Last week, police in Lawrence, Kansas—a bona fide college city where nearly 30,000 students at the University of Kansas are arriving on campus for the fall semester—welcomed the young people whose welfare and safety they are entrusted to preserve with some bizarre yet pointed advice.
Whatever you do, police warned, don’t sell weed. If you do, you’ll be the victim of a violent strong-armed robbery—guaranteed.
“Selling weed out of your apartment may seem like an easy way to make some quick $$$. But you will get robbed. At gunpoint,” the Lawrence Police Department’s official, blue-checkmarked account tweeted on Aug. 11. Cops stuck with this subject for a while. “DON’T SELL WEED OUT OF YOUR DORM/APARTMENT CUZ YOU’RE GONNA GET ROBBED,” another tweet read. “This is not debatable, it is inevitable.”
This puzzlingly strident, utterly baseless admonishment—most small-time marijuana sales go off without the slightest hitch; but if someone peddling a few dollars’ worth of weed does get robbed, are they still a victim, and can they call the cops without fear of arrest for possession?—is a recent example of what’s become a nationwide trend in the marijuana legalization era.
In an age when more than 65 million Americans live in states where marijuana is legal for adults 21 and over, instead of finding something else to do, cops are marking the moment by acting cheeky and trying to sneak a few laughs at the expense of anyone associated with weed.
This “for the lulz” approach began in Seattle in 2013.
Ahead of that year’s Hempfest celebration—the first after voters approved marijuana legalization the previous November—cops distributed Doritos bags affixed with helpful advisories, reminding visitors it was still illegal to be seen smoking weed. The stunt was a viral hit.
Since then, cops’ attempts at weed humor have generally been of the “Dane Cook, but dad jokes” or “dumb jock cousin slugs you in the arm and calls you queer for the 20th time” variety. That is, it’s stale, predictable, almost always at least mildly offensive and always-always at weed users’ expense. And this is the friendliest-possible interpretation—that is, seen from a position of privilege.
In the broader context—as in the context in which motorists are shot and killed by police with the smell of marijuana deployed as an excuse, and when arrests for small-time marijuana crime are still wrecking lives—cops’ widening weed joking is wildly inappropriate and offensive, and a sign of something more troubling: staid law enforcement officers aren’t taking legalization seriously.
In Wyoming, Minnesota, a suburb north of Minneapolis, stabs at exhausted stoner humor have become an annual tradition
Undercover #420 operations are in place. Discreet traps have been set up throughout the city today. #Happy420 pic.twitter.com/Jo8mh0Z5lQ
— Wyoming (MN) Police (@wyomingpd) April 20, 2017
Wow, fellas: Snacks, video games and a net. Topical and fresh! Unfortunately, the internet is stupid, Donald Trump has 35 million followers and dreck like this goes viral, so it spawned imitators.
There was Iowa State University cops’ innovation of a donut-laden trap.
You’ve heard of speed traps? We have weed traps pic.twitter.com/TP7ir4qg1h
— IowaStateU Police (@ISUPD) April 20, 2017
(Joke’s on them, or at least their appetite: One donut is missing.)
Exhausted puns, juxtaposing crack pipes and bongs, whatever: Everybody’s doing it.
Over in New Jersey, where life is terrible and everyone is miserable, police are taking an appropriately harder-edged approach. New Jersey State Police’s official account celebrated April 20 by tweeting out a “Happy 420” message with a drug-sniffing dog. The message, as the Trentonian newspaper pointed out, in a state where 25,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2013—two times the number arrested two decades before—is painfully clear and unintentionally honest.
Because, you see, police are cracking wise while still treating marijuana like the same old threat to humanity it’s never been.
Police are still on high alert for weed. In Atlanta, a woman was pulled over while eating kale chips, which, somehow, a passing police officer mistook for weed. That motorist was a white woman in her 20s.
Elsewhere, marijuana still serves as a pretext for police stops and an excuse for civil rights violations—and, in a community not far from the Wyoming PD’s Cheetos gags, a fatal police shooting.
Last fall, three cops in Phoenix were fired and a fourth was demoted after it came out that they’d forced a young black man with legal medical marijuana to eat a gram of cannabis they’d found on him—it was that or spend the night in jail, the cops told him.
In Texas, police were captured on a dashcam video stripping a black woman naked to her waist and digitally penetrating her vagina—what we’d call “rape,” in any other situation—during an ostensible search for marijuana. (Charnesia Corley was arrested for possession of 0.02 ounces of cannabis; she’s since filed a lawsuit.)
And it was in St. Anthony, Minnesota, where police officers shot and killed Philando Castile last summer doing a routine traffic stop. Within seconds of approaching Castile, who was in the car with his partner and the couple’s four-year-old daughter, police officer Jeronimo Yanez drew his firearm and shot Castile seven times—because, he later told investigators, Yanez smelled “burnt marijuana” and feared for his life.
As the Washington Post generously put it, it’s “unclear” if Yanez was telling the truth about smelling cannabis. Castile had cannabis in his system at the time of his death—as did Sandra Bland—but there’s no evidence that he was impaired. (There’s also no evidence Bland was impaired.)
Nevertheless, marijuana became the “central issue” for Yanez’s defense during his ensuing manslaughter trial. The “top-tier” defense attorneys hired by his police union tried to convince the judge that because Castile was “stoned,” Castile bore some of the responsibility for his own killing.
Yanez was acquitted. Castile’s mother later received a $3 million settlement.
This is why cops’ jokes about marijuana aren’t funny.
Marijuana has been a handy tool for oppressors for more than a century, since the days when Los Angeles police used “marihuana” as a pretext to jack up Mexicans. It’s punching down—punching way, way down, down on people who still rightfully fear the police as a threat. The prison system, which police feed with arrests, is a direct descendant of slavery and Jim Crow.
This is cheap and petty meanness. It is the humor of the bully, ill-natured and menacing. It’s like sending a correspondent from The O’Reilly Factor to Chinatown to ask people if they do karate and make ching-chong sounds. It’s worse than that, in fact.
It’s not far off from the young conservative boys of the alt-right—the kind of lads who go to Charlottesville, Virginia and chant “Jews will not replace us” by torchlight in front of a Confederate monument—using “ovens” as a punchline.
It reveals all to clearly a retrograde mindset that’s long overstayed its welcome and yet persists, despite citizens’ clear desire to move on. It’s vile effrontery, and it needs to stop.