Bribing the cops is illegal, but not in politics. Without paying off the cops, California might not have legalized recreational cannabis.
But now, four years later, with the legal industry struggling and police unable to protect legal merchants from either the illicit market or organized thieves, there’s serious doubt whether devoting tax revenue from marijuana sales to police budgets was smart politics. And in light of calls to defund or cut police spending throughout the country, California’s experience is a warning for legalization efforts in other states. Should police get a cut before education, healthcare, or disadvantaged communities shut out of the legal market? And does law enforcement have any business making money off of legalization at all?
Eager to sell regulating and taxing cannabis to uneasy suburban and conservative voters, the authors of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, offered the state’s powerful law-enforcement lobbies a gift.
Twenty percent of the promised $1 billion in annual tax revenue legalization would create was earmarked for “public safety.” Legalization advocates heard an earful from growers and merchants eager to go legal—why reward the crews that had spent decades trying to arrest them?—but it was sold as necessary and practical electoral strategy. And from a public-safety standpoint, the gambit worked—sort of. Though the cop lobbies opposed the measure anyway, they also didn’t run a massive scare campaign. On Election Day 2016, AUMA won more than 57 percent of the vote.