Policing in an Era of Legal Marijuana: Cops' opinions on decriminalization, incarceration & more

A collection of highlights from Police1 and LSU's expansive survey


In March 2020, Police1 and Louisiana State University (LSU) conducted an expansive survey capturing law enforcement attitudes toward marijuana use and enforcement.

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.

Marijuana is on the ballot again this year, with Politico reporting that 1 in 3 Americans could potentially have access to legal recreational pot depending on the results. As the number of states with some form of legal weed increases, the potential impact to police issues ranging from drug-impaired driving to officer hiring and recruitment is immense.

In March 2020, Police1 and Louisiana State University conducted a survey capturing law enforcement attitudes toward marijuana use and enforcement. A total of 3,615 sworn law enforcement officers participated, the largest number of whom serve in a nonsupervisory position (47%), work in a municipal/city agency (58%) and describe their current assignment as law enforcement operations (62%). Those surveyed have a wide range of experience on the job – from one year to over 50 years – and 32% of respondents work in states where recreational marijuana is legal.

From police officers’ opinions on the use of medicinal marijuana off duty to their views on decriminalization, below is a collection of highlights from the survey’s hottest topics. For complete data from the survey, click here.

ATTITUDES TOWARD MARIJUANA USE & ENFORCEMENT

Nearly 60% of survey respondents have never used marijuana, while the largest percentage who have (21%) have done so 1-4 times. In a follow-up question, almost all (97%) said they used marijuana prior to their law enforcement career.

Many of those who took the survey say they either strongly agree (36%) or somewhat agree (37%) that marijuana is less dangerous than other Schedule 1 drugs, but a high number of respondents also strongly agree (48%) or somewhat agree (29%) that weed is a gateway drug.

Do cops believe incarceration is an effective way to reduce marijuana use in society? As you can see, those who disagreed outnumbered respondents who agreed.

Law enforcement attitudes toward LEO use of marijuana in places where it’s legal trended toward disagreement, with 62% strongly disagreeing with the use of recreational marijuana. Medicinal marijuana saw a lower percentage of strongly disagree (43%), but still outnumbered the percentage of answers in the affirmative.

Interestingly, despite our survey takers’ views on incarceration, on the topic of decriminalization, 52% did not think marijuana should be decriminalized in their state.

On the topic of allowing the public to have access to recreational marijuana, 57% were against the policy. Meanwhile, 51% believed it should be legal to have access to medical marijuana.

IMPACT ON WORK

Does legalization have an impact on job duties? The largest share of officers surveyed suggested no, with 37% of officers who work in legal recreational states disagreeing that legalization had allowed them to spend more time focused on other aspects of their job, and a further 17% somewhat disagreeing.

Do officers in states where recreational marijuana is illegal think enforcement of misdemeanor possession is a good use of their time? 25% strongly felt yes, with a further 28% somewhat agreeing.

LEGAL RECREATIONAL STATES VS. ILLEGAL STATES

Here’s a look at the differences between three questions for those working in legal recreational states vs. those working in states where recreational marijuana is still illegal.

1. On the use of Schedule I drugs

In the top chart, respondents were asked how the use of Schedule I drugs by the public has changed since recreational marijuana was legalized. In the bottom chart, respondents in states where recreational weed is still illegal were asked how the use of Schedule I drugs by the public has changed over the past six years.  

As you can see, both charts show the majority saying use of other Schedule I drugs has increased – perhaps unsuprising as the nation continues to grapple with an opioid epidemic – although in legal states the percentage was around 10% lower.

2. On driving under the influence of marijuana

It was a similar story for driving under the influence of marijuana, with both legal and illegal states seeing a significant increase, though much higher in legal states (78% in legal states, 50% in illegal states).

3. On illegal distribution/sale of marijuana

Around 45% of respondents – both in legal and illegal states – said they were seeing an increase in illegal distribution or sale of marijuana in their jurisdictions.

For access to the full survey results, click here.

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