An Interview with Chico Police Chief Michael Maloney

On the Marijuana Legalization Issue

One thing I have learned through the years is that when a community has opposing points of view on something, the worst thing it can do is assume that it knows what the “other” side’s point of view is. I really think we need to start working together on this issue because there are powerful forces with deep pockets that do not have our community’s best interests at heart. As you will see in this interview, law enforcement has concerns that are quite reasonable and I think you will see that the opposing points of view on this issue aren’t really that far apart; after all, we all live here and have a point of view, but some of the people who are trying to influence policy don’t live here and could not care less about our future. So let’s hear what someone has to say who lives and works here and cares deeply about the direction we are heading, and who has some insights into the complexities and ramifications of “how” propositions are written and laws are enforced.

Rahasya Poe, Lotus Guide

Lotus Guide: I know you’re a law-enforcement agent but you’re also a citizen and I’m curious to get your feedback on the legalization of marijuana issue from both points of view.

Michael Maloney: Actually, before we get into that, let me give you a little background on my personal history. This may offer an additional perspective on me personally on this issue and bring greater enlightenment to the whole picture. I personally am a two-time cancer survivor. The first time I had cancer I was 17 years old. And in addition to being a cancer survivor I’m also a fourth-generational public servant in California. My great-grandfather was a senator, my grandfather was a public official, and my dad was an elected politician and also a police officer. And I’ve been a police officer for 31 years. I think it’s important to get this perspective because it brings out that I am a law and order kind of a guy. So it was an interesting situation to be in when I found myself lying in the cancer ward in San Francisco and my roommate, who also had cancer, was smoking marijuana to relieve his pain. So that was my first experience with marijuana and that experience was life altering in a number of ways. Most important, this experience gave me the perspective of not seeing this as a black and white issue; in other words, there was room for gray. As a 17-year-old this was a significant lesson and a lesson that I’ve taken with me through 31 years of law enforcement. So I’m keenly aware of the impact of such ailments and the significance of marijuana and its medical use.

Chico Police Department

Having said all that, my professional role is different from what my views are on cancer, and I can tell you that there have been times in my professional career when I have come up against my professional life and my personal life bumping up against each other—where I’ve been exposed to things that have caused me to really focus on maintaining that line. Having said all that, I have never had so much as a puff of marijuana, although in 1983 I stood and burned a 30-foot pile of marijuana but I couldn’t tell you if I got a contact high [laugh]. I honestly don’t have any interest in smoking. I’m not a pill guy. I’m not a medicine guy; it’s just not my thing. Anyway, I just wanted to give you that background before we start.


LG: Actually that segues right into my first question. My wife and I heard you on KIXE and something you said really rang true for us. It was when you talked about enforcement according to the spirit of the law. Would you like to explain what that means in reference to the existing marijuana laws?

MM: Sure. As we look at the obvious conflict between state and federal laws, and there’s very clearly a conflict here, under the federal law it’s indisputably illegal. But when you look at the way the Feds have characterized their perspective, they themselves have opened the door to the gray area. And they’ve opened that door by making it clear that they’re not targeting their efforts on critically ill people. Characterizing their perspective in this way is leaving wiggle room for critically ill people to acquire and use medical marijuana reasonably to provide relief. Now, at a base level in law enforcement, there’s a section in our code that speaks to the notion of balancing the letter of the law with the spirit of the law. What this does is it gives the police officer the opportunity to exercise judgment in law enforcement as far as what is appropriate to do based on weighing out all of the circumstances.

Let me give you an example of a situation that I had that shows how these two ways of enforcing the law sometimes merge together. Many years ago I was called to the Safeway store on Nord Avenue to take custody of a shoplifter who was placed under citizen’s arrest. The circumstances when I arrived were that the man was very severely physically disabled. This man had reached the end of his money for the month and he was hungry and desperate. So he filled up his grocery cart with some groceries and put them in a bag and pushed them outside and was caught for shoplifting. So I had to arrest him because I have a legal obligation when a citizen makes a legitimate citizen’s arrest to take custody of the person. But once I receive the person I can use my own discretion to prepare the case and submit it for prosecution. So after weighing out the circumstances it was not my perspective that this was a person that should be in jail, clearly. So it was my decision to release him right there from custody with a ticket. So on my note to the DA I made it clear that even though the letter of the law is clear, the spirit of the law is also clear and the spirit of the law is to catch criminals. This guy didn’t have any criminal intent and this is important to remember. This case was not a case worthy of prosecution. This is the kind of thing that I am talking about when I speak of the spirit of the law.

