The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)

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

- By Dan Morse

Just after 7 p.m., under an outdoor tent in suburban Maryland, Yohanna Molina fired up a joint. With her were 11 others getting high.

“This is weird to be doing this here,” she told a friend hunched over a glass bong.

“You should try being on the police side of it,” cracked an officer standing behind them, one of more than a dozen cops also in the tent.

The exchange cut to the core of the strange but important gatherings that take place two to three times a year at the Montgomery County Police Department and are increasing­ly being held at police agencies nationwide. Montgomery County brings in marijuana smokers — literally goes to pick them up in police cars — and walks them to the tent outside its training academy so they can get stoned. Bags of Cheetos, bottles of water and plenty of pizza are on the house.

Participan­ts are then used as test subjects for officers trying to determine whether someone is too high to drive. That’s not easy. Unlike people who drive drunk, and whose impairment can be quantified by breathalyz­ers and blood-alcohol tests, it’s more difficult to discern with pot.

The most recent session, held on a Thursday night in January, lasted nearly four hours. Participan­ts engaged in a 30minute “consumptio­n session,” followed by impairment evaluation­s inside the building, and repeated the cycle. During the second consumptio­n session, officers asked if any volunteers wanted to add alcohol to the mix.

“Who wants a Bud Light?” asked Lt. John O’Brien, leaning over a cooler. Then he grabbed a large bottle of booze: “Captain Morgan?”

None of the subjects drive home. They return via the cops who brought them. All hold medicaluse cards and are reimbursed for the product they ingest.

“We’re all trying to learn from each other,” said O’Brien. “A lot can come out of smoking and joking.”

Montgomery has been a leader in the cannabis labs program, also called green labs, which experts say appears to be operating in nearly 10 states.

They derive their names from Wet Labs, a longstandi­ng police training program in which subjects are brought in, asked to drink alcohol and evaluated for impairment. Some of those tests are the same: looking into eyeballs for rapid movements; asking participan­ts to walk heelto-toe; and having them close their eyes and try to touch their nose with their fingertips.

Marijuana’s legal status — often an illegal one over the years — rendered pot impairment studies less practical. “No one wanted to mess with it,” said Seattle police officer Jonathon Huber, who hosted his first green lab last year and plans to do more.

In Montgomery, it was late 2017 when Officer Jayme Derbyshire first pushed the idea. She had spent 15 years in traffic enforcemen­t and could see the trends coming: more medical use of marijuana and a push toward legalizati­on for all users.

Montgomery’s police department offered plenty of training for catching drunk drivers — 40 hours in the academy including three Wet Labs. She went to her lieutenant, Dave McBain, and got right to the point when telling him the first step of the training she envisioned: “I would like to bring in a bunch of medically certified cannabis users and let them get high.”

McBain, now a captain, endorsed the idea, but in taking it to their chief, tweaked the beginning of the pitch: “Jayme thinks we should . . .”

The three laughed for bit. But they quickly proceeded with their first cannabis lab. Getting volunteers wasn’t easy. As one of the recent participan­ts, Molina, put it, “You have to get out of the mind-set that you’re going to get in trouble.”

Derbyshire spoke with local medical dispensari­es, especially the store managers, and impressed on them that officers truly did want to learn the difference between use and impairment, and wanted to know how much tolerance should factor into their analysis.

The first couple of classes indeed had some buzzkills: volunteers who got high but wouldn’t participat­e in the evaluation tests.

But with each session, the groups came to trust each other. Of the 12 participan­ts at Montgomery’s recent session, at least five were repeats — and could be seen greeting officers they knew from earlier.

“Nice to see you,” Khiry Maxberry, 27, told O’Brien as the volunteers gathered in a front lobby area of the academy. Minutes later they were taken out to the tent, which measured about 20 feet by 20 feet.

Things were crowded: two tables, 12 users and at least that many officers. Earlier rain had seeped through, turning the grass floor into thick, goopy mud.

“You good?” a user asked Maxberry.

“I’m about to be very good,” he responded.

Their relaxed bearing was in part due to user feedback received by the police — through written critiques — from the program’s early days, when the officers believed a 15minute opening consumptio­n session was enough.

“They felt rushed,” O’Brien said.

Nearby, under the tent, as Cat Szafran smoked a Runtz pre-rolled hybrid joint purchased at a dispensary in Frederick, the 60-year-old extolled the virtues of such retail operations, comparing their products with what she could get from a random dealer as a teenager. “It’s a lot different than going to Fred down the street,” she said.

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