– Executive Summary –

The inevitability of police officer stress highlights the need for options to manage it. Given the health benefits of cannabis and increasing support for its legalized recreational use, gridlocking policy at a complete restriction of off-duty use will not be beneficial. The complexity of stress for law enforcement stems from multiple sources that compound one another. While organizational factors could improve some of the sources of stress, these changes would take long-term planning and execution. Additionally, stressors that are unique to law enforcement are growing constantly and taking a toll on the health of law enforcement personnel.

While first responders have unique operational stressors, they, too, experience stressors at the organizational level similar to other professions, and sometimes these pressures even supersede the risk to life and limb as a cause of stress. In addition to these stressors, law enforcement is affected by the public climate and sentiment, which are constantly shifting in favor of or against law enforcement as a whole.[1] Furthermore, efforts to lower police budgets hurt officers and cause added stress. Budget cuts lead to a lack of resources—including updated equipment, training, community policing/prevention, and competitive wages—for law enforcement.[2] Budget gaps ultimately lead to police departments’ being unprepared to respond to any situation, which causes stress.[3]

In addition to organizational sources of stress, there are unique operational stressors related to the first responder field. These unique stressors include shift work, high-risk situations, and ever-growing public scrutiny. Shift work takes a toll in that police officers serve around the clock, straining sleep patterns and increasing fatigue.[4] High-risk situations present consistent exposure to deadly or potentially deadly situations, which also instill fear and ultimately the inability to relax, which can cause sleeplessness and anxiety, among other mental and physical health issues.

All these stressors affect the bodies and minds of police officers and other first responders. According to research conducted by the Ruderman Family Foundation, rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were far more prominent in law enforcement officers than among the general public.[5] Physical impacts of fatigue caused by lack of sleep include reduced hand–eye coordination, weight gain, body pain, restlessness, gastrointestinal issues, and cardiovascular problems.[6]

Physical and mental health issues are often accompanied by substance abuse as a way to cope with pain, stress, and sleeplessness. In an effort to find relief from the high stress levels, law enforcement officers often utilize alcohol and prescription medications to mask mental and physical health–related issues.[7] Substance abuse can be traced to stress from public safety careers, leading to a downward spiral from substance dependence that either alleviates or creates mental health issues. Given the recent increase in suicides among law enforcement, officers need stress-relief measures to better cope with daily pressures. The recreational use of alcohol and abuse of prescribed pain medications have proven to be problematic. Treatment options need to offer some therapeutic value for a variety of physical and psychological conditions but, at the same time, must not create unreasonable risk.

The historical use of cannabis throughout the world for its wide range of therapeutic effects far surpasses historical use of any other herbs or recreational substances such as alcohol, which has mixed historical uses for pain relief and anesthesia. More recently, cannabis has been used to assist with anxiety disorders and pain relief for issues such as back pain, an ailment common to those in first responder careers.[8] However, cannabis can affect both motor and psychomotor skills, cause short-term memory loss, and temporarily affect neurotransmitters involved in thinking, concentration, and coordination.[9]

Ultimately, as found in this thesis, cannabis is an extremely useful substance in the treatment of many conditions that effect law enforcement officers through physical and psychological injury. Cannabis does impact cognitive functions such as decision-making and memory, which can ultimately lead to accidental injuries or death. To this notion, alcohol impacts the brain similarly, and like cannabis, its effects are typically temporary, thus rendering use of both of these intoxicants viable only if they are used recreationally or under the supervision of a medical professional—and not while on duty. Such utility suggests the inclusion of cannabis in the arsenal of tools available for medical practitioners and its recognition as a viable option as a recreational substance—which obviously presents the need for a strategy built on proactive thinking about a potential shift to legalization.

With the future in mind, agencies would be wise to employ strategic planning in regard to employee issues surrounding legalized cannabis use, given the increase in laws permitting recreational use at the state level and the push for federal legalization. In the 2018 annual crime report published by the U.S. Army, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) accounted for 68 percent of positive drug tests among service members.[10] This report explains that even the U.S. Army has seen a rise in cannabis use in states that have legalized its recreational consumption. Some other occupations allow recreational cannabis use so long as employees are not intoxicated while working; however, there is no explicit allowance measure for THC levels. For example, the blood alcohol content (BAC) limit for airline pilots is .04 percent, which is half the typical legal driving limit (.08 percent) in most states.[11] It is reasonable to assume that since low levels of alcohol in the blood are tolerated in these professional contexts, the increasing legalization of cannabis will also need to be considered, especially given its therapeutic value.

Unlike the U.S. military, the Canadian Armed Forces can freely consume cannabis while off duty.[12] The policies of Canada’s National Defense provide strict guidelines as to acceptable circumstances for cannabis use.[13] Moreover, the legalization of cannabis at the federal level allows police officers to consume cannabis while off duty, as with alcohol. Indeed, Canadian officers abide by what is called a “fit for duty” policy, which means that officers cannot be intoxicated while on duty.[14] This policy allows supervisors to send an officer home if he or she appears to be intoxicated. The fit-for-duty provision is absolute and also applies to medical need.

