Montgomery County Residents Describe Cannabis-Related Racial Profiling by Police

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Montgomery County is heralded as one of Maryland’s more diverse counties in the state—it is also one of the top twenty richest counties by median income in the United States—but when the Montgomery County Police Advisory Commission held a public forum at their meeting on June 14, residents of color found themselves telling different versions of the same story. 

Many residents, particularly Black residents, described their worst interactions with law enforcement—and it often began with a police officer claiming to smell cannabis either on their person or in their vehicle. 

Dalbin Osorio is a Montgomery County resident, social worker and the newly-elected chair of the Montgomery County Police Advisory Commission. He told The Outlaw Report that as a Black man, he was not surprised to hear how many residents had concerns regarding racist enforcement of cannabis law in the area.

“In Montgomery County in particular, there’s this notion to kind of paint the county like those things don’t happen.”  Osorio said.

He explained that many Black and Brown youth in Montgomery County have their first interaction with law enforcement because of racially-motivated stops, “because police said [they] smelled like weed,” Osorio said.  

One of the residents that spoke at the meeting was Sonia Pruitt, a Black woman and retired Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD) captain who spent 28 years in law enforcement. She said she knew police officers who were upset about Maryland’s decriminalization of less than 10 grams of cannabis in 2014 “fearing they were losing an investigative tool.” 

Pruitt also said that during her career she knew more than once officers who believed the myth that Black people smoke cannabis more frequently than white people, which is false. 

Rates of cannabis use between black and white people are almost identical nationwide, according to a 2020 study by the ACLU. Nonetheless, black residents are twice as likely to be arrested for cannabis in Maryland than their white counterparts. 

“I shared tours of duty with officers who seemed to smell marijuana each time we stepped up to the car, especially cars where there were black occupants,” Pruitt said.

Just this year In April 2021, Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals ruled that the smell of cannabis by itself does not provide reasonable suspicion of a criminal activity and therefore does not justify a stop and search of someone’s person. However, vehicular searches are governed by a different body of law and the smell of cannabis by itself still satisfies probable cause to search a vehicle in Maryland. 

Because the smell of cannabis alone satisfies probable cause for police to search a vehicle in Maryland, officers can justify vehicular searches even if non-criminal amounts of cannabis (if any at all) was recovered. 

Despite making up only 20% of Montgomery County’s total population, Black drivers made up 27% of all traffic stops made by the MCPD per a 2021 report by the Montgomery County Reimagining Public Safety Task Force. And while only 2.6% of all traffic stops resulted in a vehicular search, that figure increases to 3.8% if the driver was Black. 

Despite decriminalization, 67% of drug-related offenses in Montgomery County in 2020 were cannabis-related. 

“There is no evidence that petty arrests for possession have yielded lower crime rates or been very impactful on serious or violent crime…that is where policing should be focused,” Pruitt said.

Dalbin Osorio said that Black and Brown community members are less likely to call police officers for help if they have been racially profiled by law enforcement in the past, which too often begins with a police officer claiming to have smelled cannabis on your person or in your car.

One woman of color who spoke at the advisory board meeting has been a resident of the Gaithersburg-Germantown region for the last 20 years. She said her and her friends were frequently profiled by police officers as teenagers and described the experiences as traumatizing. 

“This is the reason why I now work with a lot of teenagers and try to educate them to put on perfume and do what you need to do to prevent being pulled over, because you are going to get searched even if you don’t have marijuana,” she said. “These incidents are going to carry with us for the rest of our lives.” 

Osorio explained that experiences like these with the MCPD discourage people of color from calling the police when they are in need of help: “If you treated me like trash this first instance, I am less likely to call you if I need your help. Because I don’t trust you at that point. I don’t trust you to look at me as a human because you didn’t see me as a human the first time.”

The Police Advisory Commission was created by the Montgomery County Council in Summer 2020 in response to nationwide protests against the murder of George Floyd by police officerss and the heightened media coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The commission is tasked with making recommendations to the county council regarding police matters and Osorio said that so far their positions have been considered and sometimes adopted by the council. 

Osorio, who was elected commission chair this week, said the group is increasing the frequency of their meetings from once a month to twice a month and plans to make recommendations to the MCPD regarding officers citing cannabis odor as probable cause to search a vehicle. 

“Diversity is cool but inclusion is better. What’s the point of having a seat at the table if you’re not being heard?,” he said.

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