- Associated Press - Saturday, November 19, 2016

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho (AP) - Royce Aubrey Johnson has never been a household name, nor does he wish to become one.

Unfortunately, Johnson was involved in an incident last April that continues to have rippling effects throughout Kootenai County - most especially in the Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls school districts.

The issue is legal marijuana and specifically its availability nearby across the Washington state line, reported The Coeur d’Alene Press (https://bit.ly/2eXhJUc).

Idaho, of course, is firm in its opposition to any form of the drug - including use for medical purposes. But the state shares 77 percent of its border with pot-friendly states, and the legal isolation became even greater last week with victories for looser marijuana laws in Nevada and Montana.

The most serious matter in north Idaho, however, is that there are plenty of recreational marijuana sales outlets in Spokane, and what that availability might mean in an Idaho school - or even in a Kootenai County courtroom.

Such concern leads back to Johnson, who would be just another name in the county misdemeanor files if he weren’t an English teacher at Coeur d’Alene High.

In the early evening of April 13, Johnson was involved in a traffic incident on Prairie Avenue. According to a couple who filed a complaint with police, Johnson cut them off at a spot where Prairie merges to one lane - and then made a motion that seemed as though he were pointing a gun at them.

Police officers ultimately confronted Johnson at his home in Coeur d’Alene, were granted permission to search his car and found no firearm. But they did discover a Mason jar containing marijuana.

Johnson eventually admitted the drug was his, and that he had been smoking it quite recently.

The teacher was charged with possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia. Both are misdemeanors, but potential penalties can be stiff.

In Idaho, possession of less than three ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison or a $1,000 fine. If the amount is between three ounces and a pound, the charge is a felony with the maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

In the time before Johnson actually appeared before a judge in July, he did two things - one of which almost certainly saved his job, and another which turned out not to matter at all.

First, Johnson notified the Coeur d’Alene School District of his arrest.

“Unfortunately, I cannot share too many details as this is a personnel matter,” said Superintendent Matt Handelman. “But what I can share is that the district became aware of the situation based on the employee self-disclosing, per our district policies.

“We have been in contact with our legal counsel, the state’s Professional Standards Commission, have addressed the issue that occurred outside the work day with the employee, and have taken appropriate action.”

Whatever action was taken, it did not include Johnson being suspended or fired.

Meanwhile, in mid-June, Johnson obtained a medical marijuana use permit from a doctor in Spokane - citing pain from back surgery in 2008 and using a Washington address.

By that time, many parents whose children attended Coeur d’Alene High had become aware of the situation and waited to see what would happen to Johnson in court.

Some, at least, wound up extremely disappointed.

In a three-minute court appearance before Judge James Stow, Johnson was offered a plea by Kootenai County Assistant Prosecutor Silvia Irimescu - and promptly accepted a charge of inattentive driving, along with a $300 fine.

It turned out that prosecutors gave Johnson a break because he was a teacher, exactly the same reason that a group of parents thought he should be punished more harshly.

The county’s chief prosecuting attorney, Barry McHugh, stood by the decision.

“The deputy prosecutor handling the matter … was aware of a common office practice in possession of marijuana/possession of paraphernalia cases for first-time offenders - to dismiss one of the charges for a plea to the other,” McHugh said.

“Both offenses are misdemeanors. It is most common for the possession of marijuana to be dismissed for a plea to possession of paraphernalia.

“In this case, the impact on Mr. Johnson’s employment was considered, and it was agreed that Mr. Johnson would plead to inattentive driving, also a misdemeanor.

“The factual basis for the inattentive driving related to the initial report that Mr. Johnson was driving in a fashion that put people or property at risk, to which he pled guilty.”

McHugh added the medical marijuana permit issued in Washington “was never considered,” nor were other factors put forward by Johnson’s attorney.

To the prosecutors, the keys to the plea arrangement seemed to be that Johnson was a teacher with no prior arrest record, and although he was found in possession of an illegal drug along with paraphernalia, Johnson never was tested to see if the marijuana had affected him on the day of his arrest.

“Very simply, there is no reliable test for marijuana impairment,” McHugh said.

That final statement, it turns out, cuts to the heart of a baffling problem for all Idaho employers - but especially for school districts in Kootenai County.

Royce Aubrey Johnson remains an English instructor at Coeur d’Alene High, having been arrested with an illegal drug in his possession.

So how does anyone, and when should anyone, actually punish a marijuana user in Idaho?