So when we’re talking about the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law in the context of marijuana and very bad people acquiring and cultivating marijuana, at some point we have to apply those standards. We need to look at the circumstances. Now I realize that we can get into a debate about whether or not I’m medically trained to judge whether or not someone has a medical condition, so put that aside for a moment. Let’s say I’m called to a home where the person in question has an entire backyard, a quarter acre, of very nice, robust, well-manicured, and voluptuously budding marijuana plants, and we have a neighbor who has called in a complaint that 24 hours a day there is an enormous amount of traffic to and from the house and there are some unsavory characters who hang out there, but the person in question says, “But I need this; I’m sick.” That’s a place where we clearly have to balance between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. This is the kind of scenario that’s going to force us to lean more toward the letter of the law because it appears that the circumstances do not support that the person in question is abiding to the guidelines of the letter of the law. In other words, he’s not simply growing marijuana for his medical condition. So we’re constantly having to weigh these types of circumstances and they appear in every form.

I talked to the supervisors in the Sheriff’s Department in the marijuana unit yesterday; Butte County is the new extension of the Emerald Triangle in California. There are hundreds of recorded patches growing in Butte County that are on their pending list to go out and inspect for compliance and I assure you, not even knowing the specifics, those hundreds of growers are going to range over a full spectrum of circumstances. The officers called to these sites are going to be in the position of determining whether the growers are obeying the spirit of the law or have they crossed the line, at which point they would need to respond according to the letter of the law.

So I suppose what I’m saying is that in this department we want police officers who are able to weigh the circumstances and respond accordingly. And I can tell you that in this department for the past 16 years or so, we have no hard-and-fast rules or policies on drug use as it relates to considering somebody for employment, and as long as I’m here we will not. And the reason for this is that I don’t think that we can assess somebody’s character and the suitability to be a police officer based on the fact that at some point in time they did this thing that constitutes a black-and-white act. I think it’s incumbent on us to look at a total package of a person and all of their life experiences and then to make an assessment and decide based on all the life experiences that person has had. Sometimes life experiences include things that are in conflict with social norms or in conflict with the law and if the person can demonstrate that they have learned from their mistakes and accepted responsibility for their actions and grown, that’s what we want as police officers. So somebody used cocaine in high school 15 years ago and then went and got a college degree and has been doing good—then bring it on and sign up.


LG: In today’s society you have to live in a bubble not to be exposed to drugs in some form or another and I’m not sure that I personally would trust the decision making of a person with no real life experience. This isn’t to say that everyone needs to try drugs but if you have lived the kind of life in which you’ve never been exposed to that segment of society, I’m not sure if you’re ready to be put in a position in any branch of government in today’s world to make important decisions in the lives of its citizens.

Now keep in mind that I’m not out for sensationalism or putting you on the spot but something you said in the interview had me a little concerned.

MM: No, fire away.


LG: You said that one of your concerns is government funding and how government funding could be affected by the way you execute the law. Unlike a lot of citizens, I realize that you do have to deal with the reality of funding. But it concerns me that this may affect the way a law is enforced. What are your thoughts on this issue?

MM: No … I hear you. And I’ll answer this in a way that maybe you’re not expecting. I do have concerns about government funding and how that funding relates to the enforcement of the law. That being said, I personally never had a sense that there was a tie between money and enforcement, and that kind of scenario where there’s money available and we need to spend it or lose it, that’s never been in the realm of my awareness, and frankly, I don’t think that’s a way to do business. For instance, we get money to supplement DUI enforcement and we schedule it out and it’s above and beyond our regular shift levels for overtime, and if we don’t spend all the money it goes back.

Reality Check(NOTE: Personally I think he wiggled out of answering me here because we all know that funding has a lot to do with how the laws are enforced, wars are waged, and everything else that the government plays a part in…just my thoughts on this)

LG: But you do need to be careful not to go head-to-head with the federal laws where you’ve actually put them in a corner.

MM: Yes, we’re definitely not going to challenge federal law. I saw a quote that was attributed to a community leader on the front page of the local paper and the quote was something to the effect of this, and I was actually at the meeting when he said this so I know it’s true: “Just because the U.S. attorney says we have to do it doesn’t mean we have to.” Well, maybe that was his personal perspective, but as a law enforcement leader if the U.S. attorney says we have to do it we have to do it. This isn’t how it works in law enforcement—this may work in other realms like social services but in law enforcement it doesn’t work this way.


