Volunteers smoke pot with cops training to spot signs of stoned drivers

As marijuana legalization spreads, a police department in Maryland is training officers to spot the signs of driving high by watching people toke up in a tent

Ameer Taylor blows out a cloud of marijuana smoke during a training session in Gaithersburg, Md., for police officers to recognize impairment in users of the substance. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

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Just after 7 p.m., under an outdoor tent in suburban Maryland, Yohanna Molina fired up a joint. With her were 11 others getting high.

“This is weird to be doing this here,” she told a friend hunched over a glass bong.

“You should try being on the police side of it,” cracked an officer standing behind them, one of more than a dozen cops also in the tent.

The exchange cut to the core of the strange but important gatherings that take place two to three times a year at the Montgomery County Police Department and are increasingly being held at police agencies nationwide. Montgomery County brings in marijuana smokers — literally goes to pick them up in police cars — and walks them to the tent outside its training academy so they can get stoned. Bags of Cheetos, bottles of water and plenty of pizza are on the house.

Participants are then used as test subjects for officers trying to determine whether someone is too high to drive. That’s not easy. Unlike people who drive drunk, and whose impairment can be quantified by breathalyzers and blood-alcohol tests, it’s more difficult to discern with pot.

The most recent session, held on a Thursday night in January, lasted nearly four hours. Participants engaged in a 30-minute “consumption session,” followed by impairment evaluations inside the building, and repeated the cycle. During the second consumption session, officers asked if any volunteers wanted to add alcohol to the mix.

“Who wants a Bud Light?” asked Lt. John O’Brien, leaning over a cooler. Then he grabbed a large bottle of booze: “Captain Morgan?”

Medical marijuana users got high in front of Montgomery County police officers to help them better understand how the drug can lead to driver impairment. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

None of the subjects drive home. They return via the cops who brought them. All hold medical-use cards and are reimbursed for the product they ingest.

“We’re all trying to learn from each other,” said O’Brien. “A lot can come out of smoking and joking.”

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Montgomery has been a leader in the cannabis labs program, also called green labs, which experts say appears to be operating in nearly 10 states.

They derive their names from Wet Labs, a long-standing police training program in which subjects are brought in, asked to drink alcohol and evaluated for impairment. Some of those tests are the same: looking into eyeballs for rapid movements; asking participants to walk heel-to-toe; and having them close their eyes and try to touch their nose with their fingertips.

Marijuana’s legal status — often an illegal one over the years — rendered pot impairment studies less practical. “No one wanted to mess with it,” said Seattle police officer Jonathon Huber, who hosted his first green lab last year and plans to do more.

In Montgomery, it was late 2017 when Officer Jayme Derbyshire first pushed the idea. She had spent 15 years in traffic enforcement and could see the trends coming: more medical use of marijuana and a push toward legalization for all users.

Montgomery’s police department offered plenty of training for catching drunk drivers — 40 hours in the academy including three Wet Labs. She went to her lieutenant, Dave McBain, and got right to the point when telling him the first step of the training she envisioned: “I would like to bring in a bunch of medically certified cannabis users and let them get high.”

McBain, now a captain, endorsed the idea, but in taking it to their chief, tweaked the beginning of the pitch: “Jayme thinks we should …”

The three laughed for bit. But they quickly proceeded with their first cannabis lab. Getting volunteers wasn’t easy. As one of the recent participants, Molina, put it, “You have to get out of the mind-set that you’re going to get in trouble.”

Derbyshire spoke with local medical dispensaries, especially the store managers, and impressed on them that officers truly did want to learn the difference between use and impairment, and wanted to know how much tolerance should factor into their analysis.

The first couple of classes indeed had some buzz-kills: volunteers who got high but wouldn’t participate in the evaluation tests.

But with each session, the groups came to trust each other. Of the 12 participants at Montgomery’s recent session, at least five were repeats — and could be seen greeting officers they knew from earlier.

“Nice to see you,” Khiry Maxberry, 27, told O’Brien as the volunteers gathered in a front lobby area of the academy. Minutes later they were taken out to the tent, which measured about 20 feet by 20 feet.

