Medical marijuana raises questions about moving violations
West Memphis Police preparing to deal with users driving high
It wasn’t too long ago that Arkansas police knew exactly what to do when they made a traffic stop and smelled marijuana in the vehicle. Officers had probable cause to search the vehicle and if they found any amount of the illegal drug they made an arrest.
Now though they are finding themselves dealing with an entirely different situation since Arkansas has legalized possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes.
Just last month West Memphis police made an arrest of a qualified marijuana user. Tommie Burnette Sr. was taken into custody for possession of marijuana, despite his status as a registered patient.
Burnette was pulled over for a missing tag light. The officer smelled marijuana and Burnette consented to a search after providing his registry identification card. He was arrested after officers found 1.5 grams of marijuana in a clear bag that wasn’t childproof.
Assistant West Memphis Police Chief Robert Langston said not only his department but po-
“If an officer makes a routine traffic stop and smells marijuana that gives him or her probable cause to search the vehicle regardless of whether or not the individual has permission to use medical marijuana… medical marijuana patients need to understand is that even if they have authorization to use the drug they must know what is permissible and what is not.”
— West Memphis Assistant Chief of Police Robert Langston lice agencies throughout Arkansas are dealing with medical marijuana and said this just adds another layer of complexity to traffic stops which now requires law enforcement officers to go through an entirely new set of procedures.
Langston went on to say law enforcement agencies throughout the state are looking seriously into how to deal with a new set of factors to determine whether someone is in legal possession of marijuana.
“Anticipating dealing with this new situation we have already brought in trained agents with the Alcoholic, Tobacco and Firearms about a month ago to advice our officers how to deal with individuals suspected of using or possessing medical marijuana,” Langston said.
West Memphis officers were among an estimated 1,000 officers throughout the state that underwent special training.
And, Langston said, he is currently in the process of putting together specific rules and regulations for each officer and then have them reviewed by the city attorney.
He said the new guidelines will focus on whether an officer makes an arrest or issues a citation.
“Let me say that if an officer makes a routine traffic stop and smells marijuana that gives him or her probable cause to search the vehicle regardless of whether or not the individual has permission to use medical marijuana,” said Langston.
“What medical marijuana patients need to understand is that even if they have authorization to use the drug they must know what is permissible and what is not,” Langston said.
For instance, Langston said they can only be in possession of no more than 2.5 ounces of usable cannabis at any one time.
And, Langston said, the medical marijuana must be stored in a childproof bag or container.
It is also against the law for a medical marijuana user to operate a vehicle under the influence of marijuana and if caught he or she will be arrested, Langston said.
One of the main questions being asked is how a law enforcement officer determines whether or not an individual is under the influence of marijuana while operating a motor vehicle. Langston said his department has already addressed that issue by having one officer so far undergo extensive training in Arizona to become what he described as a drug recognition expert.
“Officer Daniel Magrill has been specifically training in determining if a person is under the influence and will be called to a traffic stop to assist officers when needed,” Langston said.
In other parts of the state Sgt. Anthony Murphy, a spokesman for the Fayetteville Police Department, said officers there will “enforce the law the way it is written,” and a patient who isn’t carrying his patient ID card could be cited or arrested.
David Couch, the Little Rock attorney who drafted Amendment 98 which voters approved in 2016 said police have every right to make an arrest or issue a citation for marijuana-related offenses if the person won’t verify that he or she is a qualified patient.
“If you’re a patient with your card and you don’t show it to a cop, you need to be arrested,” Couch said. “That’s a ticket for being a dumbass.” Couch went on to add that in a couple of years marijuana will be legalized for recreational use in Arkansas and there won’t be any need to worry about all this.
But for now Langston said he expects an uptick in medical marijuana activity in West Memphis now that the first of three legal marijuana shops is planning to open soon off East Broadway and his officers are prepared to deal with current medical marijuana laws and infractions.