Focus group finds Washington State law enforcement have concerns over legalized cannabis

May 7, 2020

While Washington State has benefited in many ways from being the first state to legalize cannabis, they have seen their share of issues, too, since lifting prohibition over half a decade ago. According to a statement put out by Washington State University on Thursday, a study published in the Justice Evaluation Journal, a publication of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences found police officers in the state are concerned with increased drugged driving, greater youth access to marijuana, and insufficient officer training.

The study did find that officers are not in favor of recriminalizing cannabis. However, they do feel there have been several issues with the implementation of the law since it first went into effect in 2012.

“The trend both nationally and internationally is toward greater decriminalization, medicalization, and legalization of cannabis,” Mary Stohr, WSU professor of criminal justice and criminology, who led the study said in a statement. “Because this represents a significant policy shift in the war on drugs, which focused on the volume of arrests and prosecutions of marijuana use and sales, it is imperative that we listen to the voices of police in a state like Washington for insight into areas of impact.”

Researchers interviewed 48 police officers from around the state who came from rural, suburban, urban, and college agencies, including those with statewide authority and from a Native American tribe. However, they did concede that the bulk of those interviewed were white males.

According to their results, researchers found that the officers were not opposed to cannabis legalization. However, many on the force did take issue with several of the finer points of the law. In focus groups, the officers noted that they had seen increased youth use of cannabis and a lack of educational resources. Moreover, they felt that there was an increase in drugged driving as well.

Most notably, some officers mentioned that they felt ill-prepared for legalization, having not received enough training under the law.

The group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which seeks health-first approaches to cannabis policy and opposes legalization efforts across the country, saw the study as evidence that the legalization movement has not come through on all of its promises.

“Law enforcement officers are uniquely positioned to witness the real-life consequences of marijuana legalization and commercialization,” Dr. Kevin Sabet, president and co-founder of SAM and a former senior drug policy advisor to the Obama administration, said in a statement. “Legalization promoters have claimed the change in policy would result in freeing up law enforcement to be better able to respond to issues other than marijuana offenses; s this study concludes, the opposite has, in fact, been true.”

Researchers did ask the officers for their recommendations on how to improve the situation. For any advice, they might give ton other states that would be legalizing cannabis in the future. According to the study, the officers emphasized the need for more education, more training, and a broader focus on youth and juvenile issues.

“The purpose of our study was to add a key stakeholder’s voice to the conversation—that of police officers,” Craig Hemmens, WSU professor of criminal justice and criminology who co-authored the study said in a statement. “Officers in other states may find their thoughts useful as they transition to legalization.”

Researchers noted that the survey results may not be generalizable to all officers in Washington State and that focus group members tend to censor their comments, especially in the presence of other officers.

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