The rising tide of marijuana legalization has prompted many police departments to clarify their position on whether cops can be prescribed medical marijuana. Most states don't have protections for employees that use cannabis for medical or recreational purposes. Currently, cannabis is listed as a Schedule I illegal substance, making employees, including police officers, vulnerable to penalties.
Because police officers are required to uphold state and federal laws, cops that want to use medical marijuana are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Many police departments have sided with federal law by adopting a zero-tolerance policy on medical marijuana use by law enforcement officers.
Other cities are more lenient as long as consumption doesn't affect a police officer's work performance. Amidst a shortage of qualified police applicants, some police departments across the nation and beyond are revisiting their no-tolerance policies. Generally, however, medical cannabis use is a disqualifying position.
Most police departments perform background checks on applicants to ensure that they meet all the qualifications and have no major criminal patterns, including histories of marijuana use. Police departments may use the polygraph test to uncover past criminal behavior. Police departments will handle each applicant's past drug use on a case-by-case basis based on the following criteria:
- Recency of marijuana use
- Frequency of usage
- Other drugs used
- Involvement in sale and distribution
Police department policies on cops and medical marijuana vary. Some departments forbid cops getting medical marijuana prescriptions, while others are open to cops that only use medical marijuana for a qualifying condition. Most police departments, however, do require at least a pre-employment drug screening. Police officers can also be drug tested after a driving or shooting incident on duty, or randomly tested depending on the department. As mainstream attitudes toward cannabis change, so do employer's drug policies.
Proposition 64 allows individuals over 21 to grow, possess, and consume cannabis for personal use, although federal law prohibits this. In addition, the proposition amended California's Health & Safety Code 11364.45 to read as follows:
"Nothing in Section 11362.1 shall be construed or interpreted to amend, repeal, affect, restrict, or preempt: The rights and obligations of public and private employers to maintain a drug and alcohol-free workplace or require an employer to permit or accommodate the use, consumption, possession, transfer, display, transportation, sale, or growth of marijuana in the workplace, or affect the ability of employers to have policies prohibiting the use of marijuana by employees and prospective employees, or prevent employers from complying with state or federal law."
Essentially, policies around medical cannabis use for police officers vary by agency. Many agencies will enforce a drug-free workplace to remain federally compliant and be eligible for federal grants.
In Utah, police recruits can use medical marijuana and apply to be police officers. Before this change, police academy applicants couldn't apply if they had used cannabis within the past two years. Under the relatively lax regulations, applicants must show their marijuana use is legitimate and disclose the products they use.
Academy personnel will crossreference the products with a list assembled by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food to see if the product has been approved for use. While not all products will be on there, applicants can prove that the product is for legal use. Each application will be decided on a case-by-case basis.
Many Arizona agencies, like others across the nation, did not have specific policies on whether cops could be prescribed medical marijuana cards. Only a select few city agencies took a stance on marijuana use. Gilbert Fire Department allowed its employees to have medical marijuana cards, but risk getting reassigned or being put on paid leave.
Yuma's first-responders can use medical marijuana as long as it's not during work hours. The Chandler Police Department was the first and only agency in Arizona with a firm stance against medical marijuana use by cops.
In 2018, the Chicago Police Department opened up the door for new recruits who have consumed weed in the last three years. Mayor Rahm Emanual stepped up police officer hires, many of which were disqualified for drug-related reasons. In addition to relaxed marijuana policies, Adderall use was also included in the updated policy.
Not all cannabis use will be tolerated. The police department will inquire about the specific reasons for past cannabis consumption. If the cannabis consumption was due to youthful indiscretion, then the police department would not immediately disqualify an applicant.
The New Haven Police Department updated their policies in March 2018 stating that applicants who have "illegally sold, produced, cultivated, or transported any controlled substance, unless the individual was living in a state where or medical marijuana is legal; have used a controlled substance other than marijuana in a state where it had been legalized in the last year; or are currently prescribed medical marijuana, will be disqualified."
The Seattle Police Department changed its rules mandating new recruits to be weed-free anywhere from three years to one year. The police department stated that the new policy was amended to recruit police officers "who resemble the people we protect."
Marijuana Use and Firearms
Recent cannabis legalization didn't change the federal government's no-tolerance policy on marijuana use and firearms. Even in legal states, individuals can't be marijuana users and buy or possess a firearm. Police departments may deem recruits or current personnel ineligible to work if they consume weed. According to Title 18, Section 922 of the U.S. code:
"It shall be unlawful for any person to sell or otherwise dispose of any firearm or ammunition to any person knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that such person is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance (as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act."
For this reason, police departments can determine that a cop that uses medical marijuana can't own a gun, which is necessary for their work.
How Long Should Cops Avoid Weed Before Work?
In Canada, some provinces have instituted policies requiring police officers to abstain from cannabis use for a certain amount of time before their shift starts. In Toronto, cops aren't allowed to smoke or vape pot 28 days before clocking in. Calgary stands out by being the only province to prohibit off-duty cannabis use by cops.
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Many police officers consider cannabis bans arbitrary and unreasonable citing a lack of similar policies for alcohol or some prescription medications. Ultimately, the effect of cannabis on an individual depends on the dose, frequency of consumption, among other factors. More research is needed to analyze the potential negative effects of medical marijuana use on individuals with safety-sensitive jobs. Research on the long-term effects of cannabis use and THC impairment levels will guide future policies.
Advocates for Cannabis Use Among Cops
Police departments have had a hard time developing policies around cannabis use for cops. One of the most recent legislative efforts supporting research into the use of medical marijuana by police officers occurred in 2017.
Congressman Matt Gaetz, the amendment's sponsor, voiced his support for medical cannabis treatment of mental health and PTSD in a U.S. House Judiciary Committee. His amendment would have required federal agencies to author a report on the effects of cannabis use to dictate department policies.
Some marijuana advocates who aren't public servants have also supported medical cannabis use for cops. Advocates argue that allowing police officers to consume cannabis could lower their off-duty alcohol use and prevent alcohol-related offenses among cops.
For now, getting a medical cannabis prescription doesn't necessarily disqualify an individual from becoming a police officer. It'll be harder to find a police department that has a relaxed medical marijuana requirement, but not impossible. Hopeful cops, however, are advised to steer clear of medical marijuana to improve their chances of landing a job.