For Training Purposes, Police Gave out Munchies and Observed People Become High!

Police gave out munchies, then watched people get high — for training

At around 7 o’clock that evening, Yohanna Molina lit up a joint in a tent in the backyard of her Maryland suburbia home. Eleven others were high with her.

“This is odd to be doing this here,” she said to her friend as they hunched over a glass bong.

The officer standing behind them cracked, “You should try being on the police side of it.” There were more than a dozen police officers in the tent.

Our conversation got to the heart of the unusual but crucial meetings held twice or three times a year by the Montgomery County Police Department and by police departments across the country. Smokers from outside the county are picked up by officers and led to a tent set up in front of the Montgomery County Police Department’s training academy so they can partake in some recreational cannabis use. There will be free pizza, drinks, and bags of Cheetos.

In the end, participants serve as guinea pigs for police officers seeking to detect if a driver is impaired by drugs or alcohol. Not an easy task, to be sure. While impairment from alcohol can be measured using breathalyzers and blood-alcohol tests, the same cannot be said for marijuana use.

The most recent meeting was on a January Thursday evening and lasted for about four hours. A 30-minute “consumption session” was followed by in-house impairment assessments, and the process was repeated. If any of the consumers in the second round wanted to add alcohol, the police asked whether they could.

Is anybody up for a Bud Light? leaned Lieutenant John O’Brien over a cooler and inquired. Then he reached for a massive bottle of alcohol and asked, “Captain Morgan?”

In this study, no one walks or takes public transportation to their homes. They are returned by the police officers who originally transported them. All users have valid medical documentation and receive reimbursement for consumption.

O’Brien put it best: “We’re all trying to learn from each other.” “Have a smoke and have a laugh; you might learn something.”

Experts believe that the cannabis laboratories program, also known as green labs, is active in close to ten states and that Montgomery has been a driving force behind it.

Their moniker comes from “Wet Laboratories,” a standard method for police training that involves the forced ingestion of alcohol by test subjects before assessing their level of impairment. Looking into participants’ eyes for quick movements, having them walk heel to toe, and having them close their eyes and attempt to touch their noses with their fingers are all examples of similar tests.

Because of changes in marijuana’s legal status throughout the years, conducting impairment studies on the drug has become increasingly difficult. “No one wanted to bother with it,” said Seattle police officer Jonathon Huber, who hosted his first green lab last year and expects to host more.

Officer Jayme Derbyshire in Montgomery was the first to propose this in the city in the latter half of 2017. Having worked in traffic enforcement for 15 years, she foresaw the rise in medical marijuana usage and the subsequent drive to legalize the drug for recreational use.

The police school in Montgomery, Alabama, featured three Wet Labs and 40 classroom hours dedicated to the topic of identifying and arresting intoxicated drivers. She proceeded to report to her lieutenant, Dave McBain, and she told him, “I would like to bring in a lot of medically certified cannabis users and let them get high.”

McBain, now a captain, agreed with the concept but presented it to their leader with a slightly modified opening: “Jayme thinks we should…”

The three of them shared a brief moment of laughter. Yet, they wasted no time in establishing their initial cannabis research facility. Volunteers were hard to come by. To quote one of the more recent participants, Molina: “You have to get out of the mindset that you’re going to get in trouble.”

Derbyshire visited many local medical dispensaries, making a point to meet with the store managers and stress that law enforcement is serious about wanting to learn the distinction between use and impairment and how much tolerance should be taken into account.

In the first two classes, there were some buzz-kills: high volunteers who refused to take the assessment examinations.

There was initially some mistrust between the factions, but that changed with time. At least half (at least five) of the 12 people who attended the most recent session in Montgomery were returnees; they were spotted chatting with police officers they had met before.

Khiry Maxberry, 27, greeted O’Brien with “Good to see you” as the volunteers gathered in the academy’s main foyer. Minutes later, they were led to the tent’s about 20 by 20-foot outside location.

Two tables could barely fit the 12 customers and at least as many police officers. The ground was once grass but now it was a thick, sticky mud due to the earlier rain that had seeped through.

