The Impact of Marijuana Legalization on Law Enforcement in States Surrounding Colorado

Date01 June 2019
Published date01 June 2019
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Police Quarterly
The Impact of
2019, Vol. 22(2) 217–242
! The Author(s) 2018
Marijuana Legalization
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611118819902
on Law Enforcement
in States Surrounding
Kyle C. Ward1, Paul A. Lucas2, and
Alexandra Murphy3
Since the legalization of recreational marijuana occurred in Colorado, politicians,
academics, and the public have been paying close attention to what impact, if any,
the legalization of recreational marijuana has on crime, substance use and abuse, and
state revenue gains. However, research has not identified the potential impact that
marijuana legalization has had on law enforcement officers in neighboring states. This
study used survey methodology to explore how the legalization of recreational
marijuana in Colorado has affected law enforcement officers and their duties in
states that border Colorado. Using multistage cluster sampling, municipal police
departments and sheriff’s offices in Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming were selected
for inclusion in this study based off their proximity to Colorado and because none
had legalized either medical or recreational marijuana at the time of this study.
Results indicate that law enforcement officers view Colorado’s legalization of recre-
ational marijuana as having a negative impact on their enforcement duties.
Respondents note an increase in potency, perceived juvenile use, and strain on
their resources as major issues they are now having to deal with. Analysis indicates
that departments further away from Colorado perceive less of an impact than
1Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO, USA
2Department of Government and Justice Studies, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC, USA
3Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kyle C. Ward, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Northern Colorado,
Campus Box 147, Greeley, CO 80639, USA.

Police Quarterly 22(2)
counties closer to Colorado’s border. Compared with Nebraska and Kansas,
respondents from Wyoming perceived a larger impact on enforcement, but these
differences were diminished when controlling for personal perceptions of marijuana.
law enforcement perceptions, marijuana legalization, criminal justice policy, recrea-
tional marijuana, drug policy, dispersion
The War on Drugs has been a lengthy and costly endeavor that aims to reduce
the sale, trafficking, and usage of illegal narcotics within the United States.
Estimates of the cost, per year, place the total spent on enforcing the War on
Drugs at 44.1 billion dollars (Miron, 2008; Miron & Waldock, 2010). Many,
including academics, judges, treatment providers, and citizens, view the War on
Drugs as a failure that has placed additional strain on law enforcement officers
(Alexander, 2012; Bobo & Thompson, 2006; Pew Research Center, 2014). This
strain has created greater racial disparities in arrests and prosecutions of low-
level drug users, particularly the continued prohibition of marijuana, which is
the most used illicit drug in the world (Caulkins & Reuter, 2017; Sacco &
Finklea, 2013). This federal prohibition, however, has not halted individual
states from enacting their own laws pertaining to the use, distribution, and
growth of medicinal and recreational marijuana. States with changing policies
and laws regarding medicinal and recreational marijuana are mirroring the
public’s growing support for marijuana reform, as is consistently shown in
national polls (Geiger, 2016). Further complicating matters, the legalization of
medicinal and recreational marijuana in some states has led to conflict between
state and federal law.
Marijuana was legal in the United States until 1937 when it was banned
under the federal Marijuana Tax Act and, shortly after, all states made the
possession of marijuana illegal. In 1970, the Controlled Substance Act (CSA)
placed cannabis under federal control regardless of state regulations and laws.
The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, also referred to as
the Shafer Commission, was established to study marijuana in the United States.
The Commission, consisting of two Members of the Senate, two Members of the
House, and nine members appointed by the President of the United States,
concluded that marijuana use does not make an individual more aggressive
and that social policy for its use would be more effective than its prohibition
(Johnston, 1981; Single, 1989). These recommendations were ignored, and

Ward et al.
marijuana is currently, under federal law, illegal and a Schedule I controlled
substance. This classification prohibits the drug’s manufacture, distribution,
dispensation, and possession. To be considered a Schedule I substance, the
federal government has determined the following: (a) The drug or other sub-
stance has a high potential for abuse; (b) the drug or other substance has no
currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States; and (c) there is
a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical
supervision (Sacco & Finklea, 2013). This has placed states that have legalized
medicinal or recreational marijuana use at odds with the federal government.
Legalization of marijuana is not in agreement with the CSA as it removes the
illegality of its use, possession, growth, distribution, and facilitation.1 In addi-
tion, state laws offer no protections from federal enforcement. The Supreme
Court, in Gonzales v. Raich (Rosenbaum, 2005), ruled that, under the Commerce
Clause, patients could not grow their own marijuana and that given marijuana’s
Schedule I classification, state law cannot supersede federal law by legalizing
growing, producing, distributing, or using marijuana. This is in line with the
Schedule I classification nullifying the purported uses for medical marijuana,
rebuking any current evidence of its medicinal value (Rosenbaum, 2005;
Stanley, 2014). Given the discrepancy between state and federal law, there
have been a number of different directives issued to the Department of
Justice. The Ogden memo, under the Obama administration, directed federal
prosecutors not to file charges involving individuals or businesses who were
following state law. It is the Ogden memo that many policy scholars attribute
to the increased interest and participation in the expansion of legal marijuana
supply during the time of its issuance. The Cole memos, released in 2011 and
2013 (Cole, 2013), further clarified federal prosecutorial roles and tasked U.S.
attorneys with combating cannabis sales to minors, illegal cartel activity, inter-
state trafficking of cannabis, drugged driving, any detriments to public health,
and violence or accidents involved with the cannabis trade (Cambron,
Guttmannova, & Fleming, 2017). Under these directives, states that have legal-
ized medicinal and recreational marijuana have not come under heavy attacks
from federal agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration. However,
on January 4, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed federal prosecutors
to disregard the Ogden and Cole memos and enforce the laws enacted by con-
gress regarding marijuana, signaling the abandonment of the Obama era guid-
ance given to federal prosecutors and that the scheduling of marijuana may be
enforced more strictly in the coming years.
The ever-changing marijuana laws and regulations across the nation repre-
sent a complex and developing issue that is being monitored by civilians, law
enforcement, and state and federal officials. Currently, not much empirical
attention has been given to the perceptions of police officers in states bordering
those that have legalized the recreational and medicinal use of marijuana. The
attitudes and perceptions of police officers have been shown to significantly

Police Quarterly 22(2)
impact numerous areas of policing, such as gender and policing practices
(Carlan & Lewis, 2009; Poteveva & Sun, 2009), cultural attitudes (Sun &
Chu, 2008), and rape cases (Brown, 1998; Campbell & Johnson, 1997; Page,
2007, 2008). It is imperative to understand not only police officer perceptions
toward drug enforcement but also their perceptions when bordering a state that
has legalized marijuana, as social norms that conflict with law enforcement
attitudes can negatively impact compliance with the law (Tyler, 1990). Other
researchers, such as Petrocelli, Oberweis, Smith, and Petrocelli (2014), also high-
light the need to understand the perceptions and attitudes of law enforcement:
If officers’ attitudes about the law and how the system implements the law have
been shown to be significant in other realms of policing, it is logical to assume that
they are relevant to drug enforcement, also. Given the enormity of the US drug
enforcement effort, it is clear that by failing to measure and interpret officers’
attitudes about drugs and drug policy, we are missing critical information that
affects our national drug enforcement strategies. (p. 23)
Cambron et al. (2017) also have highlighted the lack of empirical literature on
this topic and have called on researchers to examine two specific areas: (a) the
legalization of recreational marijuana and (b) the impact and effects legalization
has had outside of the legalizing state, specifically, states bordering those who
allow recreational marijuana sales. It is the purpose of the current...

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