California Cops Go To Pot
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
After decades of trying to make it go away, last month two California law enforcement agencies acknowledged that marijuana is a fact of life.
First, the California Highway Patrol announced that they would no longer confiscate marijuana from patients whose physicians have recommended it as medicine. The CHP reversed its policy after Attorney General Bill Lockyer defended California's Proposition 215, the medical marijuana initiative, which voters passed by a large margin in 1996.
Last spring, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Raich v. Ashcroft that federal marijuana laws trump state laws like Prop 215, leaving California's thousands of medical marijuana patients at risk of federal prosecution. But Lockyer ruled that while the feds might arrest people on the basis of federal law, California voters had spoken and the Supreme Court decision did not invalidate 215. Citing his decision, the CHP took the courageous step of announcing that absent other offenses they will leave medical marijuana patients alone.
The next day, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it will no longer automatically screen out job applicants who have used marijuana. The LAPD has a long history of enthusiasm for the war on drugs (former Chief Daryl Gates once said that all drug users "should be taken out and shot"), and it relies on federal drug war funds. So this small step showed a certain amount of courage, too.
Obviously, the LAPD is not looking to hire current drug users. Its new policy simply acknowledges the fact that nearly 100 million Americans have used marijuana, 25 million of them in the past year, according to the latest federal government survey. The department deserves credit for recognizing that it is simply unrealistic to rule out a huge swath of the population solely for having once engaged in a common form of drug use that is considered normal in many conventional segments of society.
Of course, ardent prohibitionists and pundits will claim that these actions by the Attorney General, the CHP and the LAPD "send the wrong message" and that "flakey" California is going to pot. Is there any reason to worry that these steps will somehow signal moral laxity and encourage marijuana use?
The evidence is reassuring. In the 1970s, the Netherlands effectively decriminalized marijuana use. Thirty years later, the Dutch have tightly regulated, tax-paying shops that sell small amounts of marijuana to adults, while last year the U.S. arrested over 600,000 Americans for mere possession of it. Yet national surveys show that the prevalence of marijuana use in the Netherlands has remained about half that in the U.S.
In fact, there has never been a clear relationship between policy and use levels. In the 1970s, 11 U.S. states sharply reduced penalties for marijuana possession. Some people predicted the collapse of civilization, but follow-up studies showed that none of these states experienced any more drug use or drug problems than neighboring states that retained harsh penalties.
In 2004, England reclassified cannabis use as a minor offense. Last week the U.K. Department of Health reported that its annual survey of over 9,000 youth found cannabis use had declined since the reclassification.
The same is true in the U.S. The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that illicit drug use among youth (most of it marijuana), was down in 2004. Indeed, marijuana use declined in each of the 10 states that have passed medical marijuana laws -- including California, where use among youth was down more than in other states without such laws.
It is increasingly clear that neither reducing criminal penalties for marijuana use nor allowing medical marijuana lead to increased use. In short, the "wrong message" approach sends the wrong message. No one wants more young people smoking anything. But a moral crusade against marijuana that denies sick and dying people a medicine they and their doctors have found therapeutic is not only bad medicine but bad morals. California voters said this in 1996, and California law enforcement officials are wisely saying this now.
Some will criticize California for its leadership on drug policy reform. But Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis long ago recognized that the individual states were vital "laboratories of democracy" where needed experiments in public policy could be conducted. With all the criticism directed at government these days, it seems only fair to notice when public officials take measured steps toward positive change.
Craig Reinarman is professor of sociology and legal studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Marsha Rosenbaum is director of the San Francisco Office of the Drug Policy Alliance.