Police and Weed: Do Ex-Cops Hold the Key to Sane Pot Policy?

Cops and cannabis really need to learn how to get along.

In the third season of the HBO series The Wire, Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin legalizes drugs in certain uninhabited portions of Baltimore so the department he leads can focus more on real police work. The radical experiment culminates in a reduction of crime, as well as in the inadvertent creation of health and social services outreach for at-risk populations.

In an attempt to justify his scandalous move, Colvin says:

“This drug thing, this ain't police work. … I can send any fool with a badge and a gun up on them corners and jack a crew and grab vials. But policing? I mean, you call something a war and pretty soon everybody gonna be running around acting like warriors.”

The Wire is revered for its devastating, realistic depiction of the War on Drugs and its failings. The series has been off the air for eight years. Still, the issues it delved into remain more relevant than ever, especially now that 23 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational or medical marijuana, or both.

Legalization of any drug necessitates regulation, something California managed to sidestep for years on end. Despite being the first state to legalize medical cannabis in 1996, it was 19 years later, in late 2015, that the state passed a trio of bills to regulate the substance.

The Golden State’s drawn-out inertia on the issue of medical pot can be attributed to politicians, who, fearing their opinions on marijuana may cost an election, wouldn’t touch the controversial plant with a proverbial 10-foot pole.

For anti-pot crusaders—and there are a lot of them—insult is added to injury by preliminary polling showing 60 percent of Californians favoring the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), a ballot initiative backed by Silicon Valley billionaire Sean Parker calling to legalize weed for adult consumption. 

One problem likely to arise, whether or not the measure passes, is law enforcement making marijuana a stickier issue than it needs to be.

Former Redondo Beach Police officer Diane Goldstein began fighting for reasonable marijuana policy following her retirement from the force. She had served for more than two decades, becoming her department’s first female lieutenant. Her experience in the special investigations unit, where she dealt mainly in narcotics, played a role in her subsequent decision to  join the nonprofit Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). As a LEAP spokesperson, she lectures regularly on the costs of keeping marijuana illegal.

Diane Goldstein, Image via OC Weekly

“We have to realize that criminalizing drug use isn’t going to solve the problem,” she tells The KIND. “Public health strategies are.”

Goldstein likens law enforcement’s pursuit of drug dealers to an “expensive game of whack-a-mole. It didn’t matter how many drug dealers were arrested, more drug dealers would appear.”

The California Narcotics Officers’ Association (CNOA) is outspoken in its distaste for marijuana, medical or otherwise, and is waging a war on the proposed recreational-use law. In 2009, the CNOA published a scathing “white paper” rejecting the assertion that marijuana is medicine. In 2013, CNOA member Seth Cimino disseminated an apparent follow-up. Cimino's "training manual" detailed how officers wishing to subvert the law could arrest people—even patients with legit doctor recommendations—for marijuana-related offenses, and make charges stick.

“Knowing what I know now I’d definitely call this ‘medical marijuana thing’ an epidemic that is infecting our society,” writes Cimino, author of the guide. “This ‘infectious spillover’ is even affecting us [law enforcement]. Think about the fact that the next generation of law enforcement in this state has grown up thinking marijuana is a ‘medicine.’ ”

The KIND attempted to reach out to Cimino on several occasions regarding his manual, but he declined to comment.

In response to the CNOA, Goldstein emphasizes law enforcement’s place within the government. As a part of the executive branch, police are tasked with enforcing established laws, not imaginary ones. The CNOA’s dogmatic stance on pot should serve as a warning to those who indulge in the substance: Just because your doctor is okay with you medicating, it doesn’t mean cops will be.

“Recommendations are basically just doctor’s notes,” says Alexa Steinberg, an attorney at Manzuri Law, a firm specializing in defending against marijuana prosecutions. “Those are not a license or a permit. Those are limited immunity. You can get arrested and get your marijuana taken if you have a card, but in court, the prosecution is supposed to drop it.”

Steinberg's office has seen a surge in marijuana-related arrests lately, presumably due to how commonplace dispensary raids have become.

“When laws start to change … [police] like to flex their muscle,” Steinberg notes. “They like to assert their power, if you will.”

John Lovell, a lobbyist fighting against legalization on behalf of the CNOA, calls California’s medical marijuana laws “a giant con job,” an initiative voters were hoodwinked into passing so people could get legally stoned.

