With recreational cannabis set to be legalized in Maryland starting Saturday, state rules around whether and how police officers can use the substance while actively employed or before they are recruited are being called into question.
The Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3 on Wednesday made its position official: The Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions, which has wide latitude to issue directives around drug testing and recruitment policies, should order police agencies around the state to stop barring recruits with a history of cannabis use and discontinue “random” drug screenings for police officers.
The city’s police union said that departments should maintain “for cause” screenings that are utilized after incidents such as motor vehicle accidents or police shootings. The union said it is pressing the state and national police unions to take similar positions on the issues.
Robert F. Cherry Jr., past president and current legislative chair of the Baltimore police union, cited the training commission’s current somewhat-tolerant policy of allowing recruits to become police officers despite marijuana use as long as they stated that they had not used cannabis in the last three years.
That policy that was altered in 2017 from a more stringent requirement of new recruits saying they had not used cannabis more than a handful of times after turning 21, or no more than 20 times in total.
“How can you suspend and move to fire them now that it’s legal?” Cherry asked.
The question has already come to a head in New Jersey, where the state attorney general ruled that police departments could no longer fire or reprimand officers for using cannabis off-duty since it had been legalized for recreational use. That decision came after four Jersey City police officers sued over their suspensions for cannabis consumption.
Cherry said that police unions in Maryland should press the training commission to change its policies before a similar legal battle takes place in Maryland: “I would rather get out in front of it.”
Discussions about what to do now that recreational cannabis is about to become legal have been taking place at the Baltimore Police Department. A spokesperson for BPD said the agency is waiting on directives from the training commission before crafting any new policies. Former Baltimore police commissioner Kevin Davis had championed the more lenient recruitment policies that were altered in 2017.
Clyde Boatwright, the state Fraternal Order of Police president who sits on the commission, said on Monday that he and other members have already had preliminary discussions on changing the standards as it relates to recruits who may have used cannabis in the past. He anticipated more discussions around whether or how to alter drug testing policies for officers who are already certified.
But Boatwright sounded a skeptical note that Maryland’s commission would reach an outcome in which officers are allowed to use recreational cannabis off-duty, citing the federal prohibition and the fact that, currently, people with medical marijuana cards aren’t allowed to possess and carry firearms.
“Unless those provisions relax, I think our industry already dictates that police officers, by virtue of their employment, can’t participate in recreational use like other citizens,” he said.
Other members of the training commission did not respond to requests for comment.
Law enforcement officers are typically tested for substance use on a “random” basis, but there are also “for-cause” screenings that could be triggered by a number of scenarios.
The questions around cannabis use for police officers have taken on added significance given recent challenges law enforcement agencies across the state and the country at large are having in finding new recruits. Those recruitment woes have only grown more amplified since the murder of George Floyd sparked national police brutality protests.
Beyond recruitment, Cherry said he also views cannabis use as an “equity issue,” saying that enforcement over cannabis laws has disproportionately affected Black men, and that BPD has increased the number of Black men serving as officers in the department.
“The BPD is ‘maintaining’ a past system of disparity by using cannabis as a means to suspend and fire Black officers via drug testing,” Cherry said.
Boatwright said the “vilification” of police officers in recent years has made the law enforcement profession a less attractive job for young people.
That dynamic will certainly factor into the commission’s discussions on screening policies, he added, pointing out that nearly every police department in the country is floating new incentives to recruit officers, from housing vouchers to tuition reimbursement and other tactics.
“Everybody is in a race to get the most qualified applicant to come in the door,” Boatwright said.
The commission member said that the discussions on the topic might become a “push-pull, whether it’s a recruitment issue versus a legal issue.
“I could see it being challenged by someone by saying, ‘Look, I’m not violating the law, why can’t I become a police officer?’”