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Davis wants to relax restrictions on past marijuana use for police recruits in Maryland

Baltimore's top cop wants to change ban on officers with past pot use

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis wants to relax a hiring policy for police officers in Maryland that disqualifies applicants for past marijuana use, saying it is "fundamentally inconsistent with where we are as a society" and hurts local hiring efforts.

Davis will lead a committee to review the current standard of the Maryland Police Training Commission, which sets hiring policy for law enforcement in the state. Police applicants are disqualified from becoming officers if they have used marijuana more than 20 times in their lives or five times since turning 21 years old.

The policy has been in place since the 1970s, when the nation had declared war on drugs. In recent years, Maryland and other states have decriminalized marijuana possession, and some have allowed its use.

"I don't want to hire altar boys to be police officers necessarily," Davis told The Baltimore Sun's editorial board Thursday. "I want people of good character, of good moral character, but I want people who have lived a life just like everybody else — a life not unlike the lives of the people who they are going to be interacting with every day."

Davis wants the state to maintain a prohibition on marijuana use in the three years prior to application but eliminate the automatic disqualification for use before then, according to a letter he sent the training commission. He said police chiefs could still consider marijuana use from years ago in hiring decisions, and individual departments can set more strict guidelines.

He said past marijuana use is "the No. 1 disqualifier for police applicants in Baltimore" at a time when the department is looking to diversify and bring more city residents into its ranks. He said that "we need our police departments to reflect communities."

Applicants must prove they are drug-free through urinalysis. Their past use of the drug, which would not show up in tests, is expected to be shared with recruiting officers during an interview.

The Baltimore commissioner believes the standard is too strict and too rigid in its application because police commanders have no discretion to make exceptions even if a recruit only engaged in youthful experimentation or abandoned smoking marijuana years ago.

"I can't apply discretion if you say you've smoked marijuana over the magic number of times," Davis said.

"We can hold all the job fairs we want in West Baltimore and in East Baltimore, and we can get people to the table to take the test. But when they go to the prescreening interview, and they say they've smoked marijuana above the threshold that was established back in the '70s, they're permanently disqualified. And that's a source of frustration for me."

Davis said he is "really looking forward to getting some forward-looking police chiefs in the room with me to have this discussion." The review is not looking at other disqualifying factors, such as criminal records.

Others questioned whether relaxing drug standards for police applicants is a good idea.

Mike Gimbel, former director of the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse and now a drug consultant who works with college athletes and private businesses, said the marijuana being used today is much more potent than it was decades ago. And the scientific community hasn't been able to keep up in terms of understanding the effects, he said.

"Baby boomers are running the country, and baby boomers are leading the movement to liberalize or legalize marijuana, and they think it's the same pot they smoked in 1969. And it's not that way," he said. "I would be very, very conservative in changing anything until we get a better handle on the potency and what this new pot is doing to the brain and to the body."

Chuck Canterbury, president of the national Fraternal Order of Police union, said his organization has not taken a stance on the revision of drug use policies but members "generally oppose reductions of educational standards or previous criminal history standards" and "would like to see more in-depth medical evaluation before they jump on the bandwagon of reducing standards" governing past drug use.

Usually when standards are diminished, so is the caliber of officers, Canterbury said.

"With the current atmosphere around policing, we don't know that we can tolerate any more reductions in standards," he said. "It's just not good for the profession."

The conversation comes amid a much broader dialogue surrounding law enforcement in the United States following the fatal shootings of black men by police in cities across the country and the recent killing of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La.

Many in law enforcement, including Canterbury, believe that the scrutiny has contributed to recruiting problems for police departments — which has prompted some to revisit drug policies and other hiring standards.

"Obviously, what's driving this type of change is the fact that recruiting and retention is so difficult," Canterbury said.

Baltimore has been at the center of the debate for more than a year, since the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody caused widespread protests against police brutality. Gray's funeral was followed by rioting, looting and arson.

But in Baltimore, police officials said recruiting problems stem more from long-standing difficulties in finding qualified applicants than a reticence among potential applicants because of recent events, officials said.

When Maj. Jim Handley was put in charge of reinvigorating recruitment for the department in January, he sought to identify hurdles. He expected to find that recruiting had been stymied by Gray's death and the police-involved deaths of other young black men like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

"Of course we hear about the 'Freddie Gray Effect,' the 'Ferguson Effect,'" Handley said in a recent interview, "so I really wanted to examine that."

But what he found surprised him.

"Anecdotally, people thought that our applications would fall off after the unrest. We found that absolutely not to be true," Handley said. "It's essentially the same."

As of April 30, the department had 401 applicants in 2016 — a 6 percent increase over the same period last year, before the unrest, Handley said. Of those applicants, 167 were black, representing a 29 percent increase in black applicants over 2015. There were 252 minority applicants, including women — a 41 percent increase over 2015.

Handley called that "a very good sign."

But for years, only about 5 percent to 7 percent of applicants have been qualified after background checks, Handley said, and that rate has remained steady over the last year.

Davis said marijuana is overwhelmingly the culprit for disqualifications, and it's "time for a change."

The department has 2,300 officers, down from more than 3,000 in past years. The force declined, in part, because of a deal with the police union to reduce the number of officers in exchange for pay increases, but there are also hundreds of vacancies the department is trying to fill.

Police departments across the country have confronted changing attitudes around marijuana for decades. Places like Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana, and other states, including Maryland, have pushed forward with decriminalization and medical marijuana licensing.

Many states consider past marijuana use when screening police applicants, but standards vary — and are changing. Some states require two years of marijuana-free living, others longer.

Some agencies are even considering doing away with their policies.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration bars those who have experimented with or used narcotics from becoming agents but may make exceptions "for applicants who admit to limited youthful and experimental use of marijuana."

The FBI bars the hiring of employees who have used marijuana in the past three years, but that policy has been questioned. In 2014, FBI Director James B. Comey suggested that his organization might have to loosen its policy in order to attract young, computer-savvy agents who are capable of keeping up with the newest generation of cybercriminals — though he quickly backed away from that stance.

Gimbel said that if police do decide to relax standards on past marijuana use, the change should come with increased pre-employment and in-service testing of officers, as well as enhanced psychological evaluations.

Especially for police, even slight impairments to hand-eye coordination or the ability to make quick decisions could have major consequences, he said.

"If you do have a person who has been smoking pot on a fairly recent basis, especially what I'm calling the 'new pot,' you might see some slowness in the ability to make quick decisions," Gimbel said.

krector@baltsun.com

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