Statistics in general indicate that alcohol is more dangerous than weed. Booze kills around 40,000 people every year in the U.S. alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency doesn’t even have a category for marijuana-related deaths. Lovell asserts that statistics illuminating the elevated risks of alcohol are “absolutely untrue.”

Image via degtyaryov/VSCO

Even if he were to come to terms with the idea that marijuana is relatively harmless, Lovell can’t see the logic in legalizing it; after all, cigarettes and alcohol are already doing enough damage.

“What the hell is progressive about saying, ‘Oh, golly! Let’s bring another substance into the market that impairs judgment’?”

Kevin Sabet, former director of the Drug Policy Institute, who High Times has referred to as “the devil,” co-founded the nonprofit organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana to push back against states relaxing cannabis laws. The group’s rhetoric revolves around the proposition that, if marijuana is made legal, the cannabis industry will morph into the next Big Tobacco and target children with advertisements. When The KIND reached out to SAM to discuss the legalization issue, Jeffrey Zinsmeister, the group’s executive vice president, refused to speak with us because “it would be like commenting on tobacco to Philip Morris.”

Nevertheless, if SAM's objective is to keep pot out of the hands of children, its approach may need some tweaking.

Dale Sky Jones, a former D.A.R.E. member who now chairs the board for the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, believes prohibition fails by keeping pot in the purview of drug dealers, who pay little mind to whether or not a child is a qualified buyer.

Jones contends that the federal government's glacial pace in moving to do the right thing—in this case rescheduling and decriminalizing marijuana—results from its penchant for treating symptoms instead of underlying causes.

“We’re reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline instead of a school-to-college pipeline,” says Jones, who, coincidentally, runs her own educational institution, Oaksterdam University, for those interested in working in the cannabis industry.

The prison-industrial complex’s lobbying arm is one of the most powerful in the country, spending $45 million in 2012 alone to influence policy. The industry tracks off-the-chart profits by putting large numbers of nonviolent offenders behind bars.

Image via Matthias Muller/Flickr

People arrested for substance-related offenses sometimes can escape the prison system, typically by enrolling in drug court. Unfortunately, not everyone caught in possession of illicit substances needs treatment, says Goldstein, the LAPD veteran.

“We make assumptions that every single person that uses drugs is automatically addicted,” she notes. “Most drug use, scientifically, is non-problematic in nature.”

Goldstein is especially unnerved by the fact that addicts who really could benefit from drug court sometimes have problems procuring a spot because of marijuana offenders taking up all the space.

“For serious drug offenders, it has been a far better alternative than prison,” John Roman, a senior analyst at the Urban Institute, told the Los Angeles Times. “The problem is very few people who have those serious problems get into one of these drug courts.”

According to the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), in 2014, out of close to 1.6 million people arrested for drug-law violations, a little more than 700,000 were detained for marijuana offenses, with 88 percent arrested for possession alone. This staggering statistic begs the question: Can law enforcement not find something better to do with its resources?

“We’ve always advocated ending prohibitions as a cost-efficient measure that will save millions and millions and allow law enforcement to go after more serious crimes,” says Armando Gudiño, a policy manager at the DPA. “Nothing out there shows us incarceration curtails drug use or drug sales or anything like that.”

Former Judge Jim Gray, now a libertarian activist working to reform California’s marijuana laws, says he was a drug warrior when working as a prosecutor.

“I believed in [the drug law],” he says. “I hadn’t thought about it that much.”

After becoming a judge, his perspective shifted. The position enabled him to act more as an observer. In 1992, he had an epiphany that the War on Drugs wasn’t working. The rigid laws it called for were not bringing fewer offenders into his courtroom.

When cops arrest lawful medical marijuana patients for possession, Gray says, it’s “an institutional corruption.” He blames the state government for confusing the common sense out of everyone, including cops.

“I issue an indictment against Sacramento,” he says. “The lack of leadership … it’s virtually criminal.”

Gray is frustrated by rape kits collecting dust at police stations, while seized marijuana is sent off to labs to confirm that it is, in fact, marijuana. He says that by keeping pot illegal, the government is providing unsavory individuals with a solid income. If weed was legalized and taxed, it could bring revenues the state could use toward improving everything from education to infrastructure.

“The biggest oxymoron in our world today is the term controlled substances,” he says. “Why? Because as soon as you prohibit a substance, you give up control to the bad guys. That’s a huge problem we’ve inflicted upon ourselves.”