Police Allowed to Consume Cannabis Off Hours

Matt Weeks October 10, 2018 0 comments

What happens when they drive to work the next day and would, theoretically, still test positive for ‘THC impairment?’ 

Police are responsible for enforcing the law fairly and without prejudice, but cannabis laws are clouding the lines between what’s permissible and not for cops across the U.S. and Canada. So when it comes to legal cannabis, what rights do police have — and are the treated the same when they run afoul of the rules? Can police be charged with impairment if they have THC in their system (but are otherwise sober)?

According to Canada’s CBC News, most police departments across the country will allow their officers to use recreational cannabis after federal legalization is enacted in mid-October. Not that it’s 100 percent, however. Precincts in Ottawa, Vancouver and Montreal already have firm rules in place that allow officers to use the legal substance during their off hours and as long as their work is not affected. Calgary, however, has gone the opposite route and has declared that any police officer using cannabis will be banned from the force.

Can the Canadian Military Consume Cannabis?

The Calgary rule is tougher than the country’s code of military conduct, which allows soldiers to use cannabis during off hours and no more than eight hours before duty (the rule extends to 24 hours for missions involving weapons use or parachuting).

There seems to be widespread agreement that public safety officials shouldn’t be using cannabis while on the job (and less so about what they do on their own time). But the real question is — how can we know for sure?

Drug tests are notoriously unable to calculate how affected a person is from cannabis. And, because elements of THC can stick around in the body for a long time after effects have ceased to hold sway over the body and mind.

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Cannabis Sobriety Tests

Police have begun to rely on what they call “drug recognition evaluators” to gauge whether a suspect is too compromised to operate a vehicle. These evaluators are like field sobriety tests for alcohol, with no true measuring system but do provide anecdotal data on a person’s mental and physical states.

That doesn’t change the rules about driving under the influence, however. In most places where cannabis is legal, it’s still against the law to operate an automobile while high. That applies to everyone, police and civilian alike.

If other crimes are any indication, the strict standards cops use to police the public may not be applied as forcefully to their fellow boys in blue; but if the past practices of the police are any indication, cops may be treated more harshly than civilians when it comes to driving under the influence.

Police culture has had a hard time adapting to cannabis legalization. While zero-tolerance policies may be favored by the old guard, statistics show the lack of wiggle room is making police recruitment classes much smaller.

How Do You Test For THC Impairment?

Part of that cultural shift is about cannabis-using motorists. Some police have complained that the “smell of cannabis” is no longer legitimate grounds on which to search a vehicle. Others have raised the question of just how one tests for THC — and if those tests are at all accurate.

In Canada and some parts of the United States, police are using a “per se” test for THC in the bloodstream, meaning that it’s perfectly legal to drive with a limited amount of THC in the body. Any more than that, and it becomes ‘driving under the influence’. These sorts of laws work well for alcohol, but not cannabis. The problem with this is twofold: tolerance and bad science.

Tolerance is an issue because cannabis, far more than alcohol, is a substance that is hard to overuse. The more people use cannabis, the more they need to achieve the same recreational results. The medicinal benefits remain the same at therapeutic dose, but the high goes away.

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You Can’t Predict Cannabis Impairment

So the amount of cannabis that puts one person to sleep may barely change the behavior of a more experienced connoisseur. So, the Canadian limit of 5 ng of THC per milliliter of blood doesn’t mean much. The second issue is that alcohol and cannabis do not operate the same way within the body. Alcohol is quickly flushed out, while traces of THC reside in the body long after their effects have worn off.

This brings us back to police officers. Who is going to test them for THC — and how will it be done? If the courts rule that police are subject to the same per se laws as civilians, could the accused request that officers to take tests (based on notoriously bad science) to get out of convictions? After all, an officer who smoked the night before a big drug bust may have more THC in his system than is legally allowable. And who knows how that affects judgement?

It’s an issue that needs to be addressed — and fast.

Author avatar

Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

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