“I’ve never felt that we should legalize marijuana. It doesn’t strike me that the country would be better if it’s being sold on every street corner,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the head of law enforcement at the federal level, said in September. While those at the top of the current political food chain continue to bolster the bad reputation cannabis picked up from some angry xenophobes almost one hundred years ago, the attitudes of many a former law enforcement officers is moving away from this prohibitionist mindset. Take Paul Schmidt, formerly the highest-ranking DEA agent in Oregon. Now, Schmidt works in the medical cannabis industry as a business consultant. Patrick Moen, also an Oregon resident, is another example. A former DEA agent responsible for numerous successful drug busts, Moen has traded his experience in surveillance against illicit drug lords for the vetting of cannabis businesses. Both Schmidt and Moen agree that even when they were working for the DEA, cannabis was always the least of their concerns. “It was the least of the evils,” Schmidt said. He continued, “If you go to the newer law enforcement—somewhere between 45 years and younger—and you talk to them about cannabis, they are just like, ‘Man, why isn’t it legal? I have got other things to do.’” Moen explained that leaving the DEA opened his eyes to just how common cannabis consumption in his own personal circle really is. “Now that people can open up, I realize this is a product that someone’s parents use, someone’s friend use,” he said. “People that are professional and that have families and that they all view it as an acceptable, better than acceptable, as a better alternative than other options.” Illinois, where cannabis is legal for medical use, is a state where ex-law enforcement officers are jumping into the industry in higher numbers than they are in the rest of the country. For example, Terrance Gainer, former Chicago homicide detective is one of many who once saw cannabis as a societal harm.
Now, he sees it as a serious business and works as an adviser to Green Thumb Industries, a partnership comprised of Illinois-based businesses and professionals dedicated to making the medicinal cannabis industry as effective and accessible as possible for Illinois patients. According to the Associated Press, the former Illinois law enforcement officials now working in the cannabis industry include a former Circuit Court judge, a Fraternal Order of Police trustee, undercover narcotics agents, and a Secret Service senior executive.
The Security Issue
The new legal cannabis industry faces lots of obstacles, but one of the most urgent is security. Cannabis’ designation as a Schedule I substance means that banks working with cannabis affiliated businesses could potentially be federally prosecuted for money laundering. Consequently, dispensaries are cash only, making them prime targets for robbers. Because of a persisting social stigma and federal prohibition, security and alarm companies predating the rise of legal cannabis are reluctant to provide their services to dispensaries. Former law enforcement personnel have capitalized on the unmet security needs of cannabis businesses.
For example, in Denver, Colorado, former Sheriff’s Deputy Dan Sullivan and ex-infantryman Ted Daniels started Blue Line Protection Group in response to the industry’s growing need for specialized security services. Blue Line Protection Group provides armed protection, secure transportation, and compliance services. Most of the organization’s employees are former military and law enforcement personnel. This makeup is typical of most security services, and for good reason; cops know compliance. Schmidt, Moen, Gainer, Sullivan, and Daniels are not the exception when it comes to attitudinal shifts toward cannabis.
In 2002, LEAP (formerly Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, now Law Enforcement Action Partnership) was founded to create a safe place for active and retired police officers to voice their concerns with failing drug policies. The organization has actively been a part of cannabis legalization campaigns throughout the country, opposing drug prohibition and stating as one of its core beliefs that “as the government ends prohibition, it should release drug offenders, expunge their records, and restore their civil rights.”
The Results Are In
A Pew Research Center survey conducted online from May to August 2016 found that, of almost 8,000 police officers, over two-thirds (68%) believe that cannabis should be legal for personal or medicinal use. About 37 percent said that it should only be legal for medical use, and 30 percent said that it should remain completely illegal. With a net 68%, these numbers mean that the majority of police officers believe that cannabis should be legalized in some fashion.
That belief is also tied to age. Recreational cannabis use was more likely to be supported by officers younger than 35, data that supports Paul Schmidt’s assertion that younger agents are jaded by cannabis’ federal designation as a Schedule I substance. Diane Goldstein, LEAP board member, isn’t surprised at the number of police officers who still support cannabis prohibition. “Law enforcement continues to represent an outlier view on this issue because police are trained with outdated, unscientific, drug-war-oriented materials.” However, she continued on a more positive note, saying that “the poll reflects a positive attitude shift when you see that it’s only 1 in 3 police officers who believe marijuana should remain illegal.”
An Unlikely Match Made in Heaven
The relationship between the cannabis industry and former law enforcement personnel looking to get involved is a symbiotic one. The industry provides lucrative options for people with experience in the criminal justice system, and those people provide the industry with a deep well of regulatory knowledge and a symbolic reminder of its legitimacy. Ten years ago, Barry Cooper, a former Texas-based narcotics officer who aggressively pursued cannabis users, started selling a DVD called Never Get Busted Again. The DVD includes footage of actual busts he facilitated while on duty and describes in great detail how to outsmart officers looking for a drug arrest.
While most law enforcers involving themselves in the cannabis industry are taking a far more conservative approach than Cooper’s was, the reality is that the law is finally catching up to the times. The train for legality in all fifty states has left the station, and former law enforcement officers are on it, helping entrepreneurs sell the substance they once busted people for possessing.