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State your case: Should off-duty corrections officers be permitted to use marijuana in legalized states?

The ramifications of marijuana legislation on agencies and their hiring processes


The debate around marijuana legalization is intensifying, especially in the context of recruitment.

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By Jim Dudley and Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

The debate around marijuana legalization is intensifying, especially in the context of recruitment. With California’s AB 2188 and SB 700 marking a significant shift in employment discrimination laws regarding cannabis use, the issue has become a hotbed for discussion.

In those states where marijuana is legalized, should corrections officers be allowed to consume pot off-duty? That is the question our experts debate in this month’s State Your Case. Email your thoughts on this topic to

The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.

Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

Jim Dudley: Effective January 1, 2024, California Assembly Bill 2188 (AB 2188), as amended by Senate Bill 700 (SB 700), makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a person in hiring, termination, or any term or condition of employment, or otherwise penalize a person if the discrimination is based on either of the following:

  • The person’s use of cannabis off the job and away from the workplace
  • An employer-required drug screening test that has found the person to have non-psychoactive cannabis metabolites in their hair, blood, urine, or other bodily fluids.

AB 2188 further makes it unlawful to request information from job applicants relating to their prior use of cannabis.

To some corrections officers or prospective officers in California, AB 2188 may seem like a progressive and realistic approach to outdated laws. California, like many other states, have decriminalized marijuana for a decade or more. Many candidates in their early 20s have become accustomed to marijuana use because “it’s legal.”

It is another terrible, short-sighted law that undermines the oath of an officer who swears to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Firstly, there is a conflict between the US Constitution, which still recognizes marijuana as a Schedule 1 prohibited drug and the California State Constitution, which allows the use of marijuana. Clearly, the US Constitution supersedes the state in this area.

Secondly, the work of a corrections officer must be done with clarity and precision, especially considering they have the authority to deprive people of freedoms and may use force as situations dictate, even up to and including lethal force. COs possess and may use weapons, drive at high speed and must make split-second decisions when their or the lives of others are in jeopardy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Marijuana use directly affects the brain, specifically the parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning, attention, decision-making, coordination, emotion, and reaction time.”

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana may remain in a person’s body for days to weeks, depending on the amount and frequency of use. Using marijuana off duty and going back to work the same day or the next day could lead to disastrous conclusions.

Joel Shults: Jim, let me take a moment to remind our readers about the importance of these debates. When I see comments on some of the headlines of our “State Your Case” articles (because too many commentators hit the keyboard before digesting the column), I frequently see remarks like, “Why is this even a question?” All I have to do is point to the California legislature to show that what might have been unimaginable a decade ago is becoming law and policy in many jurisdictions. Maybe all the ex-hippies in Sacramento are just chanting a revision of John Lennon’s lyrics: “All we are saying is give pot a chance.” Since I lost the coin toss, let’s look at some arguments for liberalizing the marijuana use standard.

First, the law enforcement profession is constantly revising hiring standards. We are dropping college requirements, accepting candidates with minor criminal records and reducing physical requirements. Reducing the exclusion of marijuana users can expand the applicant pool at a time when recruiting is a challenge, if not an outright crisis.

Secondly, the West Coast is on the leading edge (for better or worse) of experimenting with legalization and decriminalization of previously felonious drug use. Former Attorney General Robert Kennedy famously said that “Every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on” so, if the legislature is the voice of the people, so be it.

Thirdly, do we know whether marijuana use inevitably diminishes officer performance? There are a lot of people in responsible positions who are using pot and seem to continue to perform — maybe your doctor or counselor, even. Even if I actually, factually supported this new law, I still would object to the provision that prohibits asking about previous use. Since this is a significant change in hiring, how can we establish whether impairment of pot users exists if we fail to establish a known baseline of cannabis users versus non-cannabis users except waiting for post-incident drug testing?

Jim Dudley: Joel, of course, California seems to come up with some absurd ideas — but some eventually spread through the rest of the country and most certainly will reach the states with marijuana decriminalization policies.

There are so many details in the law that current or prospective partakers of marijuana may not realize. An important issue for prospective law enforcement candidates is the fact that an agency may still reject an applicant based on background information of that prior use.

Another issue, most important, is that although the law does provide that the user may carry a firearm for employment, the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits those who violate federal standards of controlled substance drug use from owning personal firearms off-duty.

One look at the CDC website and other medical research sites, and you will find adverse psychological and physical effects from marijuana use by different percentages of the population who use marijuana, often exacerbated by heavy and chronic use. The CDC cites the harms of marijuana use as negative consequences to the brain, heart, lungs and mental health. It further documents affected driving, the risk of leading to other drug use, poisoning, impact on pregnancy and other harms.

Clearly, there are additional moral and ethical considerations regarding sworn officers using marijuana. In prior polls, a majority of officers indicated that they did not partake in marijuana. Still, I have been attacked on social media by advocates of drug use to aid as PTSD relief for cops and veterans. I am not convinced. In many regards, the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana is somewhat of a social experiment that we have yet to see the results of through the smoky haze.