One of the main issues that arises during legalization discussions is the lack of a numerical value for THC in the blood to indicate a level of intoxication. This level is especially important because THC can stay in the body for days or weeks, unlike alcohol, which is metabolized and flushed at a rate of approximately .015 per hour.[15] This rate becomes a concern when officers or employees either are tested randomly or exhibit possible intoxication indicators, and the current level of intoxication must be distinguished from residual signs of past use. In 2005, an expert international panel on driving under the influence of cannabis published its collective findings—including the conclusion that the effects of cannabis on driving subside within four hours of ingesting through smoking.[16] The report likens a .04 percent BAC to 4 ng/mL of THC.[17] The panel recommends a per se limit of 7–10 ng/mL when measuring blood serum or plasma or 3.5–5 ng/mL when measuring whole blood. Consideration must be given for chronic users who normally have 0–2 ng/mL of THC at any given time because these users are not currently intoxicated at such levels.[18]

Like the general population, police officers also turn to recreational use of intoxicants such as alcohol to decompress after a long day or as a way to bond in a social setting with work friends. Another thing that distinguishes the general population from law enforcement personnel is the public’s ability and law enforcement’s inability to use cannabis recreationally. While cannabis, the second-most-used intoxicant, has a therapeutic value in addition to its intoxication effects, alcohol, the most-used intoxicant, does not. This disparity in intoxicant use and the therapeutic benefits should be considered when creating cannabis-use policies. As such, fit-for-duty policies allow for the therapeutic benefits of recreational cannabis use but do not allow for intoxication while on duty from any intoxicant.


[1] Donald R. McCreary, Ivy Fong, and Dianne L. Groll, “Measuring Policing Stress Meaningfully: Establishing Norms and Cut-Off Values for the Operational and Organizational Police Stress Questionnaires,” Police Practice and Research 18, no. 6 (2017): 619, https://doi.org/10.1080/15614263.‌2017.1363965.

[2] Peter Finn and Julie E. Tomz, Developing a Law Enforcement Stress Program for Officers and Their Families (Washington, DC: Department of Justice, 1997), 6–7.

[3] Finn and Tomz, 8.

[4] “Officer Work Hours, Stress and Fatigue,” National Institute of Justice, July 31, 2012, http://nij.ojp.‌gov/topics/articles/officer-work-hours-stress-and-fatigue.

[5] Miriam Heyman, Jeff Dill, and Robert Douglas, The Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders (Newton, MA: Ruderman Family Foundation, 2018), 12.

[6] National Institute of Justice, “Officer Work Hours, Stress and Fatigue.”

[7] “Substance Abuse among Police,” American Addiction Centers, December 6, 2021, https://american‌addictioncenters.org/police.

[8] Philip Robson, “Therapeutic Aspects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids,” British Journal of Psychiatry 178, no. 2 (February 2001): 107–15, https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.178.2.107.

[9] “Prescription Opioids DrugFacts,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, June 2021, https://www.drug‌abuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-opioids.

[10] Office of the Provost Marshal General, FY2018 Army Crime Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Army, 2019), https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6523607-FY2018ArmyCrimeReport-Copy.html.

[11] “Alcohol, the Pilot, and the FAA,” Aviation Medical Services, accessed August 27, 2020, http://www.airspacedoc.com/alcohol-the-pilot-and-the-faa/.

[12] Canadian Department of National Defence, Use of Cannabis by CAF Members, DAOD 9004-1 (Ottawa: Canadian Department of National Defence, 2019), https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/corporate/policies-standards/defence-administrative-orders-directives/9000-series/9004/9004-1-use-cannabis-caf-members.html#pbosc.

[13] Canadian Department of National Defence.

[14] “Marijuana OK’d for Off-Duty Canadian Cops,” PoliceOne, October 10, 2018, https://www.‌policeone.com/canada/articles/marijuana-okd-for-off-duty-canadian-cops-y0nN7LDj0G6kkMUG/.

[15] “Alcohol Metabolism,” Bowling Green State University, accessed January 19, 2022, https://www.‌bgsu.edu/recwell/wellness-connection/alcohol-education/alcohol-metabolism.html.

[16] Franjo Grotenhermen et al., Developing Science-Based Per Se Limits for Driving under the Influence of Cannabis (DUIC): Findings and Recommendations by an Expert Panel (Semantic Scholar, 2005), https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Developing-Science-Based-Per-Se-Limits-for-Driving-Grotenhermen-Leson/785622b64cd2d9b662596f5564ae70afac6bceee.

[17] Franjo Grotenhermen et al., “Developing Limits for Driving under Cannabis,” Addiction 102, no. 12 (December 2007): 6, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1360-0443.2007.02009.x.

[18] Grotenhermen et al., “Developing Limits for Driving under Cannabis.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top