A user questioned Maxberry, “You good?”

‘I’m about to be really good,’ he said in response.

Their laid-back demeanor may be traced back to early on in the program’s run, when police officers, based on written evaluations they received, decided that 15 minutes of first consumption was sufficient.

O’Brien remarked, “They felt rushed.”

Cat Szafran, 60, smoked a Runtz pre-rolled hybrid joint from a dispensary in Frederick while praising the benefits of such stores, contrasting their wares with what she could obtain from any old dealer when she was a youngster. She remarked, “It’s very different than visiting Fred down the street.”

Later that night, after Szafran had completed her second session of consumption, two police officers from Montgomery County inspected her inside the academy building as part of their impairment-recognition training.

As if she had just been pulled over, they put her through a battery of evaluation tests. One of the tests that Szafran had to take was standing with her eyes closed and her head cocked back, then following directions to reach her index fingers to the tip of her nose.

When asked whether they had any questions, the cops all looked at the person in question.

Szafran smiled slightly above her “cannabis is medicine” black T-shirt and replied, “No sir.”

The police kept switching which hand they had her raise up to her nose.

Lt. Cody Fields, a trained expert in narcotics detection, was keeping a careful eye on the situation. Specialist police personnel is frequently requested to assess drivers suspected of drug impairment. They put drivers through a 12-step process that involves exams for everything from hand-eye coordination to the health of the driver’s eyes and pupils.

As Fields was helping to teach the Montgomery police, he advised one of the officers that he was testing too soon. It’s possible, as Fields put it, that “you might not feel the leg shakes or whatever else goes on.”

Szafran tried to help Fields out by giving her some counsel, but she stumbled over her own words.

She waved her arms up and down and added, “I was just going to say: ‘Change up the numbers,'” meaning that she could predict when it would be a right two times in a row if he began doing it.

Fields remarked, “It’s always the same way.”

“Interesting. Okay. This is fascinating,” Szafran remarked.

After being interviewed, she admitted that she had been smoking too much to safely operate a vehicle. There were no ifs, ands, or buts in her mind; she would not have driven that night. As I said, “I was simply that disabled.”

Szafran conceded, though, that the weed might not be to blame for all of her balance problems. “When I’m sober, I have zero feeling of equilibrium,” she admitted. The best way to describe my instability is to say, “I wobble all over the place.”

Legal challenges to drug impairment testing occur often in courts around the United States.

“There are real issues about the scientific legitimacy of what they’re doing,” said Leonard R. Stamm, a veteran defense attorney and author of “Maryland DUI Law,” which devotes more than 30 pages to defending drugged driving cases.

Several of the sample questions that Stamm recommends asking drug recognition experts in law enforcement have to do with striking a healthy middle ground. You would agree that by having him tilt his head back, you were disturbing the vestibular system, the fluid in the inner ear, right?… The fluid in our inner ears aids in balance, right?

Experts in the field believe that without agreed-upon chemical limitations like blood-alcohol concentrations, police must rely on such observational testing. Seattle police officer Huber said this puts them in a difficult position, especially considering the wide range of responses to marijuana. To paraphrase what he stated, “It’s difficult to do,” which is why “we need this training.”

Jack Richman, a national specialist on the finest cannabis-impairment markers, claims that cannabis laboratories are active in at least 10 states. It’s always in demand as a training tool, and there’s grant money and other sources eager to fund it, Richman said.

Police lieutenant O’Brien in Montgomery County, Maryland, who is also certified as an expert in recognizing the effects of drugs, concedes that there are obstacles but maintains that impairment tests and observations are effective because they are made to account for things like preexisting imbalance.

Years ago, while the officer was in charge of the department’s fatal crash investigation team, he became acutely aware of the need after a string of drivers were found to have THC, a chemical in marijuana, in their systems.

“This is a tremendous difficulty that is just growing in scope,” he said. Ultimately, all we can do is equip our police officers with the tools they need to construct solid cases.

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