Joel Shults: An age-old argument for the legalization of marijuana has been the comparison of cannabis to alcohol, including the failure of Prohibition. As we have swung from the infamous depiction of the pot-induced insanity depicted in the 1936 “Reefer Madness” movie to the stereotype of the stoned surfer dude munching Doritos and harming no one, we have moved culturally, if not scientifically, to a point of perception of not only the relative harmlessness of marijuana but claims of health benefits from the plant. What is missing is substantial science around the subject:

  • Are we seeing dangerous results from other workplaces regarding marijuana use?
  • Have we determined at what level of impairment can be presumed, as with alcohol?
  • Is it fair to say that it presents a greater hazard than our largely ignored use of legal anti-depressants and pain medications?
  • Are we being hypocritical to single out THC?

Let’s watch this issue carefully to make sure we are selecting and maintaining the best and brightest candidates for whom we provide the best mental and physical health support that we can. If we can do that and still allow an off-duty magic brownie for dessert, time will tell. I wish everyone would affirm for themselves that living drug-free is best, but until there are enough Captain Americas out there, we’ve got to select from a pool of regular humans.

Corrections1 readers respond

  • 1. The argument of it staying in your system for up to 27 days means nothing, as the active effects only last a couple of hours vs. alcohol, which can impair you for over 12 hours.

    2. Most of the arguments used against the off-duty corrections officers’ use of marijuana stray to the impairment on duty which makes zero sense since it is whether use off-duty use impairs your judgment.

    3. It is legalized in California and is used by people of every trait, with hardly any reports of judgment loss due to the use of it. We are talking about the use of it on off hours, not an hour or two after use.

    4. It is listed as a hallucinogen but as someone who has used this for pain since retiring, I can tell you I have never seen anyone hallucinate after smoking marijuana, so be realistic.

    5. I have seen and experienced the feelings of THC and even as a long-time user of marijuana after retirement. None of my use would impair me from performing my duties as an officer if I gave it the same break of alcohol before duty. Unlike alcohol, after a few hours, you usually have no lingering impairment with THC.

    So in closing, officers should be allowed to use Marijuana off-duty as long as its effects have paid off.

  • Yes. If alcohol is legal to use on time off and shows way more addiction and is more deadly, marijuana should be legal to use for correctional staff on off time.
  • My opinion is that you gotta roll with the times. People have been using pot as an alternative to drinking for decades. If the concern is only “on the job,” as it should be, there is a breathalyzer test that shows a 2-3 hour window after using. If that falls between the work hours you would be justified on possible termination. Employees shouldn’t feel like they “can’t” because of the job. It only makes you less appealing as an employer. Unhappy employees play a role in the effort they give you. Just a thought for consideration.
  • A study published this month in the Journal of Neuroscience Research found that regular cannabis users “have a greater understanding of the emotions of others,” findings that authors say “highlight positive effects of cannabis on interpersonal relationships and potential therapeutic applications.”

    The study, from a team of neurobiologists at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, compared measurements of empathy between a group of 85 regular cannabis users and 51 nonconsumers, using both a 33-item test and MRI images of the participants.

    The written test, authors wrote, “analyzes the empathic ability of the subject, assessing both cognitive and affective empathy.” That empathic ability is divided into specific areas or “subscales,” such as “the capacity to place oneself in the shoes of another” and “the ability to recognize other people’s emotions and impressions” as well as the ability to feel or be in tune with others’ positive and negative emotions.

    The study found that “cannabis users showed higher scores in the Emotional Comprehension scales” of the test, or those focused on the ability to recognize and understand others’ emotions. Differences observed between cannabis users and nonusers in other empathy subscales weren’t statistically significant.

    Researchers said the results suggest a potential association between marijuana use and empathy, though they caution that further research is needed to fully understand the interactions “since many other factors may be at play.”

    In attempting to explain the findings, the team of neuroscientists noted that a part of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) “is a region that is prone to the effects of cannabis consumption and is also greatly involved in empathy, which is a multicomponent process that can be influenced in different ways.”

    “Given that the ACC is one of the main areas that possess CB1 [cannabinoid] receptors and is heavily involved in the representation of the affective state of others,” the study says, “we believe that the differences shown by regular cannabis users in the emotional comprehension scores and their brain functional connectivity, could be related to the use of cannabis.”

    Another recent study published by the American Medical Association found that medical marijuana was associated with “significant improvements” in quality of life for people with conditions like chronic pain and insomnia — and those effects were “largely sustained” over time.

    Given that corrections officers have to be able to read people’s body language and emotions on a daily basis I feel as though we could benefit from legal cannabis. Not only that, the relaxing component of cannabis use can not be understated, I’ve never seen an angry pothead.

About the authors

James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a Master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.

His latest book The Badge and the Brain is available at