Prince George's County Police Chief John E. McHale Jr., came under blistering criticism yesterday for his controversial statement supporting the legalization of marijuana.
Angry protests from the county executive, County Council members, police officers and some residents plunged McHale into his first major controversy since becoming chief two months ago.
"It must have been a temporary lapse of sanity," said Executive Lawrence J. Hogan, who added that he "totally disagreed" with his police chief's stand. "How did he happen to say something like that?"
In a sampling of reaction to McHale's remarks Thursday, only one public official publicly backed the chief's statement that efforts to control marijuana use have been futile -- "a war you can't win" -- and that making the drug legal would reduce street crime.
"Let's put it this way," said John Sisson, president of the county teachers union, "that may very well be a good idea [for adults]." But he said "neither liquid nor solid drugs" should be allowed for children "in a school environment."
Other reactions were harshly critical of McHale, the nation's first police chief to publicly proclaim support for legislation of marijuana.
McHale, 54, who was appointed police chief of the suburban Maryland county in January, said conservative Prince George's residents did not appear ready yesterday for his views.
Those views are that police resources are inadequate to control marijuana use, that alcohol is a more dangerous substance and that marijuana legalization might reduce street crime.
"The calls started coming in before I got there, saying things like: 'Marijuana is evil, and we got to keep it out of the schools.'"
"I said, 'Lady, I agree with you. I'm just saying if it's legalized, the world's not going to end," recalled the beleagured chief, who joked that he might have to leave town this weekend for peace of mind.
Some of the strongest attacks came from the men McHale leads. County Police union chief Laney Hester said the chief's comments "will make the Prince George's County police department the laughing stock of the law enforcement community."
Hester said one of the many officers who called him to criticize McHale said he had spent five years trying to convice his children that marijuana use was dangerous and illegal.
"Now his boss comes out and says it sould be legalized," complained Hesster.
A spokeman for the 12,000-member International Association of Chiefs of Police said it remained "firmly opposed" to legalizing marijuana, despite McHale's remarks.
City Council members, who last December passed a controversial measure banning the sale, use, advertisement, or possession of drug paraphernalia, also were critical of McHale's statements.
"The man on the street must be very confused," said council chairman Parris Glendenning. "The council is saying we're concerned enough to ban drug paraphernalia but the executive branch, at least through the chief, is saying that marijuana is okay."
Council member Sue V. Mills, who sponsored legislation to ban drug paraphernalia shops in the county said: "For a man of few words, he sure says big ones when he says 'em."
McHale received expected support from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and from the legal director of the county chapter of the ACLU, Fred Joseph.
Joseph, who is leading a court challenge against the county's drug paraphernalia laws, said McHale's was a "courageous and enlightening position," on he hoped other police chief's would take.
McHale's stance may have startled his force, but some officers found humor in the incident. One officer joked that a College Park "head shop" has found commercial advantages.
"I hear they're offering discounts today," he said.
Hogan's aides, caught off-guard by McHale's remarks in The Washington Post, noted the chief's stand would end criticism that his longstanding friendship with the executive would interfere with his professional independence.
"So much for Larry's puppet," said one aide.