Far more popular than any politician, cannabis legalization is still being sold to American voters on a wobbly raft of lofty and discursive promises, uneasily lashed together with sinews of money.
Several years into the experiment, cannabis is absolutely a multi-billion-dollar industry, but legal weed hasn’t fixed systemic racism, cured the ills of the drug war, or democratized business opportunities. Legalization hasn’t even guaranteed Americans reliable access to legal cannabis, in the states that have legalized.
But at least one promise has been kept: legalization has been great for cops.
You would not know it by listening to police complain about enforcing “drugged driving,” a task already on their plates, or lament obsolete K-9 drug-sniffing units, but legalization has been a literal windfall for American police, who in many states are guaranteed beneficiaries of cannabis taxes, a privilege not afforded to schools, healthcare, transportation, or other functions of the state.
In California, after all regulatory costs are paid for, 20 percent of cannabis taxes are set aside for law enforcement. In Oregon, the figure is 35 percent. Even cannabis taxes not earmarked for cops have ended up in police budgets—and, of course, any city or state’s “general fund,” into which most cannabis sales taxes are deposited, is also available to police. (In Canada, the affront is even more personal: former high-ranking cops became executives for cannabis companies.)
Bureaucracies cost money and legalization won’t work without rules, but earmarking weed revenue for police isn’t a policy choice so much as a deliberate political technique, a “sop to law enforcement” so that cops and cop lobbies wouldn’t oppose legalization, said Sam Kamin, a law professor at the University of Denver and a legalization expert.
“I don’t want to say it’s buying off law enforcement, but it’s buying off law enforcement,” he said. “It’s to say, look: there’s something in here for everyone. It’s not an anti-law enforcement measure.”
Legal bribe or good politics, the trick hasn’t always worked. Even after winning their earmark, California cop lobbies still opposed that state’s legalization measure in 2016. But in 2020, entitlements for police hits differently.
After a summer of protest marches following the police killing of George Floyd and a serious re-examination of police budgets—all in the context of solemn conversations about austerity, with municipal and state budgets emptied out by the COVID-19 pandemic—law enforcement receiving cannabis dollars first is infuriating social-justice advocates, as a squabble over legalization dollars in New Jersey is demonstrating.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy won office in 2017 campaigning on the promise to legalize cannabis within his first 100 days in office. He couldn’t do it, so Murphy and leaders of the Democratic Party-controlled state legislature passed the task onto voters.
On Election Day, a constitutional amendment to legalize cannabis passed by a more than two-to-one margin. But Question 1 contained absolutely no details—not even possession limits. All that would be up to state lawmakers, responsible for follow-up “enabling” legislation.
The first bill, sponsored by Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney and Sen. Nicholas Scutari, appeared almost immediately after Election Day—a clear sign that Democratic lawmakers had it ready.
As for what went into the sausage-making process, it’s a backroom secret. The lead sponsors of the ballot measure, including the ACLU of New Jersey, say they were not privy to it. Contacted by VICE News several times via telephone and email, aides for New Jersey Senate Democrats did not make anyone available for an interview.
But what appeared in the bill was cash for cops and bureaucrats, and no one else. Beyond paying for a new state cannabis bureaucracy, the only earmark was for police, who would be guaranteed an undefined pot of cash for drug-recognition and “apprehending drug-impaired motor vehicle operators.”
“In this moment of nationwide reckoning on policing, and police budgets in particular, for the only two places marijuana revenue to go to be policing and bureaucracy is a real problem,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the New Jersey ACLU.
The resulting uproar from social-justice advocates sent lawmakers scurrying back to the drawing board. On Dec. 1, Sweeney, Scutari, and other top lawmakers announced a plan to return to the ballot with another constitutional amendment that would earmark weed taxes “to help ‘impact zones,’” loosely defined struggling urban areas.
This was also unacceptable to legalization advocates, who pointed out that packaging pot taxes separately from legalization—separating unpopular policy from popular policy—meant kneecapping the measure with voters, who generally dislike new taxes. And if the push for social justice and equity failed with voters, advocates feared lawmakers could use that as an out; to shrug, “Well, we tried,” and move on.
Finally, in a press release published Dec. 4, Murphy, Sweeney, and other top lawmakers announced they had reached a compromise. Seventy percent of the revenue from state sales taxes on cannabis will be earmarked for “impact zones,” defined in a Dec. 14 press release as the “communities hurt most by the drug laws.” The remaining 30 percent is reserved for the state cannabis bureaucracy and the police, for “training and equipment for Drug Recognition Experts.”
Though advocates are happy that community benefits ended up in the final version, many are deeply unhappy with the process. As of late Monday, after the latest compromise was advanced out of committee, the state Senate had yet to publish the bill’s latest language so the public could view it, online or anywhere else. One fear is the “impact zone” language: Could a police department in, say, Newark or Paterson request impact zone funding--and then satisfy that requirement?
Another sour note is the process. Advocates say they’ve been cut out of whatever negotiations are ongoing in the state Legislature. And twice now, the legislature has scheduled a hearing on a bill, and requesting that members of the public testify in person, despite the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, all without presenting the bill’s language to the public.
Both the lack of transparency and the fact that cops were first in line for legalization’s bounty has created deep mistrust among legalization advocates. According to Scutari, a former prosecutor who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, New Jersey spends $143 million a year on enforcing marijuana laws. To set aside more money from a regressive sin tax for police officers—on top of that savings, and to do a job they’re already funded to do—and to not earmark funds for communities wrecked by the drug war is profoundly offensive.
“We are not OK with it,” said Rev. Dr. Charles Boyer, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Epsicopal Church in Woodbury, New Jersey, and the founder of Salvation and Social Justice, a public-policy advocacy organization that’s been pushing for a just and equitable legalization.
Boyer isn’t satisfied with the compromise that divvies up weed taxes between cops and the community, but he is resigned to what seems to be a political reality. “Although we aren’t happy about it [the police funding] and even think it’s misguided, it will be near impossible to get it out,” he said.
Some policy wonks say police are absolutely due at least some taste of legalization’s benefit, and the cost savings of ending petty cannabis busts won’t cover the real bill of enforcing new laws. If cops can’t bust illegal cannabis operations—of which there are many, including in legal states—then legalization will fail. .
“Running competent regulation of large industries costs more than making some arrests for marijuana selling,” says Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral studies at Stanford University and a part-architect of California’s legalization structure. “A community could decide that it wants to spend less on policing, but that's a big question of which cannabis legalization is not a significant consideration.”
Most policy debates in the United States boil down to questions of money. In a way, this is a sign of how cannabis has matured. But the argument over how to divide the benefits is also a sign of how the politics around marijuana legalization have shifted. Pro-business and law-enforcement groups see material benefit for little risk—and the social-justice advocates who put in the hard yards on campaign trails and in state houses are feeling screwed.
If pro-reform lawmakers and activists start opposing legalization, police funding will be one major reason why. In this view, guaranteeing cops cash from cannabis before drug-war victims is simply a fundamental violation of legalization’s most basic promise.
“It is definitely possible to create a legal market for cannabis without pouring money into police budgets,” said Michele Cadigan, a research fellow and cannabis expert at the University of Washington, who listed a host of more needy causes: expunging record of old pot busts, creating employment opportunities, funding addiction-treatment programs.
“To give money back to these agencies does negate the purpose of legalization.”
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