Monday, November 30, 2009

Save our Police Budgets: Legalize and Tax Marijuana

The following article appeared in the November 2009 issue of Blue Line (Canada's national law enforcement magazine). It was titled "Save our Police Budgets: Legalize and Tax Marijuana." This is my second article in Blue Line. The first one was published in June and it was titled The Failure of Drug Prohibition: A Law Enforcement Perspective. In this new essay I am using some of the arguments promoted by SAFER (ie. marijuana is safer than alcohol, so why are we driving people to drink?). If you like this article please Digg it!

Save our Police Budgets: Legalize and Tax Marijuana

Michael Klimm raised a number of excellent points in his letter published in the August issue of Blue Line. Although he argued against legalizing and regulating drugs, several of his statements were compatible with drug policy reform. First, he acknowledged the status quo is not working. Second, he stated that the damage caused by tobacco - a dangerous but legal substance - has been reduced through education. Third, he asserted the best way to tackle organized crime is to remove the profit motive from the black market. Finally, he emphasized that the legalization and regulation of drugs has not yet been tried anywhere in the world. With these key points in mind, perhaps it is time for a new approach?

Marijuana policy would be a good place to begin as 53 percent of the population supported legalization in a 2008 Angus Reid poll. Approximately 44 percent of Canadians have used cannabis at some point in their lives according to the Canadian Addiction Survey. Despite heavy enforcement, it remains the largest illegal drug market in the country with over two million citizens using cannabis on a recreational basis. A legal and regulated cannabis market would therefore eliminate the majority of all domestic drug trafficking in Canada.

Marijuana is not a benign substance, but it is substantially safer than alcohol. Assaults against peace officers, sexual assaults and incidents of domestic violence are frequently traced back to liquor consumption but rarely to cannabis consumption. Many of us know friends or colleagues whose personal and professional lives were ruined through alcohol abuse. Upstanding citizens have committed terrible crimes while drunk, and yet Canadians remain legally bound to abstain from using marijuana. It is time to present the public with a safer, legal alternative to alcohol.

Unfortunately, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police / Canadian Police Association joint resolution on drug abuse in 2002 insisted on the status quo. Now, seven years later, federal, provincial and municipal governments are broke. Police organizations are facing budget cuts, although leaders in law enforcement can still increase the long term financial health of their respective agencies by supporting an end to marijuana prohibition. It is the least painful concession to make, especially compared to wage rollbacks, hiring freezes and training cutbacks.

Critics might point to the Netherlands and offer anecdotal reports of a failed drug policy, but the facts show otherwise. The country adopted de facto decriminalization in 1976. Adults can buy personal amounts of marijuana in licensed outlets known as cannabis coffee shops. Alcohol is banned in the coffee shops and advertising is prohibited. Overall the system works well, although one problem is that the actual production and distribution of marijuana remains illegal. Organized crime is still involved in that part of the industry which is why it is important for Canada to legalize the entire supply chain.

The Netherlands has a cumulative lifetime incidence of cannabis use that is half that of the United States (19.4% versus 42.4%). Its cumulative incidence of cocaine use is one eighth that of the United States (1.9% versus 16.2%) according to data from the World Mental Health Surveys as compiled by the World Health Organization. The United States uses a tough justice approach with drug offenders, and yet per capita drug use rates, overdose deaths and HIV infections are significantly lower in the Netherlands. Why is this?

It appears the Netherlands’ tolerant attitude toward drugs has reduced the forbidden fruit effect. There is nothing rebellious about smoking marijuana in Amsterdam. In addition, they have separated the cannabis market from other drugs. Cashiers in the coffee shops don't lace marijuana with crystal meth or give away free samples of cocaine. In contrast, Canadians face a multitude of dangers when purchasing marijuana on our city streets.

At the end of the day, it is easy to look into our past and determine which social policies were just and effective. For example, contraception was legalized forty years ago with the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1968-1969. Prior to the Act it was illegal to advertise or sell condoms or other forms of birth control. The Pill was only prescribed to women who needed help regulating their menstrual cycle. In other words, it could only be used for medicinal purposes. (Does this kind of language sound familiar?) Today, few officers could imagine using criminal law to prevent the sale of birth control pills, in spite of their harmful side effects.

