The Pew Research Center National Survey of Law Enforcement Officers was conducted among a national sample of police officers in local police and sheriff departments. Pictured: Denver Police Officer Damon Bowser, right, worked off-duty at a club at 14th and Market early Sunday morning, July 21, 2013. (Denver Post file)

How do cops feel about changing marijuana laws? New survey

A Pew Research Center survey of nearly 8,000 police officers finds that more than two-thirds of them say that marijuana use should be legal for either personal or medical use.

The nationally representative survey of law enforcement, one of the largest of its kind, found that 32 percent of police officers said marijuana should be legal for medical and recreational use, while 37 percent said it should be legal for medical use only. Another 30 percent said that marijuana should not be legal at all.

Police are more conservative than the general public on the issue. Among all Americans, Pew found that 49 percent supported recreational marijuana, 35 percent supported medical marijuana only, and 15 percent said the drug should not be legal.

Pew also found a generational divide among cops on the marijuana issue, although not as large as the one that exists among the general public. Officers under age 35 were more likely to support recreational marijuana (37 percent) than those between the ages of 50 and 60 (27 percent). Among the general public, those numbers stand at 67 percent and 45 percent, respectively.

Law enforcement groups have often been among the staunchest opponents of marijuana legalization measures. In 2016, such groups made small but significant contributions to oppose legalization measures in California and Arizona, citing concerns over issues like underage use and intoxicated driving.

“You hear people say it’s not as bad as alcohol,” George Hofstetter, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, told the Orange County Register last year. “But if you smoke marijuana and drive, it does impair you.”

But as the Pew survey indicates, there’s considerable variation in views on marijuana use among the rank-and-file. The group LEAP — Law Enforcement Against Prohibition — was founded in 2002 for active-duty and retired police officers to speak out “about the failures of our existing drug policies.” The group has been particularly active in campaigns to legalize recreational marijuana in Colorado, Washington and elsewhere.

Diane Goldstein, a retired Lieutenant Commander for the Redondo Beach Police Department and LEAP board member, said she’s not surprised to see that police officers have more conservative attitudes than the public on marijuana legalization. “Law enforcement continues to represent an outlier view on this issue because police are trained with outdated, unscientific, drug war-oriented materials.”

But she added that “the poll reflects an positive attitude shift when you see that it’s only 1 in 3 police officers who believe marijuana should remain illegal.”

The Pew Research Center National Survey of Law Enforcement Officers was conducted online May 19-Aug. 14, 2016 among a national sample of 7,917 police officers in local police and sheriff departments with at least 100 sworn officers (excluding state agencies). The margin of sampling error is between 2-3 percentage points. General public results based on survey of 4,538 U.S. adults conducted online and by mail Aug. 16-Sept. 12, 2016; the error margin is plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.

Author Information:
Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center. Follow him on Twitter @_cingraham.