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Legalizing Marijuana: Chronic Confusion

Is marijuana becoming legal? If so, what does that mean to American law enforcement?

June 01, 2009  |  by - Also by this author

The prospect of the decriminalization of marijuana continues to be a polarizing concept as detractors portray the drug as a sensory altering substance that will send its users on a downward spiral to hell and advocates see it possessing all manner of medicinal and therapeutic applications.

Neither as dangerous or benign as either side would have one believe, marijuana is the most abused narcotic in the country and, even if its supporters are not winning the war, they have at least made inroads. Certainly, marijuana does not retain the stigma it did decades ago when even small amounts were enough to constitute a felony and an incarcerated Robert Mitchum took his lumps for smoking the "wacky tobacky."

The public is now sending the message to law enforcement that it doesn't want strict enforcement of marijuana laws.

This past winter when Olympic hero Michael Phelps was photographed taking a hit off of a bong, the public kind of responded so-what. The South Carolina sheriff in whose jurisdiction the crime occurred proclaimed that he would make an example of the Gold Medal swimmer. But the public's prevailing attitude was one of "let it drop." The sheriff eventually abandoned his pursuit of Phelps. Although the Olympian paid a penalty in lost endorsements, he was not prosecuted.

Public campaigns against marijuana find themselves targets of derision: When one hockey team's stadium decided to host a "Just Say No" night, Sports Illustrated greeted the promotion with little more than a sarcastic speculation ("No doubt the place will be jumping").

The last three U.S. presidents have smoked grass or used other illegal drugs. That makes selling the public on the dangers of "reefer madness" much more daunting. Even many police departments no longer consider marijuana "experimentation" as a hiring deal-breaker.

Not surprisingly, all of this subtle and not-so-subtle grass smoking by the rich and powerful has led to mixed signals on the enforcement front. Some anticipated that the Obama administration would take a laissez-faire approach when it came to federal enforcement of marijuana laws, yet what's coming out of Washington is just plain confusing. Federal authorities have been told not to raid medical marijuana disbursement centers that are legal in some states, except under certain conditions. So at least six disbursement centers have been raided—under protest of their illegality.

On the local level, nearly half of the nation's states and major municipalities have decriminalized non-medical marijuana, with some penalties such as civil fines or drug treatment imposed in lieu of criminal prosecution. Other states continue interdiction efforts, and they order their officers to bust users for possession.

Looking the Other Way

It would appear that law enforcement's efforts are—much like public sentiment on the matter—ambivalent at best.

Indeed, the sheer tonnage of narcotics regularly smuggled into this country suggests that we only catch the dumbest of the dumb when it comes to possession or under-the-influence arrests. Cops know that the flow of marijuana is not in any danger of being interdicted.

Cops also know that they can't really enforce the laws against marijuana use the way they might want to. Any number of officers working security at special event venues (e.g., the Grammys, the Emmys, the Oscars, etc.) can attest to the number of under-the-influence celebrities they are expected to turn a blind eye to. And how else does one explain the relatively few arrests of wealthy citizens in a nation that supports illegal narcotics to the tune of an estimated $65 billion a year?

If we really wanted to arrest drug users, it would be very easy to do so. Just like you could round up illegal aliens outside of any Home Depot or Lowe's, you could easily haul away a lot of stoners by hitting a Phish concert. That's exactly what the Hampton (Va.) Police Department decided to do this year, and it was ridiculed by many people for playing dirty.

Caught in the Middle

Steve Hager, creative director of High Times, a lifestyle magazine for marijuana users, sees cops as being caught in the middle.

"I respect law enforcement and any intelligent person knows we need law enforcement," Hager says. "I do not blame law enforcement for any laws [they have to enforce]. The police are trapped in a nightmare over these laws, and many police do not support marijuana prohibition.

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Comments (1)

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ducotegw @ 7/30/2009 11:39 PM

Eventually in many cities it could be come legal, but fact is DUI will still remain

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