Manger asks legislators to keep ‘eyes wide open’ and ‘understand the downsides’ when considering issue | Published: 2018-10-29 12:05 | ... MoCo Police Chief Discusses Legalization of Recreational Marijuana

Manger asks legislators to keep ‘eyes wide open’ and ‘understand the downsides’ when considering issue

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Montgomery County police Chief Thomas Manger


In conjunction with a package of stories on marijuana in the November/December edition of Bethesda Magazine—including the issue of whether recreational sale and use of it should be legalized in Maryland—Montgomery County police Chief Thomas Manger was interviewed by contributing editor Louis Peck.

Manger, who has been the county’s top cop for nearly 15 years, started out by saying: “I’m not going to give you a simple answer saying I’m for or against it, because it’s too nuanced for that.” But he went on to discuss at length the issues he feels need to be weighed as the Maryland General Assembly debates legalization—perhaps as soon as the 2019 legislative session beginning in January.

Following, in question-and-answer format, is Manger’s perspective on the possible legalization of recreational marijuana:

The Maryland Chiefs of Police Association has opposed legalization of recreational marijuana in testimony before the state legislature in recent years. Speaking for yourself, as chief of police in the state’s largest jurisdiction, what are your feelings?

I have advocated over the years for decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana. I have long been a proponent that people caught with a small amount did not need a criminal record to follow them around for the rest of their life. Legalization is a little more complicated. I look at other jurisdictions around the country where it has been legalized, and it has had an impact on public safety—and it’s had an impact on police.

Can you outline some of the major factors you feel have caused it to have that kind of impact?

Probably the biggest issue of concern for me is, “How do you prevent the distribution to minors?”… It’s not the 50-year-old couple who, on a Friday or Saturday night, sit down in the privacy of their home and light up and get high. Unless they leave the house and drive impaired, that has no impact on public safety. What is a concern to me is that they leave their stash around, and their 16- year-old son or daughter gets a hold of it. That’s not good—for that child or our community. So the whole issue about it being more readily available to people that it can harm is a problem.

The quick answer [from] proponents is “Well, people under the age of 21 are not allowed to have it”—or whatever [the minimum age is] they decide in a jurisdiction. That’s easier said than done. If it’s legal, or even if medical marijuana is easily available, then that means marijuana is more readily available to young folks. I’ve done enough research and read enough medical studies to be confident that marijuana has an impact on brain development. Look, my brain is fully developed, and it ain’t developing any more (chuckles). But all kidding aside, an individual’s brain develops until they’re in their early 20s. So any drug use or marijuana use can impact brain development if your brain is not fully developed.

If every [adult] could guarantee me that it would never get into the hands of a young person, that they were just going to use it and not going to have to commit crimes to get money [to buy it], and that they weren’t going to drive [under the influence] … that doesn’t concern me. But from a police chief’s perspective, I’m trying to keep our community safe, I’m trying to keep people on the roads safe, and I am trying to avoid folks becoming dependent, addicted and leading to a destroyed life.

Proponents of legalization have long disputed that it is addictive, while opponents regard it as a “gateway drug.” What’s your view on this?

I have a big concern about this issue of it being a gateway drug. Proponents will say, “That’s B.S., it’s not a gateway drug.” But I have yet to find that person who is abusing fentanyl and opioids, or the heroin addict, who doesn’t say, “I started using marijuana, and I just kept trying to chase a better high.” There are recreational users; [for] many of them, marijuana use is not central to their life. There are plenty of people who experiment—they go to a party, there’s marijuana there and they might use it. So again, it doesn’t really have an impact on the police or public safety. But, in fact, there are … the regular users—those people who are using it once a week or more. Studies show that maybe about 10 percent of [users] do become dependent on it and abuse it.

When it’s legalized, there’s this notion from people in general that, “It’s not harmful, so what’s the big deal?” Well, we’ve spent 100 years trying to rein the genie back in the bottle for tobacco use. And I’m really hesitant to make the same mistake with marijuana going forward. So I think we need to be very careful with how we proceed. I think this notion that it’s not harmful has had an impact on people’s willingness to try the synthetic cannabinoids—which are, in fact, very harmful. [This is] especially in the places where they’re legally selling brownies and packaging other goods that have marijuana in them that appeal to young people … . We get cases on a regular basis where people have been given marijuana without their knowledge or consent, or, in fact, they’re overdosing on marijuana.

