Interim Baltimore Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said Thursday that arrests for marijuana possession are never the focus of police patrols in the city, but are sometimes — and will continue to be — the outcome in instances where officers are confronted with illegal amounts of the drug.
“We’re not expending resources going after pot; we’re expending our resources going after violence,” he said.
Tuggle discussed the department’s position on marijuana in response to Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s announcement Tuesday that she would stop prosecuting cases in which defendants are charged simply with marijuana possession. She said she would continue to prosecute pot dealers.
Tuggle said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun that the debate around marijuana enforcement in the city since Mosby’s announcement has promoted a “false narrative” that police were “expending resources on going after people in possession of marijuana in lieu of going after people involved in homicides.”
That is simply not the case, he said.
Tuggle said that, of 21,881 arrests in the city in 2018, just 363 were for marijuana possession – representing 1.6 percent of arrests. He said he knows critics of the department have alleged that percentage was higher in the Western District, and it was – but not by much. There, he said, 36 of 1,387 arrests were for marijuana possession in 2018, representing about 2.6 percent of the total.
Tuggle said the department gave out 431 civil citations for less than 10 grams of pot in 2017, and internally voided 87 percent of those for various reasons, including incomplete paperwork. In 2018, he said, there were 134 citations given, and 72 percent of those were voided internally. Simple possession of marijuana just isn’t a priority for the department, he said.
“Those numbers themselves show that we’re not spending an inordinate amount of resources going after folks who are possessing marijuana,” Tuggle said. “We have a crime strategy, but that crime strategy is focused on reducing violence. We don’t have a marijuana strategy.”
At the same time, arrests for marijuana possession are sometimes “incidental to our overall efforts to reduce violence in the city,” Tuggle said.
“We don’t have patrol officers sitting on corners waiting to arrest somebody for marijuana possession,” he said.
But what the department does have are areas associated with drugs, including pot, and violence, he said.
Dealers in those areas who push cocaine, heroin and fentanyl are often selling marijuana, too, Tuggle said. He referred to such dealers as “poly-drug traffickers,” and said they often perpetrate violence to enforce drug turf and challenge rivals in the trade.
Because “marijuana trafficking is a very, very lucrative trade,” he said, the pot is part of what is driving the violence, he said.
“We know for a fact that these [dealers] generate violence, and in an effort to get our arms around that violence, we are looking at them, and we are going after those areas,” he said.
Police officers who come across marijuana and have a “suspicion that another crime has been committed” will cite it as part of their reasoning for furthering their investigation or search of a person, and that will sometimes lead to arrests, Tuggle said.
“As a result of focusing on reducing crime, we have had to arrest people for possession of marijuana,” he said.
Tuggle, who was a career Drug Enforcement Administration official before joining the police department, said that when Mosby told him, prior to her announcement, that she was going to stop prosecuting marijuana possession, he told her that “that’s a legislative issue — that if the legislature decides that it’s legal, then fine, but as of now, it’s still illegal.”
“She obviously runs the state’s attorney’s office, and it’s up to her to set those policies, but for now, we still have laws that as a police department we have to uphold,” he said.
Tuggle also said that as someone who grew up in Baltimore, he knows that plenty of people in the city don’t appreciate pot – or even worse, pot laced with other, more powerful narcotics.
“There’s a level of frustration on the part of people who can’t walk to the store without having to walk through a bunch of kids standing on the corner smoking pot,” he said. “When I see a young mother standing on a bus stop with a 3-year-old child, waiting to board the bus, and then you’ve got somebody standing next to her smoking marijuana – or even worse, marijuana laced with K2, Spice or even fentanyl, which we have seen – that’s a rough experience for that mother and that child to have to go through.”
Police are aware that such activity has a “quality of life” impact for residents, he said, and will keep that in mind in their patrols.