It is more difficult to look forty years into the future and consider how our children and our grandchildren will judge our actions as law enforcement officers. Institutional inertia is not a good enough reason to maintain a prohibition on marijuana or any other drug. Regulating cannabis would provide a safer alternative to alcohol, eliminate most domestic drug trafficking, generate tax revenue, free up police resources and reduce abuse by young people.

What are we waiting for?

David Bratzer is a police officer in British Columbia, Canada, and he also manages the blog for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition ( The opinions expressed in his essay are entirely his own.


  1. Great piece David, you hit several very important points. I'd be interested to hear what sort of reaction a piece like this receives from within the law enforcement community.

  2. If I had to sum up the reaction in two words, I would describe it as: mostly apathetic. Blue Line has a circulation of 12,000 and a monthly readership of 55,000. The magazine is found in the lunch rooms of police stations all over the country, and yet I don't think I got a single email about this article from a police officer. Frankly, I think that drug policy is something that many officers don't care about, at least not strongly enough to get involved in the issue.

    That said, I'm sure it generated some conversation around the water cooler...

  3. Crud, still having the computer problems. Will be getting a new one, hopefully after the insanity of the holidays are over.
    Wanted to say thank you for writing such a wonderful and honest article David. Thank you for taking the time to do so, thank you for your continued efforts. Thank you for being here.

  4. Sadly a 17 year old was shot in the head this evening while he and the UHP officer wrestled. The gun allegedly belonged to the 17 year old. The kid is dead. The "trooper" said he smelled marijuana.

  5. KSL5 in Utah, the second news station I watched this evening said the 17 year old is in critical condition. The news casters also said the kid shot himself in the head after trying to run away from the UHP "officer". Both stations, KSL5 and Fox13 in Utah said "the officer smelled marijuana".
    Now maybe you can understand why I only want to be active in discussing ending this horrible war on drugs.

  6. Frankly, I think that drug policy is something that many officers don't care about

    Interesting, particularly given the nearly constant (outside of LEAP!) prohibitionist tilt that statements by officers or umbrella organizations usually take in media stories. Why would your average officer on the street be largely indifferent about whether people are getting high in the privacy of their own homes, while these "law enforcement organizations" and their figureheads constantly rail on about the dangers of a drug as innoccuous as marijuana? Why the disconnect?

    It's sort of counterintuitive, but I think that police officers -- those outside of administrative roles, anyway -- are some of our strongest potential allies. I'm not particularly familiar with the world of policing, but most cops I've met seem to have a strong pragmatist streak. Maybe it's partly due to desensitization, but they seem to care less about what is "morally right", and more about what is the least dangerous outcome. Given that set of priorities, perhaps it's simply a matter of showing more and more folks that ending the drug war is truly the most practical and pragmatic solution possible for the "drug problem".

    Which brings us back to your piece -- I think it's a great thing that viewpoints like this are starting to at least be voiced properly from within the law enforcement community. Please keep up the great work!

  7. Great and courageous piece.

    While there is much to be criticised in the public demonstrations of the "pot counter-culture", the real casual pot smoker is so 'normal' as to defy indentification. He's the boy next door, the gal in the next cubicle at the office, the bus driver etc. etc.

    It is through the vocal concerns of these citizens, the vast majority of whom are respected, contributing memebers of society, that the real change will be accomplished.

    Their silence is almost traitorous in effect though understandable. They fear the censure of family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. They know the dominant forces in society would strip them of their cherished freedoms and castigate them mercilessly, if they 'came out' of the closet.

    While I don't blame them I suggest that a wholesale crush of closet smokers stepping up to the plate would put the issue to rest. If 4 or 5 of 10 people in a room stand up and say, "I smoke pot or have smoked it and I am just fine", the anti-decrim movement would look very diminished.

    Please people. If you enjoy the benefits of marijuana, but refuse to risk your lives by insisting on remaining anonymous, how do you feel every time someones life is destroyed by the legal system for simple possession. Don't you think that knot in your gut is telling you something?

    Either quit smoking, or stand up and lend your voice to the weight of those like this law enforcer who found his conscience.

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