LG: Knowing what you do about the way things are going as far as the legalization of marijuana—I mean we all know which way the wind is blowing on this issue—what kind of regulations would you like to see put in place that would be a win-win for most everyone?

MM: I’ll tell you what I would really like to see; I would like to see the Feds weigh in and change their position. There’s no question in my mind that the people who were behind Prop 19 last year outspent their opponents probably 100 to 1. I’m not even sure that the opponents spent $100,000 statewide and there were millions of dollars spent pushing the passage of Prop 19. And the margin was very narrow with only a 7 or 11 percent margin, a very narrow margin. So knowing the way things are and watching how much money is out there behind this issue, and by the way what took place locally with the pro-marijuana community rising up against the Board of Supervisors and essentially pushing the board into a position where they had to take alternative action—that was a function of money. So it’s very clear that money is a big part of this and money will be a part of the campaign that will kick into full gear as soon as enough signatures are gathered here very shortly, and I fully expect there will be enough signatures and it will go before the voters again. So I think there is a strong possibility that in 2012 we will see it legalized; my concern about that is that right now there is some vagueness in the conflict between state and federal law. If it passes, my concern is that if it’s decriminalized it will put us squarely in conflict with federal law and that is not going to be good. Aside from all the philosophical views of medical marijuana, the virtues of medical marijuana for medicinal purposes, aside from all that the mere fact that we’re going to have a very clear conflict between state and federal laws is going to be an issue. This will also create a conflict in a federal law that was passed in 1994 or 1996 that essentially said if you take federal money, you have to attest to the federal government that you are a drug-free workplace. If a new proposition to legalize marijuana gets on the calendar, we will be unable to attest that we are a drug-free workplace in compliance with federal law where we receive federal money. The result of that is federal money that comes to us for all kinds of programs will not be available. And as a manager in local government in California that concerns me. Almost all federal funding will be jeopardized if we pass this law, so there’s a lot at stake here beyond the simple issue of marijuana legalization. So this is why I would like to see the Feds weigh in and change their position on this issue.


LG: I’m sure you realize that some of the people in government who write these propositions write conflicts into the proposition itself, knowing that it will affect the way people vote on it. In other words, the proposition itself may be something that we want but within it lies conflict, making it almost impossible for the voters to make a clear decision.

MM: When I read Prop 19 for the first time I almost fell out of my chair. When I read Ammiano’s bill, all I can say is that it would have been horrific for the state of California if it would’ve passed. Because he specifically built in some things to create conflict; in fact, he wrote into the bill proposing something that would’ve made it impossible for the police to enforce federal law.


LG: This is why we need a well-informed citizenry because it’s too easy for politicians to write a proposition where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. This is why it’s so important for the community, whether they’re for or against the legalization of marijuana, to understand what’s going on behind the scenes.

Through the years I’ve noticed that when the people and government don’t agree, it often ends up being an opportunity for large corporations to move in and influence the legislation of laws that seldom, if ever, do the local economy any good. If we (city officials and the community) don’t learn to work together on this issue we will most assuredly end up with large marijuana cartels doing all the growing and siphoning off much-needed money from the community. I’ve lived long enough to see that usually what happens in any situation where there is conflict and chaos, usually orchestrated by very powerful organizations, that there are those on the sidelines with deep pockets ready to come in to influence the legislation of laws and regulations that allow only large corporations or groups to benefit. This is why it’s very important for both groups of people, those who are for and those who are against the legalization of marijuana, to understand both sides of this issue and not become the polarized opposite, thereby becoming pawns in a much larger game. What are your thoughts on this?

MM: Well, if you look at how cartel organizations work, I would say that should definitely be a concern. And I know there’s always room for debate in issues like this, but if you look at someplace like Amsterdam, for instance, before marijuana was legalized there were only three organized crime groups; after legalization of marijuana within three years there were 90 identified organized crime groups that sprung up throughout Amsterdam. It’s indisputable that in California, the Mexican drug cartels that we read about in the international news and their activity at the border have a strong hold in California. California is ripe for marijuana cultivation and to believe for a minute that if we legalize marijuana in California that they would not come here in a big way is being naïve. What they’re going to do is come down out of the mountains and come down into the valley and they’re going to put up signs and expand their operations. California still has a large economy on the world market and we should be concerned about becoming known as the center for the cultivation of marijuana. This would have a definite adverse impact on attracting businesses to California. At that point we would end up being the distribution point for the exportation of marijuana. And of course that has implications in every realm of our society.


