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Maryland regulators recommend relaxing marijuana rules for police applicants

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis supports a proposed change to rules that restrict the number of times a prospective officer might have smoked marijuana and still be considered for a job.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis supports a proposed change to rules that restrict the number of times a prospective officer might have smoked marijuana and still be considered for a job. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

The commission that regulates police hiring in Maryland has recommended that the state relax a rule that restricts the number of times a prospective officer might have smoked marijuana and still be considered for a job — a change Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has championed as a way to attract more recruits.

Under state policy dating to the 1970s, 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.

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The Police Training and Standards Commission, created by the legislature last year in response to concerns about police accountability, voted during its inaugural meeting this month to recommend lifting the lifetime limit and barring only those recruits who have used the drug in the last three years.

Davis, who was elected vice chair of the 24-member commission at the meeting Oct. 5, said the "overwhelming majority" of panel members supported the change.

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"Everyone has their own particular views of marijuana use, but this isn't about anyone's personal views," Davis said. "We have to do what's right for the profession and what's going on in America in 2016."

The commission's recommendation now goes before the public for comment. It must pass a legal review and be approved by top state officials before it can become policy.

In recent years, Davis has said, past marijuana use has been "the No. 1 disqualifier for police applicants in Baltimore." In a letter to the commission earlier this year outlining his support for the proposed change, Davis emphasized the department's need to diversify its ranks and improve recruitment.

Some drug specialists have warned that reducing restrictions on past pot use by officers could have unintended consequences. They note that modern marijuana is far stronger than marijuana smoked decades ago, and its effects are not fully known.

The national Fraternal Order of Police also has expressed reservations about any reductions in qualifications for new officers.

Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana, and other states, including Maryland, have decriminalized the drug and moved toward licensing medical marijuana.

As marijuana laws have been relaxed, Davis said, it makes sense to relax the restrictions on potential officers as well.

Police chiefs across the state already have discretion when assessing other missteps in police candidates' lives, Davis said, but have had their hands tied when it comes to past marijuana use.

"One of the points that I made to people is that we are losing some really good people from our profession because we are clinging to this defense that makes no sense," he said.

Under the current policy, he said, a promising young college graduate who has experimented with pot in the past, who could apply and be accepted to medical school or enter the business world to begin a promising career, can't be a cop in Maryland.

"We're not lowering our standards at all," he said.

The Baltimore Police Department has an authorized strength of 2,850 officers, but the actual force is significantly smaller.

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The department has 225 vacant positions that are not being filled under a hiring freeze. It has 117 vacant positions that it is trying to fill and another 295 positions that are unfilled because officers are on medical or military leave, have been suspended or have been placed on light duty.

That leaves 2,213 officers working on the streets of Baltimore, Davis said.

The office of Attorney General Brian E. Frosh is reviewing the panel's recommendation for "legal sufficiency," a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said.

From there, it will go to Stephen Moyer, the public safety department's secretary, and the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review in Annapolis, spokesman Gerard Shields said.

There will also be a 30-day public comment period, Shields said.

Moyer would have to sign off on the change before it could be implemented.

Baltimore Sun reporter Catherine Rentz contributed to this article.

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