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

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.

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Michael Treece
Michael Treece

I have written to SFPD captains requesting that they make pedestrian safety a priority; when they have chosen to reply, it was to tell me that they were not going to increase their enforcement of traffic laws. Yet we have MUNI passengers hit by cars, motorists speeding wildly and ignoring stop signs, and possibly the highest per-capita pedestrian death rate of any large city in the US.

If the cops have time to go after pot smokers, then they have ample time to enforce traffic laws. Failing that, the Board of Supervisors needs to take a fifth of the SFPD's budget and give it to the Department of Parking and Traffic, which actually does its job.

Not one San Franciscan has been killed by pot in the last twenty years. More than a hundred pedestrians and bicyclists have been killed by cars. It's pretty clear what the real threat to public safety is.

h. brown
h. brown

Michael Treece,

Pedestrian safety gets more important to me as I approach 70 and slow down. The biggest problem is that the guy who runs the stop lights and signs (Bond Yee) has cut the time between countdown numbers in half. If the sign started flashing at '9' when you were just starting, you knew you had 9 seconds. Now, it's 4 1/2 seconds. He's literally killing the slower old and disabled. Also, lots of the bus shelter ads block views and pedestrians nor drivers often can't see each other, particularly drivers of big rigs.

Giants at Daly's Dive on tube for Bulldog Salon in 10 minutes.

Wear your orange and black.



There are fire safety issues associated with running a grow operation in a wooden home in a densely populated area and the City should be enforcing those zoning codes. Many homes in the outer boroughs have been de facto converted from residential into grow houses with powerful, hot lights on 18 hours a day in every room.

How the smell of pot being smoked led the cops to the presumption that someone was running a grow op is another question entirely. The SFPD is supremely resistant to any civilian control over what laws they enforce given the immensity of crimes being committed and a more or less finite yet enormous budget. This is why they tend to pick the low hanging fruit, to arrest nonviolent people for nonviolent offenses so that they don't have to tangle with anyone armed, lest they not make it home to the suburbs one day closer to the 90% of last salary retirement bonanza.

Being brutally honest here, the fact that we're not seeing more cops killed and injured in the line of duty while we are seeing San Franciscans killed by violent criminals means that the cops prefer to stay out of harm's way even if that means that San Francisco taxpayers must dodge danger all the time. We're paying cops the big bucks to take risks, and if the risks don't turn out wrong every now and again, that means that we're paying cops to not take risks to keep us safe which defeats the whole purpose of high salaries and pensions.



Why do cops like to bust pot smokers, growers, etc??

Here's the REAL reason:

It's fun.

Plain and simple. Pot smokers and many growers don't tend to 'shoot back' either literally or figuratively. So you get to 'suit up, gear up, man up' and then kick some doors in on a bunch of pot smokers that you can bully around, feel really powerful and high and mighty, and basically use as training exercises for swat-type stings.

You'll notice they don't have as much fun doing that on meth labs, and stuff where the cops might actually get shot at by real criminals, or have stuff blow up on them, etc.

It's that simple.

(of course combined with the easy bust numbers/stats/inflated budgets,etc.).

h. brown
h. brown

Hey Chris,

Great cover story this week. The only way to back the cops off is to put in a Top Cop who reins in his troops and makes them obey the will of the people (State and SF). Two ways to make that happen are to either elect a Progressive mayor who appoints such a chief and holds him to those orders or second, (and, best) is to make the office of Police Chief elected.

The elected Top Cop is a Hennessey idea. He'll show you campaign literature for SF Police Chief that are, like, a hundred years old. He notes that if you want Foot Beats or other such things (like laying off stoners) then you vote for a candidate who promises to do those things. If they don't, you can vote em out. "It might take a few tries to get the chief you want but eventually you will." said the retiring (after 30 plus years) best Sheriff in the United States of America.

Daly's Dive tomorrow for the Giants opener and my Bulldog Salon.

Go Giants!


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