"The law is doing more harm than the substance," Hager argues. "Marijuana has many medical benefits and legalization will allow a very inexpensive medicine to be more widely prescribed. We are arresting over 800,000 people a year for marijuana, mostly for possession. Freeing the justice system from this load will allow police and courts to concentrate on more important issues."
Some are also in favor of legalizing marijuana, and the most vocal have organized to promote their cause.
Founded in March 2002, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) is currently made up of 12,000 current and former members of the law enforcement and criminal justice communities. The organization says its purpose is to "speak out about the failures of our existing drug policies. Those policies have failed, and continue to fail, to effectively address the problems of drug abuse, especially the problems of juvenile drug use, the problems of addiction, and the problems of crime caused by the existence of a criminal black market in drugs."
Jack Cole, executive director of LEAP, sees the war on marijuana as a "waste," one that has cost taxpayers more than a trillion tax dollars, resulted in 37 million arrests for non-violent drug offenses, and will cost U.S. taxpayers another $69 billion this year. Cole says that despite all the resources committed and lives impacted, illicit drugs are cheaper, more potent, and far easier to get than they were when the drug war began.
"We're not advocating decriminalization of drugs—that still leaves the black market. We're trying to get drugs legalized," Cole says. He points to decriminalization successes in Switzerland, Spain, and Portugal to support his argument for legalizing all drugs, not just weed.
Because the public now see marijuana as relatively benign and have pushed for legislation to decriminalize and quasi-legalize its use, officers tasked with enforcing marijuana law must navigate an increasingly confusing maze of statutes that cover marijuana use, possession, and sale. Even when enforcement is made by way of an arrest, it can be offset by a lack of prosecution.
Kansas City, Mo., police officer Brian Karman tries to be objective.
"I do not feel jaded nor do I have a defeatist attitude," Karman notes. "But the only impact that I have seen from the 'war on drugs' is that it has driven up the street price on said drugs. When large shipments of narcotics are intercepted by the Border Patrol or DEA or we in a local enforcement effort seize a substantial amount of weed, coke, or meth, the only effect I have seen is an increase in the price the end user pays on the street. The drug trade is a great example of capitalism at its best or worst, however you choose to look at it."
And here's a head scratcher facing many California officers: What are we supposed to do when a crime is committed against a legal medical marijuana co-op, essentially a marijuana dealer?
Sgt. André Belotto of the Los Angeles Police Department recently responded to a report of an assault suspect holding people at gunpoint inside the offices of a business called "Westchester Collective." After determining the suspects had fled, Belotto discovered what Westchester Collective was all about.
"It was a medical marijuana store," Belotto explains. "It had everything: counters, price lists on the wall, pipes and bongs on the shelves, copies of High Times magazine on the coffee tables, and that unmistakable aroma of marijuana."
Belotto notes that whatever one's stance on the marijuana debate, cops will continue to have a vested interest in monitoring its legality and sales.
"Businesses like these are becoming more attractive than banks for the gangsters," Belotto says. "Imagine hitting a cash-only business, with pounds of packaged marijuana on the shelves to boot. What a treasure for a robber. It's no wonder these types of businesses are becoming targets of take-over-style robberies—we've had several incidents already."