I know there are going to be people saying, “No, it’s impossible to overdose on marijuana.” Well, [that is] depending on the THC content, depending on some of the brownies that have been sold in the jurisdictions that legally sell them. [Editor’s note: THC, short for tetrahydrocannabinol, is considered the major mind-altering constituent in marijuana.] It may say one bite of the brownie is what you’re supposed to do. Someone doesn’t know it—they eat the whole brownie, and they have a reaction and end up going to the emergency room. Whatever you call it—overdosing, psychotic reaction—it has a harmful effect on that individual’s health.

Speaking as a parent as well as a police chief, what do you say to your own children about marijuana use?

I have two teenagers at home. When I talk to them, I talk to them about the impact I’ve seen it have on people in the last 40 years of being a cop. I’ve seen too many kids … growing up to be stoners and having little ambition, and where much of their time and effort is, “When is the next time I’m going to be able to get high?” I’m very adamant with my own children about that.

You mentioned the issue of safety on the roads. There is now technology that reliably allows police to determine whether a driver is operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol. What is the current state of technology with regard to measuring impairment due to driving under the influence of marijuana and other drugs?

The technology is not where it should be. Yes, it’s a great concern to me. I talk to my colleagues out in Denver and Seattle and Portland [cities in states where recreational marijuana has been legalized], and, to a chief, they’ll say, “Fatal crashes have gone up, impaired driving arrests have gone up.” The problem is now, for police in the state of Maryland, we have to have drug recognition experts; the term we use is DRE. It’s a certification you have to earn through experience, through training, through number of arrests. It allows you to testify in court as an expert that someone may have been impaired by drugs other than alcohol.

If marijuana is legalized, I can tell you that we are going to see an increase in impaired drivers on the road. That is a certainty. We were working with Sen. Cheryl Kagan [of Rockville] last year to try and establish a pilot program. It would allow Montgomery County—and we were trying to get a couple of other jurisdictions in the state [as well]—to use some new technology to measure impairment for marijuana. Unfortunately, it didn’t pass. I know Sen. Kagan is [continuing to work] with us on trying to get some ability for law enforcement to have a reliable test for impairment.

An argument made by some proponents of legalization is that it will free up the resources of police departments to deal with higher priority crimes. What’s your take on this?

Proponents love to say that and people, when they hear it, believe it. It’s simply not true. There are people who say, “Oh my God, think of all the people who are sitting in our prisons for nothing other than marijuana use.” Again, complete B.S. If there was any of that left, I think the decriminalization—which, again, I advocated for and fully supported—certainly took care of it.

We do not send [police officers] out to make marijuana arrests. The problem is that it sort of hits us in the face, literally and figuratively. We stop a car for a traffic violation, and [the officer] is just overwhelmed by the smell of marijuana coming from the car. So you know there’s a driver in the car who is very likely impaired. My officers can’t ignore it in situations like that—but I don’t have undercover folks and other folks who are doing drug enforcement going out making those kinds of arrests. The ones that are made are those that we can’t avoid, because it’s right there in front of us.

Believe me, my cops would be the first ones to tell you that they have more important things to do … when somebody’s speeding 15 miles over the limit. But if you’re behind them and it’s happening, then it’s your job to stop them and do something about it. That doesn’t mean all you’re doing is looking for speeders. [But] I expect my cops to enforce the law. As unpleasant and distasteful as some people find it, that in fact is our responsibility.

We’re blessed to have a low number of homicides [in Montgomery County], but we have three kinds of homicides—drug-related, gang-related and domestic. Probably as many are drug-related as anything else. And, often times, the drug that is associated [with it] is marijuana. People think, “Oh, if you legalized it, you wouldn’t have these issues.” That’s just not the case; I wish it was, but it’s not … . That’s not going to go away. You only have to look at the places that have legalized it for years now to see that the violence associated with drug activity is still present.

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