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June 16, 2020

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Police have used cannabis prohibition as a pretext to hassle and arrest Black people, and other people of color, for decades. Police agencies not only enforce these unjust laws, they help create them, protect them, and increase the human suffering that flows from them. (AdobeStock)

To love cannabis is to know this plant is both a life-saving medicine and a wonderfully life-affirming enhancer of music and ice cream sundaes.

To love cannabis is also to be part of an incredibly diverse and inclusive global community of people brought together to celebrate and share this most beneficial botanical species.

But to love cannabis is also to see this same plant senselessly demonized by the authorities, in order to prop up a century-long campaign of racist, abusive, corrupt, counterproductive and overtly cruel policing.

While tremendous progress has recently been made towards legalization, the total number of cannabis arrests in the United States has actually risen each of the last three years.

All of these arrests disrupt the lives of the targeted individuals, their families, and their communities. Many of these disruptions are truly devastating. A routine interaction with law enforcement over simple possession can result in arrest, incarceration, job loss, housing loss, denial of student aid, financial ruin, the loss of your children, or getting shot to death by police.

Policing targets people of color and the poor

In every state—even states that have legalized—these arrests vastly disproportionately target the poor and people of color.

So much so, that if you don’t happen to be poor or a person of color, you might not feel the oppression of those 650,000+ annual cannabis arrests (in the United States alone!) as directly as you should.

Actually, as you must.

In his 2000 stand-up special Killin’ Them Softly, Dave Chappelle made this very point in an allegorical story about smoking a joint with his white friend “Chip.”

A cannabis arrest every 18 seconds in America

To love cannabis is to know that every law against it is an affront to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But it’s got to be more than that.

For more than a century, the police in this country have terrorized our communities by putting tens of millions of us in handcuffs, sending peaceful, kind-hearted people to prison for decades, raiding our compassion clubs set up to supply the sick and dying, shooting our dogs in no-knock armed raids of our homes, snatching us off our own porches and street corners, arresting cancer patients in their hospital beds, spying on us, sending snitches and narcs after us, combing through our ashtrays for a seed or a stem, or failing all that, just planting weed on us—and for what?

Someone gets arrested in this country for marijuana every 18 seconds.

Doesn’t that make you angry?

Even if you’ve never been busted yourself, even if you’ve never had a friend or loved one busted, to truly love weed is to know that when the police abuse any one of us, none of us are free.

Police actively creating more victims

If the war on marijuana hasn’t personally, directly affected you yet, or even if it has, let’s all take a moment to stop and think about Jesse Snodgrass.

In late 2012, an undercover narcotics officer in Riverside, California, infiltrated the local high school and befriended a lonely, isolated student named Jesse. Jesse was new to town and had been diagnosed with autism as well as bipolar disorder, Tourette syndrome, and several anxiety disorders.

Sensing a vulnerable target, this narc sent a 17-year-old special needs student—who’d never previously been involved with cannabis—more than 60 text messages begging for help finding weed. The narc said he needed it to treat his anxiety.

Jesse understood anxiety all too well. He also felt intense pressure not to lose his only friend, so he spent weeks searching before finally managing to buy half a joint off an unhoused person who lived downtown.

He brought the half-joint to his friend, who pushed a $20 bill into his hand to make sure it counted as a “sale.” Soon after, a team of armed police officers entered Jesse’s classroom, arrested him in front of his classmates, and dragged him off. The police took 22 students into custody that day at three different high schools as part of a coordinated campaign .

Jesse spent the night sleeping on the floor of a detention center using toilet paper as a pillow. That was his reward for putting himself in danger to score weed for his “friend.”

Nobody involved in the police operation faced discipline. Jesse’s parents sued the school. Their case was dismissed.

Please watch this 2014 documentary from VICE Media and imagine that Jesse’s your son, your brother, or your neighbor.

Actually, cops do ‘make the laws’

When asked to defend this indefensible policy and its horrific costs to the public, the police typically respond with a shop-worn line: “Hey, we don’t make the laws, we just enforce them.”

But to date, every single campaign to end cannabis prohibition has been met with organized and well-funded opposition from police, sheriff’s departments, and other law enforcement organizations that profit off the American prison industrial complex. Which means the people and institutions most intimately involved in enforcing these unjust laws remain steadfastly committed to ever-bigger budgets, harsher penalties, and fuller prisons.

It’s not that the law forces cops to arrest people for cannabis. They want to arrest and imprison people for cannabis.

