Legalized Marijuana Shrinks Underground Market

Guest Column | Det. Sgt. J. Gary Nelson (Ret.) | Arizona Capitol Times

Arizona is on the verge of a tremendous victory for public safety. 

This election, voters will be asked whether to legalize and regulate marijuana for adults. If we make the right choice by voting Yes on Proposition 207, and I believe we will, our communities will benefit from a wiser use of criminal justice resources. 

 There are few experiences more frustrating to a good police officer than enforcing laws that simply do not make sense.

Whether a responsible adult is using marijuana should be of no concern to the officers entrusted with apprehending dangerous criminals and investigating serious crimes. In fact, it’s insulting to law enforcement and insulting to the people of a free society. 

Whether children are using marijuana is another matter, but that is an issue solved by parents and mental health professionals, not by police.

 Two-thirds of Americans, including 55% of Republican voters, support legalizing marijuana for adults. The federal government has not risen to this demand, so states have taken matters into their own hands. But, when policy is far removed from public opinion — especially in states like ours where marijuana is still illegal — backlash is inevitable. 

 People stop trusting the government and the rule of law, and police are the first to feel the animosity because we interact with the public every day. As we make marijuana arrests, our work gets much more difficult, and the people we serve become less engaged in fighting real crime. They stop reporting crimes, and they certainly have no interest in helping us solve them. Marijuana prohibition alone has destroyed relationships that police need to do our jobs. I’m just one of many police officers who look back on the marijuana arrests we made and wonder, “Why on Earth are we doing this?”

 Humans have used marijuana for centuries, so it would be ridiculous to think we could eliminate the demand. Since we cannot control demand, it’s smart to regulate the supply so that consumers are protected from shady dealings and contaminated products, communities benefit from job creation, and jurisdictions receive tax revenue for public projects. 

 People arrested for marijuana face steep fines, loss of housing, barriers to employment, loss of parental rights, and limited educational opportunities. Despite the consequences, millions of Americans still use marijuana regularly. We have to admit that whatever good we thought would come of this policy isn’t achievable. On the other hand, when marijuana is sold in the legal market, marijuana arrests drop dramatically which saves taxpayer money and keeps innocent people out of the justice system. This makes far more sense.

 Childproof packaging and age restrictions on purchases also protect young people, but both of these are impossible when marijuana is illegal. It’s not easy for police to track down a seller with no business license, no contact information, and no address. Instead of sending police on a wild goose chase, just put marijuana in a secure storefront owned by licensed professionals. At least then we can send undercover officers and inspectors to ensure health and safety compliance. If we know where the goose lives, there’s no need for a chase.

 By regulating marijuana, we also let police focus on real crimes. In 2018, the clearance rate for rape cases in Phoenix was just 11%. Marijuana arrests distract police from the crimes that are actually hurting people. This is tragic, and we must not let it continue. 

 Legalization and regulation is the answer. There’s simply no other option that shrinks the underground market, improves the safety of our communities, and helps to repair the broken relationships between police and the people we serve. I am proud to vote Yes on Proposition 207.

Det. Sgt. J. Gary Nelson (Ret.) spent 27 years as a police officer in Arizona. He’s now a representative of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, judges, prosecutors, and others in criminal justice who promote evidence-based public safety solutions.