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Maryland regulators ease restrictions on past marijuana use by prospective police officers

Regulators in Maryland have eased restrictions on the amount of marijuana prospective police officers may have smoked before being hired in the state — a move Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis championed to boost his department's hiring efforts.

The new rule, which received final approval from the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission on Wednesday, bars the hiring of any prospective officers who have smoked marijuana in the past three years. It replaces a state policy dating to the 1970s that had disqualified police applicants who had used marijuana more than 20 times in their lives, or five times since turning 21 years old.

The rule was reviewed by the Office of Attorney General Brian E. Frosh. It takes effect June 1.

"It's a long time coming," said Davis, who is vice chairman of the state commission. "It gives us a greater pool of police applicants to consider as we are at a very critical time in our profession's history and we want to identify the right people."

The department is still trying to recover from a surge in departures after the unrest of 2015. Davis said past marijuana use has been the "No. 1 disqualifier" of new applicants.

Already in 2017, he said, 30 applicants have been denied employment solely because they ran afoul of the state policy.

The training and standards commission, part of the state corrections department, regulates police hiring in the state. The panel voted 16-1 to approve the change, spokesman Gerard Shields said.

The commission had recommended the change at its inaugural meeting in October. A legal review and a public comment period followed. Officials said they received no comments.

The new rule allows individual police chiefs to hold applicants to their agencies to a stricter marijuana standard if they choose, officials said.

Vince Canales, president of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police and a member of the commission, cast the lone vote against the change.

In an interview after the vote, he noted that marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, and said there "is still no real clarity" on how states — including Maryland — will treat the drug in coming years.

Maryland has decriminalized the drug and has approved the use of medical marijuana. Other states have legalized the drug for recreational use.

"Until this thing settles, shakes itself out and it's determined how it's going to be handled around the country, we think the standard should be maintained as far as police officers are concerned," Canales said.

"I don't know that it necessarily takes away from the quality of the applicants that we have," Canales said. "I just think at this time, changing the standard without a wholesale look at the way marijuana is viewed in the state and around the country ... is premature."

Davis noted that several federal law enforcement agencies maintain the standard the commission accepted Wednesday. As the state has relaxed its laws on marijuana, he said, it makes sense to ease restrictions on prospective officers.

He said that the previous rule set an arbitrary cap on past pot use that stripped discretion from police leaders to hire otherwise qualified candidates — including military veterans, and those with advanced degrees.

Under the new rule, he said, "we're still going to ask if you smoked marijuana, we're still going to ask how many times, what the circumstances were, how old you were. ... But now we're going to take the totality of your answer and use discretion."

Davis said disqualifications based on past pot use have been particularly prevalent among applicants from Baltimore — a population from which the department is trying to recruit as it looks to repair its relationship with the local community as part of a broad reform effort.

The U.S. Department of Justice reported last year that the department routinely engaged in discriminatory and unconstitutional policing, particularly in poor and African-American neighborhoods.

The police department and the city have signed a consent decree with the Justice Department mandating reforms.

The police department currently has about 120 vacancies to fill. Davis said the pot rule change will help it meet its goal of filling those positions and keeping up with future attrition by bringing on a new class of between 50 and 60 recruits every 11 weeks.

He said it was "a big piece to the puzzle" to improving recruitment. He said the effort has also been helped by holding more recruiting events and easing other restrictions — such as one that bars officers from showing tattoos on their arms.

"I would never want someone who would want to consider police work as a career to be discouraged from our profession because of tattoos on her arm or marijuana use in his past," Davis said. "I just want to be able to consider everyone who is willing to throw his hat in the ring, and pick the best ones."

krector@baltsun.com

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