It’s been said numerous times, “If the Federal government removes marijuana from the Schedule of Controlled Substances, we’ll just deal with it like we deal with alcohol.” This attitude, while not wrong, is not completely accurate either. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “marijuana use can impair important skills” by “slowing your reaction time and ability to make decisions.” The CDC also reports that marijuana impairs coordination and distorts perception. In other words, the same effects of consuming alcohol. However, unlike alcohol, marijuana does seem to have legitimate medical uses. It’s the medical legitimacy that will cause law enforcement agencies to deal with marijuana differently than alcohol.
According to Healthline.com, smoking or vaping marijuana can cause lasting impairing effects similar to that of alcohol. However, eating and “dabbing” marijuana will cause impairing effects that “can last up to 24 hours.” More importantly from an administrative standpoint, marijuana metabolites can remain in the body long after the impairing effects have passed. The American Addiction Centers states that marijuana metabolites can be detected “1-3 days” for an infrequent user, “7-21 days” for a moderate user, and “a month or longer” for a heavy user.
Administratively speaking, legalized marijuana use in the United States will create a sticky wicket for law enforcement agencies. As an example, the Weber County Sheriff’s Office policy manual states, “Any deputy involved in a shooting or death may be requested or administratively compelled to provide a blood sample for alcohol/drug screening.” When this sample returns positive for marijuana metabolites, what questions does that raise? Was the deputy actually impaired during the critical incident, or are the metabolites the remnant of a wild weekend in Las Vegas four weeks prior? What about marijuana use prescribed by a licensed physician?
In a recent case, a deputy was selected for random drug testing by their department. When the deputy’s results came back positive for marijuana, the deputy promptly presented a valid medical marijuana card. This particular deputy had been prescribed daily use of marijuana for a chronic aliment. However, because of department policies, Federal law, and the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) regulations, the deputy was relieved of their duties.
If marijuana was removed from the Schedule of Controlled Substances, how would it change the outcome of the above incident? It simply creates more questions than answers. Would we, as an agency, be required to have marijuana accommodations per the American’s with Disabilities Act? How will “impairment” be separated from “non-impairing” metabolite levels? If “non-impairing” metabolite levels are found during random routine drug screening verse post critical incident screening, will discipline vary? Will one be able to possess a firearm and function in a safety-sensitive position with “non-impairing” metabolite in their system? What kind of policy standards will need to be created for civilian employees?
In the end, how the Federal government decides to deal with marijuana will dictate how the rest of us respond. In the meantime, we will continue to discuss the issue with the Utah State Peace Officer Standards and Training and our department administrators.