It would be the definition of irony.
A police officer busts someone for smoking weed in public, possession, or some other “minor” marijuana offense. Then the cop goes home, pours himself a drink — and rolls a big fatty before settling in for the night.
That certainly wouldn’t seem fair. To be honest, though, most police departments don’t view the issue in terms of fairness. They’re more concerned about two other issues: federal law and safety.
You might think that the landscape has changed following the legalization of recreational cannabis in 18 states (plus the District of Columbia and several territories), decriminalization in 13 more, and the widespread availability of medical marijuana.
It has, but only very, very slightly.
Here’s where things stand for those in blue who want to smoke the green.
20 Years of Weed: We’ve Come a Long Way, Sort Of
This article would have been very easy to write 20 years ago.
Q: Can police officers smoke weed?
A: Of course not, if they want to keep their job.
There were no shades of grey (or green) 20 years ago. The pot was illegal everywhere, except in the few Western states (plus Maine) that legalized medical marijuana in the late 90s and very early 2000s. And despite local laws, weed remained illegal under federal law — just as it is today.
In fact, U.S. attorneys still had the authority to raid legal, licensed dispensaries in their jurisdictions. Some feds operating in conservative counties, even in California, did just that. It wasn’t until Obama-era guidance discouraged federal enforcement in “legal” states that users and dispensary owners could breathe a sigh of relief.
To put it simply, weed may have been legal in some states and for some purposes. But there was no widespread acceptance of its use — and that was certainly true in the nation’s police departments.
Not only was cannabis use forbidden by police personnel, but it will also cause immediate termination. The prohibition went even further than that; any applicant for a police job who had used marijuana at any point in the past was disqualified from consideration.
Public attitudes about weed have definitely changed over the last two decades. The Pew Research Center found that only 32% of Americans supported legalization in the early 2000s, but that number had soared to 67% by 2019. And in Pew’s latest survey, only 8% of U.S. adults said marijuana should be illegal in all circumstances.
Attitude shifts in the nation’s police departments, however, have occurred at a glacial pace.
The Arguments Against Weed Use By Police
By their very nature, police departments are conservative organizations.
We aren’t referring to the political viewpoints of officers (although those also generally lean conservative). Our point is that police agency are very slow to embrace innovation and change. A study published by the U.S. Justice Department linked inertia to traditional leadership styles, command structures, and ideologies prevalent in police departments for generations.
That’s certainly one of the reasons why police departments continue to stand firm against allowing weed use by their personnel. Management consultants often refer to the phenomenon as the “we’ve always done it that way” factor.
However, two rational arguments can be made against allowing police officers to smoke weed.
Whether or not a police department is in a “legal” state, marijuana is still illegal under federal law. It’s true that the U.S. government does not regulate state or local police departments. But many departments or jurisdictions make the argument that their officers are responsible for enforcing all laws, not just state ones.
That means knowingly allowing police officers to violate a long-standing federal law would be morally wrong and would allow others to question their department’s integrity.
They’re not only standing on principle, though. Local police agencies may not have to worry about federal supervision or disciplinary action, but they do have to worry about their budgets.
Here’s why that matters. Some of the money that flows to police agencies comes from the federal government. And federal funding can be made contingent on any number of factors — theoretically including adherence to U.S. cannabis laws or maintaining a drug-free workplace. Management consultants might call decisions based on this reasoning the “better safe than sorry” theory.
The most common argument against allowing police officers to smoke weed involves safety.
Let’s start with one little-known federal law: it’s illegal to purchase or own a gun or ammunition if you use cannabis. The ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) registration form you fill out when you buy a gun requires you to certify that you don’t use marijuana. (CBD is exempt.) The supposed reason the feds still “ban” weed users from gun ownership? Safety.
That same reasoning is what’s most often heard from police officials in legal states when they’re asked about their department’s policy on pot use. They claim that the psychoactive effects of marijuana smoked off-the-job could linger when an officer reports to work. And they say that’s a particular concern because most police officers carry weapons while performing their duties. In short, it’s not safe for weed-using cops to handle a gun. Literally, “better safe than sorry.”
Most people who love the green might find that reasoning to be strained at best. Remember, though, police organizations are conservative by nature. Most are very slow to make changes.
Here’s the good news: a few departments have started.
Incremental Changes in Police Weed Policy
So far, there are no U.S. police departments that allow officers to smoke weed recreationally. However, several have accepted the fact that medical marijuana is a “real thing.”
All first-responders in Yuma, Arizona, are allowed to smoke weed during their off-hours if they have a valid prescription. Applicants to Utah’s police academy are now allowed to be medical marijuana patients, as long as they prove the use is legitimate and they disclose what products they use. As of now, though, they still cannot carry a firearm.
There are moves in other states and cities to allow police officers to use medical marijuana, but progress is slow — as it always is in police departments. The greater relaxation of “weed standards” involves job applicants and prior use.
In the past, people who wanted to become a police officer were automatically disqualified for having used marijuana, no matter how long ago they’d toked up. Faced with a dwindling pool of job applicants, however, states like Connecticut and cities like Seattle have eased those restrictions. Police applicants there are only disqualified from consideration if they’ve smoked within the past year, and the restriction has been lowered to three years in states like Connecticut and Chicago.
So for now, most cops still can’t smoke weed legally, but it appears that may change over time. After all, 20 years ago who would have thought that nearly 70% of Americans would be in favor of legalization?
Can Police Officers Smoke Weed? FAQ
Q: What happens to a cop who’s caught smoking weed?
A: It varies from state to state and community to community. Many will face termination, but some may just face disciplinary action.
Q: I’m guessing that federal officers, like those in the Secret Service and the FBI, can’t use weed?
A: That’s correct — but even the Secret Service and FBI have lowered their requirements for job applicants. Any prior cannabis use was once a disqualifier, but now they must only have been clean for the past three years.