2021 | Government

Residents tell policing commission their concerns about marijuana arrests

Speakers concerned about how officers act on suspicions of drug use

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Montgomery County residents on Monday shared their concerns about how county police handle marijuana-related arrests and detainments.

The residents, many of them Black and Latino, told a Policing Advisory Commission that they worry that minorities are disproportionately targeted as officers arrest them after only smelling marijuana or suspecting they have it.

Sonia Pruitt, a retired Montgomery County police captain who served for 28 years in the department, said she saw how arresting people for minor drug offenses harmed trust between the police and the community.

Pruitt said she favors not arresting or prosecuting people for possession of small amounts of drugs in the county.

“When there are officers who believe the myth that Black people smoke the most marijuana … it leads policing to what’s called noble cause corruption arrest, where the ends unlawfully justify the means, where there are double standards based on race and where the civil rights and protections of a category of people is dismissed for what should be treated as a public health issue,” she said.

The County Council created the Policing Advisory Commission in 2019 as one of multiple efforts to expand the community’s input on public safety. The commission can make recommendations on policy to the council.

It is separate from the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force that County Executive Marc Elrich created last summer.

The Policing Advisory Commission, in its first public hearing invited residents to share their thoughts on drug arrests and enforcement.

Pruitt said she was particularly disturbed by the arrest of Samir Ahmed in November 2018.

Ahmed, who is Black, was arrested in November 2018 in Silver Spring after Montgomery County police said they smelled marijuana on him and found a bag of “suspected marijuana,” The Washington Post reported.

Ahmed had just helped an intoxicated neighbor, and after officers were called to the scene to help the neighbor, they questioned Ahmed. Ahmed posted an 18-minute video of the incident.

“The video went viral as a shining example of police overreach. The arrest affected his business, and destroyed his, his family’s and the community’s trust in the police,” Pruitt said.

Carlean Ponder of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition said despite the fact that Maryland has decriminalized marijuana when someone has 10 grams or less, officers in Montgomery County still apply the law disproportionately.

She pointed to an incident in May 2019 in which four Black men were searched at a McDonald’s in White Oak after officers smelled marijuana. Two of the men had marijuana and received civil citations, police said. Police Chief Marcus Jones said at the time that the men were not racially profiled.

The call drew a lot of attention because a white police officer was seen on video using a racial slur during the investigation.

Ponder said on Monday that the men detained in the White Oak incident paid a high price.

“They actually lost their employment as a result of the cops saying they smelled the odor of marijuana and patting them down,” she said.

Isabella Wise, a Latina resident and Gaithersburg High School alumnus, said she remembers police harassing her when she was 16 and hanging out with friends off campus. Officers would search her friends if they thought they smelled marijuana and would force them to leave places a park or a fast food restaurant.

“No one ever got arrested, and the reason was they didn’t have marijuana on them,” she said.

“But the problem in Montgomery County is sometimes you live in a household where people do smoke marijuana, but you don’t. So how can you control what your parents do when you’re a teenager? So, police never saw that. They want to call your parents and are searching everybody down.”

Some speakers said they wished more residents participated in Monday’s virtual meeting, particularly those who are African American.

Cherri Branson, a commission member and former County Council member, said she agrees on the need to reach more people and added that she wishes someone from the State’s Attorney’s Office had been on the call.

“We all have networks, and the county has a great public relations office. We’ve learned some lessons about what we’ve done, and what we need to do for the next hearing,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com