It’s not protection, it’s oppression

Some small percentage of cops may truly believe that weed smokers pose a threat to society so severe as to justify all the no-knock raids and draconian sentences. But anyone so willfully ignorant or irredeemably delusional has no place in any position of authority.

As for the rest, we must come to the uncomfortable but obvious conclusion that they simply enjoy fucking with “undesirable people” with impunity. And cannabis serves as a convenient pretext to do just that—even in cases where cannabis has nothing to do with anything.

Cannabis as a pretext to fuck with Black people

When Michael Brown was shot to death by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, his lifeless body was left for four hours in the street. The authorities later went out of their way to publicize the fact that Brown was wearing socks decorated with cannabis leaves.

When Sandra Bland was pulled over by police in Hempstead, Texas, (a town literally named for cannabis) and later died while held in jail, Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis claimed “she swallowed a large quantity of marijuana or smoked it in the jail.”

As if that justified every abuse of their constitutional rights and human dignity.

In neither of these cases did the authorities actually claim cannabis as the cause of death—since cannabis has never caused a single death in human history. They just used cannabis as a smokescreen, to smear their victims and distract from their own crimes.

Yes, legalize it. But that won’t fix the police

The legal cannabis industry has rightly faced criticism for allowing rich white people to profit off the plant while so many people of color remain incarcerated for doing the same thing. Even rich white assholes have latched onto this critique.

Two problems to consider

Drill down a little, however, and what looks like one problem is actually two problems that throw each other into stark relief.

The economic problem of rich white people getting richer off cannabis is an outgrowth of the institutional racism embedded in capitalism. Put another way, the legal cannabis industry is increasingly full of rich white people getting richer because it’s now like every other industry.

In some cities and states, equity programs have been implemented to help level the playing field. But it’s clear there’s much more to be done, and this must be an immediate and urgent priority for regulators, industry leaders, and consumers. Cannabis should transform capitalism, not the other way around. But make no mistake: It will be a long, uphill battle.

Legalizing is a big help, but not the total solution

The second problem, however—that people of color continue to be arrested and incarcerated for cannabis—is a political problem. Legalizing cannabis is the solution.

When Washington, D.C., legalized in 2014, the arrest rate for Black people fell by more than 99%. The remaining arrests were attributed to everything from underage possession to unlicensed cultivation and sales. Even with that staggering drop, however, Black people still remain four times more likely than white people to be arrested.

Statistics from many other states tell the same story.

The good news is that legalizing cannabis massively reduces the number of people, of all backgrounds, forced into encounters with law enforcement. The bad news is that after legalization, the police remain just as racist as before.

Because the war on weed is not now, and never has been, about weed.

It’s about war.

‘We couldn’t make it illegal to be Black’

Many years after the fact, Richard Nixon’s former domestic policy chief admitted that the modern war on drugs was started as a way to attack the President’s two chief political enemies, “the antiwar left and black people.”

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black,” John Ehrlichman told a reporter in 1994, “but by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.”

For a fuller illustration of how policing and white supremacy are intertwined, check out this video by the team at John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight:

The war on drugs is the new Jim Crow

As anyone who’s read Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow knows, that’s exactly what the police did. And do. And will keep doing—over cannabis or for some other reason—as long as we give them massive budgets, unchecked authority, and an unwritten mandate to go after the poor, minorities, and political dissidents.

According to a 2017 report by the Center for Popular Democracy, most large cities spend more than 25% of their general fund budgets on police. Chicago and Oakland have spent 40%. The NYPD’s budget now comes to more than $6 billion annually, in a city facing a housing crisis and a transit crisis, where people lack access to basic healthcare and children go to sleep hungry.

Giving weapons of war to those who ‘protect and serve’

Those figures don’t include money from the federal government.

Between  1990 and 2017, the Defense Department supplied local police departments with $5.4 billion in military aid. Those grants brought tactics and equipment previously deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq to America’s cities and rural communities.

All of which means the officers of the law that kick down your door in the middle of the night over a dime bag show up in a tank and look like RoboCop. Meanwhile doctors and nurses wear trash bags to protect themselves from a deadly pandemic.

That’s what you support if you support the police.

So if you love weed and don’t support the police, what comes next?

Act locally. You, your voice, and your vote control your local city council, which controls the police budget. Start learning how to change things with this Practical Guide to Defunding the Police by Tessa Stuart.

David Bienenstock's Bio Image

David Bienenstock

Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of “How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High” (2016 – Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast “Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean.” Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.

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