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August 22, 2013
Police chiefs just enforce the law? At the Capitol, they write it

(By Diane Goldstein, Special to The Bee)

Law enforcement has long relied on the cliché "we don't make the laws, we just enforce them" when called to task for their role in enforcing unjust laws. For many years this was the case, but in the last two decades the increased lobbying of law enforcement organizations - some motivated by considerations other than upholding the law or improving public safety - has undermined the role of police professionals by making them just one more special interest group.

Lobbying by law enforcement organizations is big business. It has contributed to the policy of mass incarceration as well as misprioritized law-enforcement resources that emphasize the prosecution of drug offenses over violent crime. This lobbying has diverted critical fiscal resources from competing governmental services like education, health care and public infrastructure. All this has been done under leaders who are not working as stakeholders and collaborative partners with the voters, but simply protecting their own self interests.

Prominent examples of law enforcement lobbying organizations in California include the California Police Chiefs Association and the California Narcotics Officers Association, which use taxpayer dollars to fund their common lobbyist, John Lovell, to oppose any criminal justice reform, no matter how reasonable. His lobbying firm has received more than $1.3 million since 2003 from these two law enforcement clients alone.

Recent examples of reasonable reforms Lovell has successfully killed include bills in both the Senate and the Assembly this year that would have provided clarification to California's murky Compassionate Use Act that governs medical marijuana use in the state. The Assembly bill provided a regulatory model, while the Senate bill clarified the need for a legal entity that would allow patients to access their medicine outside the illegal market.

These standards would have helped to reduce crime and complaints by giving law enforcement the tools and clarity needed to fairly enforce the law, which patrol officers charged with enforcing it had been urging for years. In both cases, Lovell successfully attacked the bills by claiming they would allow the medical marijuana industry to profit in spite of clear language that shows the Senate bill only applies to nonprofit entities.

Through rhetoric and mischaracterizations, the chiefs and the narcotics officers were able to effectively kill these bills that would have provided badly needed clarifications to the law despite the fact that the Compassionate Use Act requires legislators to establish such regulations and despite support from grass-roots organizations such as Americans for Safe Access, the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, and Californians to Regulate Medical Marijuana.

Tensions with the author of SB 439, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, may have motivated Lovell to work harder to kill the bill. In a video you can find on YouTube, Steinberg, mildly but publicly rebukes Lovell by rightly pointing out that it is the absence of clear regulation that is the source of problems in our medical marijuana communities.

The Police Chiefs Association has long stated that it exists in order to promote and advance the science and art of police administration and crime prevention, touting chiefs' active engagement with their communities and academic researchers, among others, to enhance public safety. I would argue otherwise. Their behavior suggests that they will engage only with those who support their position, thus denying effective police services to medical marijuana patients by driving them into the dangerous and unregulated illegal market.

So don't believe it when law-enforcement leaders fall back on the claims that "we don't make the laws, we only enforce them." Behind closed doors, they are manipulating the system to fit their own ideological view.

Diane Goldstein (Lt. Ret.) of the Redondo Beach Police Department is a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of 100,000 law-enforcement officials and other supporters opposed to the war on drugs.

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