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I Arrested A Man On Marijuana Charges. Then He Took His Own Life.

A former Baltimore Police officer says it’s time for the department to stop wasteful, harmful marijuana arrests, especially after Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s announcement that her office would not prosecute cases of possession.

Baltimore Police Department officers facing protesters who were gathered near the department’s Western District station during a march and vigil in 2015 over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Late one night in September 2011, I pulled over a vehicle for a minor traffic violation in Baltimore. When I spoke to the driver, I smelled a strong odor of marijuana coming from inside the vehicle. Back then, I was a patrol officer with the Baltimore Police Department and the smell was sufficient probable cause for me to instruct the driver, John Smith (not his real name), and his girlfriend to exit the vehicle while I conducted a search. On the backseat lay a brown paper bag; when I opened it, I found a pound of marijuana.

The couple said they were unaware that marijuana was in the vehicle but I arrested them for possession with intent to distribute. Hours after the arrest, both were released on their own recognizance. The state’s attorney’s office then reduced the charge to possession for Smith while the girlfriend’s charges were dismissed.

At the first court appearance for the couple, I received shocking news: Smith took his life shortly after I arrested him. His girlfriend called me a “fucking pig” as she made her way out of the courthouse—he had a kid, she said, and no money for a lawyer or to get his car out of the impound lot. I looked up Smith’s case recently in Maryland’s Judiciary Case Search and found that the possession with intent to distribute charge was nolle prossed—no longer pursued—by the state’s attorney, but a bench warrant for “failure to appear” remains for the possession charge, presumably because no one ever produced a death certificate to clear it. Even in death, injustice haunts this case.

Drug criminalization fuels criminality

I couldn’t help but think of Smith when Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced on Jan. 29 that her office would not prosecute cases of marijuana possession and would pursue distribution charges only in cases involving “articulated evidence of intent.” Mosby’s new policy was quickly countered by interim Baltimore Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle who said the department “will continue to make arrests for illegal marijuana possession unless and until the state Legislature changes the law.”  Mayor Catherine Pugh then appeared to side with Tuggle when she said that although she understood that Mosby was trying to address the “unnecessary criminalization” of people arrested for marijuana possession, “we also need to understand that those who deal illegal substances fuel criminality in our neighborhoods which leads to violence.”

Tuggle and Pugh are both wrong. It’s the criminalization of drugs that fuels criminality. FBI statistics from 2016 revealed that more people were arrested for marijuana possession than for all violent crime combined. And there are studies demonstrating that marijuana legalization is linked to crime reduction. Marijuana arrests do not increase public safety and instead criminalize thousands of Baltimoreans, most of whom are Black. Data released by the Baltimore Police Department showed that police made more than 1,500 marijuana arrests between 2015-2017–and 96 percent of those arrested were Black. The arrests are also a waste of law enforcement resources, especially in a city like Baltimore that has long struggled with an exceedingly high murder rate.

Marijuana odor makes for easy probable cause 

When I was a Baltimore police officer from 1999-2017, the odor of “freshly burnt marijuana” was constantly wheeled out as probable cause to search a person or a vehicle. One whiff was all we needed to pull a driver out of a vehicle and conduct a search. Our justification for the stops was the idea that we were going to find something more serious than drugs, like an illegal weapon or a person convicted of a felony in possession of a firearm, a favorite charge of both federal and local prosecutors. But more often than not we wound up with just a small amount of marijuana. We made lots of no-brainer, but time-intensive and costly—to the public and person arrested alike–marijuana possession cases as a result of these stops. They didn’t take long to process and there wasn’t a lot to submit into evidence beyond a few plastic baggies or a partially smoked blunt. But there was court overtime for the officers involved, from the arresting officer to the submitting officer. Each time we went to court we were guaranteed a minimum of two hours overtime, even if the case was dismissed.

For us, marijuana arrests were an easier form of stop and frisk. Stop and frisk can be hard to justify in court—and some judges have found the practice to be unconstitutional—while marijuana arrests are nearly impossible to refute. Not even body cameras can dispute what an officer claims to smell. The odor of marijuana is used so often in probable cause statements that it was a running joke among criminal defense attorneys in Baltimore.  Sometimes, my fellow officers would smell people’s fingertips as a pretext to patting them down.

These arrests also invite corruption. In 2010, Jamal Walker was sitting in his car when Sgt. Wayne Jenkins and another officer approached him and said they smelled marijuana. Walker said he wasn’t smoking marijuana but Jenkins and his partner used the odor as probable cause and seized $40,000 in cash from the vehicle. Jenkins then reported seizing only $20,000. In June 2018, Jenkins was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison after pleading guilty pleaded guilty to robbery, racketeering, and civil rights charges related to his role in the Baltimore police’s notoriously corrupt Gun Trace Task Force.

Possession or use of marijuana is not legal in Maryland, though the state did the right thing in 2014 by decriminalizing possession of 10 grams or less of the drug. Now is the time to get this right in Baltimore. Tuggle’s replacement, former New Orleans Police Chief Michael Harrison, will become the Baltimore Police Department’s acting commissioner today. He should follow the lead of other police departments, like the NYPD, and command his officers to stop arresting people for marijuana possession.