In some ways, the puzzle can be explained fairly simply.

For instance, Coeur d’Alene School District Superintendent Matt Handelman summed up his dilemma - or at least part of it - with a single hypothetical situation.

“For example, if alcohol were prohibited in Idaho but not in Washington,” Handelman said, “and someone legally consumed alcohol in Spokane over the weekend, he or she would not be breaking any laws, policies or (district) codes of conduct.

“Since alcohol does not stay in one’s system for very long, it is unlikely that someone tested for reasonable suspicion once at school would test positive - unless (they were) truly still ‘under the influence.’

“This is not the case with marijuana.”

Kootenai County Prosecuting Attorney Barry McHugh explained the science of the issue.

“Reliable testing for marijuana is almost impossible,” McHugh said. “Unless a person is obviously impaired right at the time they are confronted, you’ve got a problem right away.

“It’s just a fact that THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol, a chemical component of marijuana) stays in your system quite a while. So if a person tells you that, yes, they smoked in Washington a day or two earlier, there is no legal way to dispute that.”

Handelman and other local school officials insist their first priority must be the safety of the students in their care.

“So we’ll always err on the side of caution,” he said.

But how can any administrator manage that, especially when the effects of marijuana often are subtler than if, say, an employee entered school property smelling of liquor and acting strangely?

Furthermore, even though most school districts have policies in place that allow drug testing if there is “reasonable suspicion of impairment,” employees have rights, as well.

“It’s a tricky little dance,” admitted Post Falls School District Superintendent Jerry Keane. “We obviously have to think of student safety first, but if you make an error (accusing a teacher or staff member of drug use), you’re taking a risk. It’s a delicate balance.”

Keane said he encourages principals and supervisors to be vigilant, so that obvious cases of impairment can be spotted immediately.

But with marijuana, there’s such a gray zone.

“Drug offenses, even outside of ones which fit into our human resources protocols and policies, can potentially have serious impacts on the person’s professional life - especially in a public profession where educators are role models for our youth,” Handelman said.

“Understanding how a neighboring state’s laws (Washington effectively allowed recreational marijuana sales in late 2014) is new ground for us.

“I expect more uncharted territory on this topic as we continue to review our policies, and make certain our policies and procedures protect both our students and us as the employer, while honoring the individual rights of our employees.”

The situation would seem easier for the school districts if they had to deal with a clear-cut case of an employee being arrested for a drug-related offense.

That would appear to take most guesswork out of a resolution, but it didn’t work that way earlier this year when Royce Johnson, an English teacher at Coeur d’Alene High, was arrested for possession of a controlled substance and possession of paraphernalia.

Johnson was not on school property during the event in question, however, and on top of that, Kootenai County prosecutors let him plead down the drug charges to inattentive driving - since the entire incident had begun with a road rage accusation.

Johnson, who gave The Press a statement expressing “regret” and “full responsibility for my actions,” is still teaching at the school despite complaints from some parents.

“Safety of students comes first always,” Keane said, “but that doesn’t mean we can listen to rumors and go around accusing and even testing teachers and other employees.

“It’s difficult, unless law enforcement actually proves a case for us. And even then, our focus has to be on how an employee acts at school or at school-sponsored events.

“If things are fine at work, we don’t have the right to tell anyone not to do something that is now perfectly legal.”

McHugh hinted there may be more difficulty on the horizon, if managers expect to practice discipline based on court decisions.

“At the moment, we are enforcing Idaho law as written,” McHugh said, “but it’s clear that public perception is changing.

“We’ve already seen it at trials, where it’s obvious some jurors think marijuana ought to be legal. It’s quite possible that same attitude eventually will carry over to how the public feels about prosecution of possession cases, although we’re not there yet.”

Add that forecast to McHugh’s flat statement that there is no reliable test for marijuana impairment, and schools - not to mention other Idaho employers - face some difficult decisions.

“For now,” Keane said, “we’re treating marijuana and its effects much the way we would deal with prescription drugs. If it causes a problem at school or around students, we have to step in.

“As for the legality, and whether or not an employee’s rights have been infringed … “

Could a lawsuit against the district and subsequent decision point a direction?

“You hate to think in those terms,” Keane said, “but it’s certainly not impossible.

“But even then, what about the next case? We can’t ever stop protecting students. It’s all just very, very difficult.”


Information from: Coeur d’Alene Press, https://www.cdapress.com

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