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Washington, DC police chief on marijuana: "All those arrests do is make people hate us"

Washington, DC, Police Chief Cathy Lanier.
Washington, DC, Police Chief Cathy Lanier.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Washington, DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier seems fairly enthusiastic about marijuana legalization in the District, even decrying the past system of prohibition and how it tarnished community relations with police.

Lanier told the American News Women's Club last Wednesday, according to the Daily Beast, "All those [marijuana] arrests do is make people hate us." She added, "Marijuana smokers are not going to attack and kill a cop. They just want to get a bag of chips and relax. Alcohol is a much bigger problem."

The police chief clarified her comments to emphasize that she believes marijuana isn't healthy. "But I'm not policing the city as a mom," she said. "I'm policing it as the police chief — and 70 percent of the public supported this."

Lanier is making a nuanced but firmly supportive legalization argument. She said that marijuana isn't always healthy for users. But she also acknowledged that it's a relatively benign drug in terms of public safety, and its use is so widespread and accepted that arresting people for pot can actually do more harm than good by hurting police relations with the community.

The comments are generally supported by drug experts and a vast body of research. Marijuana, with its tame effects on behavior, generally doesn't cause crime. But alcohol does: it's a factor in about 40 percent of violent crimes, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

That doesn't mean marijuana is perfectly safe. "The main risk of cannabis is losing control of your cannabis intake," Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert at UCLA, previously said. "That's going to have consequences in terms of the amount of time you spend not fully functional. When that's hours per day times years, that's bad."

DC legalized the possession, growing, and gifting of marijuana last Thursday, after it enacted a voter-approved ballot initiative. The drug remains illegal at the federal level.

Law enforcement around the country haven't always been so receptive to legalization. In Colorado, where voters legalized marijuana in 2012, Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey warned of execution-style homicides as people engaged in drug-induced violent behaviors and trafficking — a point he reiterated in an interview with Vox four months after legalization began (and crime fell). Many law enforcement officials share this opinion, based on their years spent fighting drug trafficking that's often linked to violent crime.

In that context, Lanier's comments are really remarkable: not only is she supporting DC's legalization law, but she's doing so as a person who enforced criminal prohibition for years, perhaps while knowing that it wasn't the right approach.

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