Moral panic from the Guardians of the Peace

Some of Vermont’s top cops made their way to the Statehouse yesterday to try to derail
the marijuana-legalization train. Their input is certainly worth considering, but they kinda made a hash of it.

Their reasoning, in short:

— Eliminating the marijuana law will create substantially more work for law enforcement.

— Police don’t really enforce marijuana laws now, but legalization will trigger a cascade of problems.

— Law enforcement’s top priority is opioids, and legalizing marijuana will somehow compromise that effort.

Makes my head spin. Without a single toke, even.

The top cops’ bottom line: If you legalize pot, you’d better give us more money.

Pardon me if I don’t see the connection.

Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn asserted that “legalization could be a big drain on Vermont’s law enforcement resources.” Emphasize “could.” And then he acknowledged that police don’t spend much time fighting pot.

He said the state does not treat marijuana as a major issue, instead concentrating on the opiate epidemic.

As well it should. But if the police are basically letting everyone smoke ‘em if they got ‘em, then how is it that legalization would increase their workload? They’re not doing much now; they’d do even less if pot becomes legal.

Well, there’s the question of the black market. But that’s a matter of properly designing the legal marketplace. Besides, right now the “black market” is roughly one hundred percent of marijuana sales. Legalization will cut that down by quite a bit: if a legal option is available, most people will take advantage of it — unless they get their jollies by meeting their dealer in a dark alley. Gets your buzz on before you even light up.

And then there’s the chimera of rampant DUI. State police Col. Matt Birmingham warned that “state police are not staffed to be able to accommodate an increase in impaired drivers.” But how many more impaired drivers would there be? Lots of people smoke pot already. More will partake if it’s fully legal, of course; but will there be an explosion of DUIs?

The scientific research on driving while high is much less definitive than our Men In Blue would have you believe.

Epidemiological studies have been inconclusive regarding whether cannabis use causes an increased risk of accidents; in contrast, unanimity exists that alcohol use increases crash risk.

… Although cognitive studies suggest that cannabis use may lead to unsafe driving, experimental studies have suggested that it can have the opposite effect. Epidemiological studies have themselves been inconsistent, and thus have not resolved the question.

That’s from a 2009 review of the scientific literature published in The American Journal on Addictions.

I don’t mean to dismiss the concerns of law enforcement. But it seems clear that the potential harm from legalization is speculative, while the actual harm of prohibition is right here, right now, and much greater.

Among many other things, it muddies the waters on opioids. On the one hand, marijuana is “illegal” and lumped in with the really bad stuff; on the other, society has adopted a wink-and-a-nod approach to pot. If we legalized marijuana, thus putting it in a class with alcohol, caffeine, and sugar, then we’d be sending a clearer message on hard drugs. That sort of clarity would be an asset to the law enforcement community.

Elsewhere in their testimony, law enforcement officials basically threw everything against the wall in hopes that something would stick. Former Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling warned of the burdens “not only of highway safety but educational outcomes and health care costs as well.” Again, all speculative. And fearmongering. (He forgot the coming plague of littering, thanks to buzzed drivers carelessly tossing their Fourth Meal wrappers out the window).

Birmingham complained of the “beyond frenzied” pace of the legalization effort. Which, yes, in Vermont it has suddenly approached critical mass. But hell, there’s been a broad-based, substantial legalization movement in America for at least four decades. It was way back in 1972 when the first American city (Ann Arbor, represent!) decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. “Frenzied pace,” indeed.

The views of the law enforcement community should be heard with respect. But in the end, they are the enforcers, not the policymakers. It’s like considering military input on a global hotspot: you can listen to them, but in the end, civilian leadership makes the call. In the end, the military salutes and carries out its orders.

4 thoughts on “Moral panic from the Guardians of the Peace

  1. NanuqFC

    The cynical might suggest an underlying reason or two for law enforcement resistance. Laws enforced with at a “wink-and-a-nod” level can always be pulled out of a back pocket for use against a person targeted through racial or other bias and used to threaten a “suspect” into agreeing to a warrantless search of a vehicle to look for other banned substances. Then there’s the division of the spoils of arrests awarded to the arresting agency via the federal government (which still considers marijuana the drug enforcement equal to opioids).

    And of course neither of these reasons were mentioned by the testifying lawmen, right?

  2. nortryder

    I wish they would hurry and legalize it so I can get high and drive around under the influence. What strange logic. And nothing to base it on. I agree with NanuqFC. The cops have always had ulterior motives, ask J Edgar. Oh by the way Prohibition was a failure, but it did make Capone a rich man.

  3. Walter Carpenter

    Well, there’s the question of the black market. But that’s a matter of properly designing the legal marketplace.”

    I sat in on the house judiciary committee today when they heard testimony from Colorado, where marijuana was made legal by the wish of the voters. He (I forget his name now) testified that the marijuana sales there totaled about $1 billion, with the state collecting about $100 million in tax revenue. None of the things outlined so nicely above have materialized in Colorado. There have not been more accidents or more DUI’s for marijuana. Where marijuana was detected in an unfortunate traffic fatality, for instance, there was more often than not another substance like alcohol or opiates involved as well. Though it is hard to measure, of course, he said that the black market has gone down significantly since legalization.

    As was said about by Nan, perhaps the real reasons behind this urge to “go slow,” have something more to do with the reasons for the war on drugs as spelled out by one of Nixon’s more infamous henchmen.

  4. pavepusher

    Police should be restricted to only enforcing the laws, not trying to define public morality. Any time they open their pie-holes in an official capacity, they should be disallowed from voicing opinions.

    On pain of arrest and mandatory prison time.


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