Kaitlin Austin felt she had done nothing wrong.
But when a Maryland State Police officer pulled her over last month in Salisbury, she admitted to being a registered medical marijuana patient.
Things quickly went downhill. The officer said he detected an odor of marijuana and forced her to sit on a curb while he searched around her front seat, she said.
“By having the medication smell, we’re basically giving up our Fifth Amendment right,” Austin said afterward, referring to the constitutional provision of due process.
The March 27 incident sparked a rally Wednesday evening outside the MSP barrack in Berlin, calling on fairer treatment from police for medical marijuana users.
The drug has been legal in the Free State for a few years, but it has only been available to patients since late last year because an entirely new industry had to be created from scratch. And it can only be obtained after a patient registers with the state’s medical cannabis commission and receives a referral from a similarly registered medical professional.
Recreational use remains illegal. Officers are working to adapt to the shift, said Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley.
“Maryland state troopers have received and will continue to receive training about the state’s medical marijuana law,” he said. “Barrack commanders have been directed to monitor this issue and ensure troopers understand the requirements of the new law, while still enforcing existing laws regarding marijuana and other controlled dangerous substances.”
Wednesday’s rally was organized by one of Austin’s friends, Jerad Halcott. Her frustrating encounter, he said, demonstrates that police haven’t received enough direction or training on how to deal with medical marijuana.
“For this rally right now, we want to work on bringing the patients and the police together,” he said.
About a dozen people joined Austin and Halcott. The group marched from a church about a block away, crossing a busy Route 50 along the way.
It was a quiet processional — no songs, no chanting. The lone picket sign consisted of a polite suggestion: “Ask me about cannabis.”
Halcott said he contacted several people about the rally who were too afraid to attend for fear of police reprisals.
For his part, K.T. Tuminello said he came to the rally hoping to underline the distinction between patients and drug abusers. He has been battling brain cancer and uses medical marijuana to control seizures, he said.
“Patients shouldn’t have to fear the police,” he said. “There’s no reason she should have been searched at all, especially after she gave them her medical marijuana license number.”
Austin gave this account of the traffic stop:
She was driving home from buying some cigarettes with a friend when she saw police lights in her rearview mirror. She pulled over on Broad Street, and a Maryland State Police officer approached her side of the car.
The officer told her he had stopped the vehicle because of the decorative feathers hanging from her mirror. (State law forbids any windshield obstructions.) Then came her admission to being a medical marijuana patient and the officer’s search around the front seat.
At one point, the officer referred to the drug as “pot,” a word choice Austin interpreted as hostile to her and her medical choice. Austin said in an interview that she uses the drug to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
Halcott said he has noticed a considerable difference in her deportment since she starting using medical marijuana a few months ago.
“She went from not being able to function to being able to function on medical marijuana,” he said.
The police encounter ended with Austin receiving a warning about the feathers. But she was so upset that she had trouble calming down for at least two days, she said. She also has been afraid of going back to work as a Lyft driver, fearing it will lead to another police run-in.
A former paramedic, Austin said she has worked closely with police officers and understands their job is often difficult. But she said many need more education and understanding about medical marijuana patients.
“We have to work together. It’s like a group thing. We need to co-exist,” she said.
Shipley, the MSP spokesman, said if police have probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains illegal drugs, it’s legal for officers to conduct a search. If officers detect the smell of a particular drug, they may need to investigate further to determine if the driver is impaired.
Like anyone else, medical marijuana patients cannot drive while under the influence of the drug, he said.
But “they are not at risk of arrest if they comply with state law and the guidelines set forth by the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission,” Shipley added. “If there is a violation of state law, it is the duty of our troopers to take the appropriate enforcement action.”