I would venture to guess that most of us know someone with a substance abuse disorder. As law enforcement officers, we watch this tragedy unfold far too often. Drug trafficking and drug abuse have always posed a challenge for law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. We have all repeatedly borne witness to the human toll that drug abuse has taken on our society. However, we are now in the midst of an opioid abuse crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug poisoning killed roughly 64,000 people in the United States alone in 2016. That is more fatalities in a single year than the highest recorded numbers of annual deaths from firearms violence, HIV infections, or even motor vehicle crashes.1
The widespread addiction to prescription opiates has spurred massive increases in the trafficking and consumption of illegal narcotics. We have also witnessed an increase in the use of fentanyl, which is highly attractive to drug traffickers. The attraction to fentanyl is that it is about 40 times more potent than heroin, which means a trafficker needs to put less of it into a bag for a customer. However, the potency of fentanyl also significantly increases the risk of a user’s overdose and death. The potency of fentanyl poses a substantial risk not only to drug users but also to officers and community members who may inadvertently come into contact with the drug.
In addition to the opioid epidemic, the decriminalization of marijuana by many U.S. states has caused a new set of challenges for law enforcement. Recreational marijuana possession and use is permitted in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia with few, if any, restrictions.2
The “Cole Memo” released in 2013 by Deputy U.S. Attorney General Jim Cole instructed U.S. attorneys to lessen their focus on investigating and prosecuting crimes involving marijuana unless criteria were met that enhanced the level of seriousness. This federal policy sent a message to our communities that marijuana use was no longer a concern or priority. It’s not difficult to imagine why such a directive could be problematic and send the wrong message to marijuana users, sellers, and our youth.
As law enforcement officials, we remain the first line of defense between our communities and the destructive effects of the drug trade and substance abuse. Therefore, the IACP released a statement in January 2018 in full support of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement that the U.S. Department of Justice would be rescinding the Cole Memo.3 We encourage Attorney General Sessions to move now to address the violations of federal law that are occurring in states where marijuana has been decriminalized and made available for retail sales.
Contrary to popular belief, marijuana is not a harmless drug. Studies show that since decriminalization laws were passed, rates of driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) in those states have increased significantly. For example, in Washington, the number of DUID arrests for drivers impaired by marijuana shot from 19.4 percent to 33 percent between 2010 and 2017.4 In Colorado, the number of drivers who tested positive for marijuana use increased by 145 percent between 2013 and 2016, as compared with a 17 percent increase in driving under the influence of alcohol during a similar time frame. Notice how this stark increase corresponds temporally with the passing and implementation of Colorado Amendment 64.5
The prevalence of “high” drivers translates to individuals experiencing drowsiness, disorientation, reduced reaction time, distorted distance estimation, and more, all while operating a vehicle on the same roads as your families. While we may assume these effects are temporary, a study published in 2013 concluded that, for chronic marijuana users, even three weeks of abstinence were not sufficient to erase the cognitive deficits that lead to impaired driving.6
The effects of driving while under the influence of any substance can be catastrophic. One study that focused on drivers seriously injured in motor vehicle accidents found that a shocking 51 percent tested positive for drugs. Marijuana was more than twice as prevalent than any other drug, with 27 percent of drug-positive drivers having tested positive for that particular drug.7
There is no easy fix for these issues, and law enforcement alone is not the solution. The tactic must be a three-pronged approach—prevention (education), enforcement, and treatment. Without all three of these equally important measures, we won’t make positive strides.
Enforcement is certainly an important element in combating drug abuse—arresting drug sellers off the streets to end the vicious cycle—but enforcement is not the only answer. We know we cannot arrest our way out of this complicated problem.
We need to educate the public, both in schools and the public at large, about the dangers of these drugs. Part of that education campaign must be geared towards family, friends, and colleagues who might notice someone with a substance use disorder but are uncertain as to how to address it.
Addiction is a disease that requires treatment. The problem with treatment is that some individuals with substance abuse disorders don’t have access to or the knowledge of treatment centers. That is where law enforcement can come into play—by creating effective partnerships, we can guide these individuals into appropriate treatment facilities.
Research indicates that drug users are more likely to seek treatment shortly after experiencing an overdose and speaking with someone about treatment after an overdose is positively correlated with their seeking treatment. So, when we use naloxone to revive someone, law enforcement officers have the opportunity to encourage treatment and even help the addict secure a bed in a treatment facility.
Sadly, it’s not always as easy as providing counseling and helping an addict get into treatment. There are many who already have access to treatment or a strong support system that is trying to help them, but they resist it. That’s because there is a behavioral aspect to substance abuse, and that’s another area where the police can be effective.
Sometimes, we can bring leverage to the situation by charging a person with a substance use disorder with a crime, with the understanding that if they seek treatment, those charges will be dropped. In some states, a person with a substance use disorder can be committed for treatment against his or her will. Some police departments proactively reach out to those with substance use disorders when the drug use is discovered or as a follow-up to an overdose. Law enforcement can be helpful in these situations because they carry some leverage and because they interact with people with substance use disorders almost daily.
Again, if we want to make progress with drug issues, we must ensure a combination of prevention, enforcement, and treatment. Law enforcement, health providers, and elected officials must be in lockstep, working together to ensure we get drugs off the street and the people who need help receive the treatment they require. We did not get into this crisis overnight, and we will not solve it in a day. It will require all elements of our society to remain committed to fighting the scourge of drugs in our communities. It will, no doubt, be difficult. However, I am confident that we can prevail if there is effective partnership and engagement among the legislative, community, and law enforcement stakeholders.♦
1Josh Katz, “Drug Deaths in American Are Rising Faster Than Ever,” New York Times, June 5, 2017.
2Melia Robinson, Jeremy Berke, and Skye Gould, “This Map Shows Every State That Has Legalized Marijuana,” Business Insider, January 23, 2018.
3“Statement by the IACP on the U.S. Department of Justice Decision to Rescind the Cole Memo,” Official Blog of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (blog), January 4, 2018.
4THC Involvement in Washington DUID Cases (data released by Dr. Fiona Couper, Washington State Patrol Laboratory Director, June 6, 2017).
5David Migoya, “Exclusive: Traffic Fatalities Linked to Marijuana Are Up Sharply in Colorado. Is Legalization to Blame?” Denver Post, August 25, 2017.
6Wendy M. Bosker et al., “Psychomotor Function in Chronic Daily Cannabis Smokers During Sustained Abstinence,” PLOS One 8, no. 1 (January 2013).
7J. Michael Walsh et al., “Drug and Alcohol Use among Drivers Admitted to a Level-1 Trauma Center,” Accident Analysis and Prevention 37, no. 5 (September 2005): 894–901.
Please cite as
Louis M. Dekmar, “Combating Complex Drug Issues Requires a Collaborative, Multifaceted Approach,” The Police Chief (March 2018): 6, 10.