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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Pot Busts Are a High Priority for Cops -- But They Shouldn't Be

Posted By on Thu, Apr 7, 2011 at 7:31 AM

click to enlarge Waiting for Godot to fire up a joint
  • Waiting for Godot to fire up a joint

It's long been the desire of voters and San Francisco lawmakers that the city's peace officers enforce all other crimes before busting adults smoking pot.

In light of this, it's hard for pot advocates to figure out why undercover police spent 30 minutes on March 1 wandering around a 33rd Avenue apartment building, sniffing for marijuana smoke, before arresting 23-year-old McLaren Wenzell for growing pot in his apartment.

Wasn't there something else for these experienced cops to be doing? You would think, especially after Former Police Chief Heather Fong long ago issued a departmental bulletin reminding cops of the city's lowest priority law, which voters passed in 1991, putting marijuana at the bottom of the list of crimes for cops to go after.

Well, no, as it turns out.

Directives like a chief's bulletin are key in changing the way cops

perform police work, but guess what -- they're only good for two years, according to Lieutenant Troy Dangerfield.

So that means that while busting people for pot is a low

priority on the books, it's null and void out on the street -- and that's where it really counts.

Superior Court Judge Gerardo Sandoval threw out Wenzell's felony charges last week after video from the apartment building's security camera contradicted the cops' testimony (sound familiar?) that Wenzell consented to a search of his apartment. Both District Attorney George Gascón and Police Chief Jeff Godown defended the cops' actions and have pledged to pursue the case.

"We don't know why the case was dismissed," said Officer Albie Esparza, who added that the SFPD can't reveal the nature of the complaint that brought officers to the building. He did say that all officers are now undergoing "refresher courses" in search and seizure procedures.

The Richmond Station officers who are accused of lying in this case -- Officer Michael Chang, Sergeant Gary Watts, and Officer Michele Martinez -- have not been disciplined and are still patrolling the streets, Esparza said.

It is odd that SFPD would dispatch three undercover officers to respond to the smell of pot smoke. That will still happen from time to time, as the "refresher courses" in search and seizure procedures will not include a refresher course on lowest priority, Dangerfield said.

"Marijuana crime is not a high priority when you're dealing with homicides, rape, and gang violence," he told SF Weekly. "If you have an officer at a sporting event and he smells marijuana in the air, that's not a high priority. It's only at the point when they have nothing else to do."

It was Dangerfield who informed us that Fong's bulletin regarding marijuana being the lowest priority would not have any real effect presently, considering it's not a priority for Gascón or for Godown. In fact, marijuana arrests increased under Gascón, according to the most-recently available stats.

Since this is San Francisco, there is a citizen oversight committee tasked with ensuring lowest priority is obeyed by police. And since this is San Francisco, the Marijuana Offense Oversight Committee has no power to get the cops to do anything, like produce recent arrest stats, according to Catherine Smith,  a medical cannabis dispensary owner who sits on the committee.

"Lowest priority is not included in their training," says Smith. She then pointed out that state Police Officer Standards Training still says that marijuana "is a drug, evil, and bad."

"They're not even remotely trying to [adhere to lowest priority]," Smith says. "In fact, and you can quote me on this, the police are running amok [when it comes to marijuana arrests]."

Though to prove that, we'd have to look at the latest numbers -- which SFPD informed Smith are not available.

So how many other McLaren Wenzells are out there? Who knows. But what we do know is that they are not off of the cops' radar.

Follow us on Twitter at @SFWeekly and @TheSnitchSF

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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