For instance, the venture capitalist in Southern California that had an eye on the building at the airport for the cultivation of marijuana on a large level. That would’ve been a nightmare. First of all, it would’ve put us front and center in the sights of the Feds. When we are talking about marketing businesses and economic development in Chico, something like that would’ve created a black mark, in my opinion, that we would not be able to overcome.


LG: This is why it’s so important for the community to hear all sides of this debate, even if they don’t totally agree with all aspects, because you and I both know that the money is going to start flowing to a legislative body of government—for instance, the talk of a regulation that would make it necessary for you to have 120 acres to grow marijuana. This would be the first step in making it illegal for mom-and-pop operations to grow small amounts for their own medicinal use. It’s time for all of us to wake up and realize that we’re on the same side to a much larger degree than we realize. Being a business owner myself, I can tell you firsthand that business is at a critical juncture in small communities like Chico.

I think I would be one of the many people in the community to say that the regulations really need to be tightened up. For instance, and let’s be honest here, if you’re growing marijuana for your own use medicinally or otherwise, you really don’t need more than six plants. And I totally understand a citizen’s concern with everything from the traffic to the smell, so all of this needs to be taken into consideration. But the first step is to get the people on both sides of this issue who have legitimate concerns and start a dialogue and come up with some common-sense regulations that work for the majority of the people, not the minority of special-interest groups, cartels, or corporations. I think you and I both know that tough times are headed our way like a freight train as far as the financial aspect goes. And if we could figure out a way for mom and pop to make a little extra on the side, I think most people would be agreeable to that. But to do this we need to stop looking at this issue with a polarized point of view that doesn’t allow for even the possibility that the other side may have a point of view worth looking at. We’re all guilty of this to some degree.

MM: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. And as far as things coming at us that we need to start dealing with, there are things like the governor’s realignment (Prison Realignment Plan) coming up on October 1 and it will be in full implementation mode, and literally overnight Butte County will get its first crop of 30 or more state prison inmates, criminals, and it will end up being our responsibility to do something with them. Fundamentally, the prison justice system in California is going to be turned upside down on October 1 and all of a sudden things are going to happen where people are going to be victimized and they’re going to say, “Why isn’t he going to jail?” Our answer will be, “People don’t go to jail for that anymore.” I gave a speech a couple of weeks ago to a service club—I said my name is Mike Maloney and I’m the chief of police in Chico. I’ve been a police officer for 31 years and I want to start by telling you about the old days; in the old days marijuana was illegal, a felony was a crime that was punishable by imprisonment in the state prison, and when we caught a violator and then arrested him we put him in jail.… None of those things are true today.


LG: I remember when I was learning to sail. The old sailor who was teaching me told me something that I think is true for life as well. He said the first thing you need to do is figure out which way the wind is blowing because that’s the general direction you’re going to go. But along the way you can make small adjustments to the attitude of your sails that will determine exactly where you end up. What’s interesting is when you’re sailing, those small adjustments don’t mean a whole lot at the time but as you continue on your journey they determine a lot as far as where you end up. For a durable and sustainable future we need to make some adjustments; in this case it’s the attitude of our minds, not our sails.

So my last question is: Speaking as a law-enforcement official, what would you say to the public in the form of simply giving them good advice on this issue?

MM: Just this. All things considered if somebody needs marijuana for medicine on a very basic level follow the attorney general’s guidelines. If you want to keep yourself out of trouble, and again I know there’s room for debate, 50 square feet indoors or outdoors. If you want to start cloning and you can keep it within 50 square feet, just keep it with 12 immature or six mature plants. If you follow these rules you’ll be fine. That’s what I would say to the people who want to access marijuana.


LG: Well, let’s hope that everyone can take a couple of steps back, take a deep breath, and start coming up with some regulations created by a well-informed citizenry through legislation to make your job, the executive branch, make a little more sense and keep us all away from the judicial branch and the court system, where everyone loses.

MM: There has been some effort on a federal level to introduce legislation to legalize marijuana. People like Al Franken and Barney Frank most notably come to mind but I’m afraid they were not taken too seriously. I have to tell you, quite honestly, when I heard that a couple of Feds introduced a bill, I had a glimmer of hope that in some way we would at least get to discuss it more at a federal level and there would be some serious discussion, but it didn’t happen. So we still have a way to go.


LG: And it starts here.