Things were crowded: two tables, 12 users and at least that many officers. Earlier rain had seeped through, turning the grass floor into thick, goopy mud.

“You good?” a user asked Maxberry.

“I’m about to be very good,” he responded.

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Their relaxed bearing was in part due to user feedback received by the police — through written critiques — from the program’s early days, when the officers believed a 15-minute opening consumption session was enough.

“They felt rushed,” O’Brien said.

Nearby, under the tent, as Cat Szafran smoked a Runtz pre-rolled hybrid joint purchased at a dispensary in Frederick, the 60-year-old extolled the virtues of such retail operations, comparing their products with what she could get from a random dealer as a teenager. “It’s a lot different than going to Fred down the street,” she said.

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Later in the evening, after she’d gone through the second consumption session, Szafran was evaluated inside the academy building by two Montgomery County police officers as part of their impairment-recognition training.

They took her through evaluation paces as if she’d just been pulled over. The officers conducted a series of tests, including one in which Szafran was asked to stand with her eyes closed and head back before following commands to bring her index fingers to the tip of her nose.

“Do you have any questions?” one of the officers asked.

“No sir,” said Szafran, a slight smile above her black T-shirt bearing the words “cannabis is medicine.”

The officers alternately asked her to bring her right or left hands to her nose.

Watching closely was Lt. Cody Fields, a certified drug recognition expert. The specialized officers are often called in to evaluate a suspected drug-impaired driver. They take motorists through a 12-step process, which includes eyeball and pupil examinations and coordination tests designed to pick up a person’s ability to not just move properly but also stay on task.

In helping train the Montgomery officers, Fields told one of them he was testing too quickly. “You might not notice the leg tremors or whatever else goes on,” Fields said.

Szafran offered some advice to Fields, but got caught up in her own words.

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“I was just going to say: ‘Change up the numbers,’” she said, moving her arms up and down, “about how when he starts doing it I know when it’s going to be a right two times in a row.”

“It’s always the same way,” Fields responded.

“Interesting. Okay. Fascinating,” Szafran said.

Later, in an interview, she acknowledged she’d smoked too much to drive. “No ifs, ands or buts, I would never have gotten behind a wheel that night,” she said. “I was just that impaired.”

But Szafran also noted that some of her failures, when it came to losing balance, may have nothing to do with pot. “Sober I have very little sense of balance,” she said. “I wobble all over the place.”

Such drug impairment tests are regularly challenged in court across the country.

“There are real questions about the scientific validity of what they’re doing,” said Leonard R. Stamm, a longtime defense attorney and author of “Maryland DUI Law,” which devotes more than 30 pages to defending drugged driving cases.

Among the sample questions that Stamm suggests be asked of police drug recognition experts, he advises in the book, many relate to balance: “And when you had him tilt his head back, you would agree that you were disrupting the vestibular system — the fluid — in the inner ear? … That fluid in the inner ear also helps us to maintain our balance?”

Officers are forced to rely on such observational tests, experts in the field say, because there are no agreed-upon chemical limits like blood-alcohol concentrations. Huber, the officer in Seattle, said that leaves officers in a challenging spot — especially given that marijuana affects people differently. “It’s difficult to do,” he said, “which is why we need these trainings.”

Cannabis labs appear to be operating in at least 10 states, according to Jack Richman, a nationwide expert on the best cannabis-impairment indicators. “There is grant money and other sources continually wanting to run these for training purposes,” Richman said.

O’Brien, the Montgomery County police lieutenant, and a trained drug recognition expert, acknowledges the challenges but said the impairment tests and observations work because they’re designed to account for issues like preexisting imbalance. The longtime officer became intensely aware of the need years ago, when he headed up the department’s fatal crash investigation unit and noted a series of drivers who were shown to have had THC, a substance in marijuana, in their system.

“This is a huge challenge and only getting bigger,” he said. “All we can do is train our officers to build the best cases they can.”

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