How the Pot Pretext Gives Police Too Much Power

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a pretext is “a reason that you give to hide your real reason for doing something.”

Keep that in mind and consider what the following reports all have in common.

Charnesia Corley was pulled over during a traffic stop in Harris County, Texas when police claimed they smelled marijuana. A female officer was called to the scene, and Corley was subjected to a body cavity search. Police are claiming that she consented to the search, stating in a police report that Corley said they could “strip search her if needed.”

Corley says that she felt like they raped her. Although she was charged with marijuana possession and resisting arrest, the charges have now been dropped due to the efforts of her attorney and subsequent publicity.

Marijuana has long been used to smear victims of the drug war in order to deflect blame from police and/or vigilantes. The release of toxicology reports indicating marijuana use by Sandra Bland, who allegedly committed suicide in police custody in Texas, and Trayvon Martin, killed in confrontation with self-styled community watchman George Zimmerman, are recent prominent examples. The implication is that both victims were somehow responsible for their deaths because marijuana use suggests they engaged in risky behavior and/or deviant lifestyles.

In New York City, police have been engaged in a lengthy and controversial stop and frisk program currently under review by the federal courts. The reputed purpose of the program is to remove weapons from the street. Police are allowed to stop and frisk people when they have reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is about to be committed; the justification for the pat-down search is to protect the police officer’s safety during a brief investigatory conversation with the suspect.

If the pat-down suggests a weapon is present, than the officer is allowed to conduct a more intrusive search into the suspect’s pockets. This is known as a Terry search, named after the Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio which found this activity was consistent with the 4th Amendment. In New York, however, the stop and frisk program tends to target blacks and Hispanics and has resulted in tens of thousands of arrests for marijuana.

While possession of small amounts of marijuana is decriminalized in New York, displaying marijuana in public remains a misdemeanor subject to arrest. After a pat-down search due to a stop and frisk encounter, an individual is told to empty their pockets, and when they remove marijuana from their pockets, they are arrested for displaying the marijuana in public. Extensive documentation, commentary and reports on the political backlash to this practice has been reported by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project.

In addition, hundreds of police agencies have sent requests to the Pentagon for armored vehicles in the last few years. Mother Jones reviewed 450 such requests for a recent report on the militarization of local police forces. Over a quarter of these requests were based on the drug war, prompting a closer look at these requests by Cristopher Ingraham of the Washington Post. Ingraham found at least seven local police departments cited marijuana in their requests, arguing that marijuana eradication and serving warrants on suspected grow-rooms was sufficiently dangerous to require armored military vehicles.

Merriam-Webster also gives a more detailed definition of the word pretext—“a purpose or motive alleged or an appearance assumed in order to cloak the real intention or state of affairs.”

Why are marijuana laws popular with police? For many police officers and police departments, marijuana laws provide a convenient and useful pretext for the raw exercise of power.

Marijuana laws provide a pretext for stopping people in the cars or on the streets, for justifying arbitrary and/or unreasonable searches, for shifting the blame, for abuse of power and for acquiring greater technology, weapons and authority.

There are a lot of police officers and police departments that have found better things to do with their time. Most law enforcement officers in the United States are professionals, dedicated to protecting and serving their local communities. But the unprofessional conduct of a small minority of police officers and departments damages the reputation of the law enforcement community. This is one of many reasons law enforcement professionals have been turning against the War on Drugs, and a leader in this area is a group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

Meanwhile, police reliance on the pot pretext remains one of the great costs of prohibition and one of the strongest reasons why marijuana legalization advances civil liberties and justice for all Americans. For many cops, such as in the examples above, it’s not about pot. It’s about power.

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