harmful hallucinogens.

Despite attempts to normalize, decriminalize and legalize the drug, the majority of law enforcement professionals recognize the harm and hypocrisy associated with the use of marijuana.

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