Will police have more free time once pot becomes legal?

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Let's pretend the march to marijuana legalization is inevitable and we will be able to buy, sell and consume pot in a decade without the risk of getting arrested.

What will police officers do with all that free time?

A huge portion of the drug-related arrests made in the U.S. are for marijuana possession — 42 percent in 2012. Take that away and you could imagine that police will have some time on their hands.


The paperwork involved in marijuana arrests can take anywhere from one to six hours. If officers make an arrest near the end of a shift, they often can earn overtime. When a case goes before a judge, court staffing is required and police officers are frequently pulled off their beats to testify.

But what happens when a state legalizes marijuana? Are cops suddenly freed up?

The short answer is no, but there are a few reasons for that.

While there haven't been any formal studies looking at how marijuana legalization has impacted police work, anecdotal evidence from Colorado, which legalized cannabis sales at the start of the year, can give us some insight.

It turns out the municipalities that are willing to scrap cannabis prohibition aren't typically the ones most committed to enforcement.

Colorado voters approved medical marijuana in 2000 and dispensaries supplied the drug to patients across the state. Certain areas had already been taking a relatively hands-off approach to recreational pot, which muted the impact of full legalization.


Pitkin County — home to Aspen, ski resorts and some of the wealthiest people in the country — is a good example. Sheriff Joe DiSalvo says his office treated marijuana use among adults as the "lowest priority" before legalization.

"I have been a police officer in this community since 1985 and that has always been the case," he told Fusion in an email. "I don't have any more free time post legalization as we never spent much time on it in the first place."


The Pitkin County Sheriff's Office only made four arrests for marijuana possession between 2008 and 2012, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Report. Local police departments in the county had similarly low number of arrests.

Not all parts of Colorado were lenient with pot users before legalization. Through the 2000s, Denver made more than 13,000 marijuana possession arrests. The rate of arrest paralleled the statewide average, but in sheer volume it ranked third among counties in Colorado.


Marijuana legalization allows police to focus on more serious crimes, according to Tony Ryan, a 36-year veteran of Denver Police Department who retired in 2003 and now advocates for drug policy reform.

He said that most officers on the street "would rather not have to mess with this stuff."


"There may be a rape in progress, there may be a break-in in progress," he said. "They need to get there and respond to those calls."

Crime has not gone up in Denver since marijuana went on sale at the start of the year; violent crime actually decreased by 5.6 percent through the first four months of 2014 compared to the same period a year earlier.


"We had to make adjustments," said Sonny Jackson, a spokesperson for the Denver Police Department. The department assigned an officer to monitor marijuana businesses to ensure they are in compliance with the law and trained patrol units to be more vigilant for drivers impaired by marijuana.

Even though cannabis is legal in Colorado, it needs to be sold and consumed according to the state's regulations. "There are still illegal marijuana sales and we take action on those," Jackson said.


When asked if Denver police have more free time post-legalization, Jackson said he "can't speculate."

Peter Moskos, an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, has written several books about law enforcement and worked as a police officer in Baltimore in the early 2000s. He said even in cities like New York, where police have made tens of thousands of marijuana possession arrests in the past decade, such arrests still make up a small part of their workday.


"Cops aren't going to lose their jobs," he said. "They're still going to have things to do."

Moskos doesn't believe marijuana legalization will radically alter police department budgets or personnel decisions. In general, police aren't used in the most efficient manner anyway, he said. "Part of that's intentional, because you want cops available when shit hits the fan."


Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

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