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Why Do Police Really Oppose Marijuana Legalization?

Submitted by smorgan on
The superb efforts of our friends at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition notwithstanding, police generally oppose efforts to reform marijuana laws. Initiatives in Colorado and Nevada were vehemently contested by law-enforcement interests, who claimed that reform would invite crime and undermine community safety. Sheriff Fred Wagner of Park County, CO even tried to link marijuana reform efforts to a recent school shooting.

Intuitively, there's nothing surprising about police lobbying to retain the gratuitous powers granted them by the war on drugs. Yet, as marijuana arrests reach a new record high each year, it becomes increasingly difficult to point towards any societal benefit to these costly attacks on otherwise law-abiding Americans. Because I believe most officers really do want to protect the communities they serve and make a difference, I have often pondered their willful enforcement of, and political support for, a war that endangers communities while failing to a make a difference.

I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to learn that Joplin, MO Police Chief Lane Roberts has pledged not to oppose a local marijuana decriminalization initiative. Roberts correctly defines his role as defending the constitution rather than opining on what the law ought to be. But he goes on to explain that officers sometimes overreact to policy changes that reduce police authority:
When asked how his officers had reacted to the decriminalization of pot possession in Oregon and in Washington State where he previously headed up departments, Roberts reclined in his office chair and smiled.

"When that law was first passed, most police officers thought that the end of the world as we know it was about to occur," he said. "But, we thought the same thing when the Miranda decision came down." [Joplin Globe]

Miranda is such a wonderful analogy for law-enforcement's knee-jerk assumption that any restriction on police power will invite pure chaos. The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Miranda v. Arizona that police must inform criminal suspects of their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination before conducting interrogations provoked panic among police. Murderers and rapists would go free, we were told, and crimes of the most despicable nature would become unsolvable.

The result was nothing of the sort. Police simply became more professional. It turned out that the freakiest psycho killers still insisted on confessing their misdeeds, while the rest got taken down through good old-fashioned police work. "You have the right to remain silent…" has become a popular and familiar symbol of due process, and the horror show predicted by law enforcement has been long forgotten.

The point here is that it was the experts, the interrogation specialists themselves, who were so wrong about Miranda. Today, when police speak out against marijuana reform, they are motivated not by experience at all, but rather a fear of the unknown. Indeed, today's officers simply have no real frame of reference for what law-enforcement in a post-drug war America would look like.

I'm optimistic, however, that whatever our friends at LEAP can't explain to their colleagues will ultimately find a way to explain itself. Inevitably, the truth about drug policy reform will become self-evident each and every time it is given the opportunity to do so.

Update: I've posted a follow-up to emphasize the important point that a significant number of police officers actually do realize the drug war isn't working and continue to fight it anyway

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