Just weeks ahead of a statewide vote to legalize marijuana, Arizona is moving to relax limits on past cannabis use for people who want to become police officers, a move officials describe as a modernization of existing policy as laws and societal views on the drug continue to evolve.
Current rules disqualify applicants who have used marijuana during the three years prior to their application. Applicants are also automatically rejected if they’ve used cannabis more than 20 times in their lifetime or more than four times after the age of 21.
Under new rules proposed by the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board (AZPOST) and approved unanimously on Tuesday by the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council, applicants will only be disqualified if they’ve consumed marijuana during the past two years. How many times an applicant has used the drug—or what form it came in—won’t matter under the new plan.
The change marks the most significant shift in Arizona’s marijuana standards for law enforcement in nearly 30 years. The only other significant change regarding cannabis came last year, when the board clarified that officers could use CBD products without fear of losing their jobs.
“As you can imagine, society has changed,” AZPOST Executive Director Matt Giordano told a local CBS affiliate in comments about the new rules. “Society’s view on the use of illegal drugs has changed, so we thought it was really important to take a look at that and make some changes.”
The new rules, proposed in June and approved this week by Republican Gov. Doug Ducye’s administration, won’t take effect until April 2021. Local law enforcement agencies will be able to set more stringent pre-employment drug standards if they choose, but Giordano stressed that the changes are meant to modernize hiring practices, not weaken them.
“People would argue that we are lowering standards to become a peace officer. I would argue with that,” he said. “We are modernizing the standards to meet the needs of the community in the state of Arizona.”
While cannabis remains illegal for adult use in Arizona for now, the state’s medical marijuana system is relatively robust. Neighboring states, such as California and Nevada, have legalized the drug for all adults over 21.
“You can drive in any direction and hit a state that has legal recreational marijuana,” Giordano said, explaining that people might not expect that past use to prevent them from becoming a police officer.
“They come back to Arizona and want to become peace officers and don’t realize those actions they took that they believe to be legal, somewhat equated to having a drink at a bar, now we’re going to prohibit them from being a police officer,” he said. “It was just time for us to address that.”
The rules change also comes just ahead of next month’s election, which could be a pivotal one for state marijuana laws. Arizona voters will decide a proposition that would legalize cannabis for all adults 21 and older, allow regulated commercial sales and tax the drug at 16 percent.
Ducey, the governor, has attacked the proposal as “a bad idea based on false premises,” claiming in the state’s official voter guide that states that have fully legalized marijuana have seen “more deaths on highways caused by high drivers, dramatic increases in teen drug use, and more newborns exposed to marijuana.” Legalization advocates dispute those claims.
Polling suggests the legal cannabis initiative has a good chance of passing but is far from a sure thing. Internal data shared with Marijuana Moment last month by the legalization campaign showed relatively strong support, with 57 percent of likely voters in favor of the measure and 38 percent opposed. A separate survey, touted by opponents, showed a much slimmer margin of support, with 46 percent of respondents saying they favored legalization and 45 percent opposed.
Regardless of what happens at the polls next month, retired Arizona police officer Bill Richardson told the local TV station he expects next year’s rule change will increase the number eligible applicants, allowing law enforcement agencies to select those best qualified for the job.
“It will open up the pool of applicants who are not going to be automatically disqualified,” he said, “based on the fact that they smoked marijuana 21 times instead of 20.”
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso