Yeah, we know, it’s not exactly breaking news to bring up the fact that law enforcement officers across the country remain ignorant about cannabis despite the fact that they are arresting a U.S. citizen once every 48 seconds for it and despite the fact that the broadstroke legalization sweeping the nation right now has created endless opportunities to educate oneself on the plant. Instead, their willful ignorance on the subject perpetuates the vicious and costly cycle of arrests and now expungements, but the arrests are not even slowing down, let alone stopping. When these plant-based, non-violent, low-level charges stick, they can negatively impact a person’s life for decades to come by limiting opportunities for education, employment, housing, benefits, or even gun ownership or voting.
Examples of blatant police corruption are everywhere. But it’s not just the pigs planting fake evidence or the ones applying to be members of the KKK that fall into that category of “corrupt”. These days it is just as serious of a dereliction of duty to be a dumbass about weed if you are tasked with, ya know, policing it. Yet, week in and week out more Americans have their lives flipped upside down over the mere suspicion of cannabis possession and the latest two stories to cross our news desk are perfect examples of how the momentum is shifting in our society when it comes to weed, and how we must demand that law enforcement keeps up.
… AND JUSTICE FOR ALL
I remember sitting at a BBQ one day surrounded by all of my wife’s friends from the gym. Me, I personally don’t go to the gym due to allergies – I get all sweaty while I’m there, then I’m sore for days. Who needs that? But I went to this party and found myself sitting between a narcotics cop and a judge listening to them bicker at each other about work. I almost snarfed soda outta my nose when the judge, frustrated, loudly mocked the cop for “busting potheads all day” and vowed to “toss every cannabis case” that came his way. This was five years ago! The stigma has only eroded further in society since then but it really opened my eyes to the levels of our justice system, and how they don’t always sync up ideologically. This is the theme that carries over to the most recent examples of cops confused about cannabis.
In Philadelphia, Lehigh County Judge Maria Dantos basically shredded what used to be an open and shut case for local law enforcement officers and prosecutors who say that they discovered some weed and a loaded firearm during a routine traffic stop involving 27-year old Timothy Barr.
Barr was not driving the car and he told the officers that he was a registered medical marijuana patient once they fell back on their tired old line that they could smell weed and wanted to search the vehicle. The firearm was found under the driver’s seat but a prior conviction made it illegal for Barr to possess the weapon. . . but he didn’t possess it when they found him. The honorable Judge Dantos ruled that none of it mattered since the initial search itself was illegal and so the subsequent seizures were as well. Even the <1g of weed they found in the car and wanted to ruin the man’s life over. In her official case opinion, Dantos wrote that it is “illogical, impractical and unreasonable” for the cops to have any suspicion of a crime when they decided to search the vehicle. The judge solidified legal precedent that the smell of marijuana alone – particularly in a state that regulates the sale and possession of the plant – is not indicative of a crime. She tossed the possession charge and ruled the firearm evidence inadmissible in the weapons charge – effectively murdering both cases with one shot.
Courtroom records reveal that during pre-trial testimony, the Pennsylvania state trooper that arrested Mr. Barr mistakenly claimed that she thought that the dried flower form of cannabis was still illegal even though it has been sold (and taxed by the state) in this form for over a year now. Technically, state law does not allow patients to smoke that flower, however. Instead it is meant to be vaporized. None of that matters in this case though since Barr was never accused of smoking it, but this cop claimed that she picked up a “strong smell” of marijuana. . . coming from less than a gram that was wrapped in a ziplock bag that was then stuffed into a pill jar. If you think that sounds ridiculous, at least one judge in Philly agrees with you and Barr was set free on $1 bail. Prosecutors can still pursue the weapons charges, but will have to do so with no evidence and a sore crotch from their last courtroom kick in the nuts.
There are over 143,000 registered MMJ patients in Pennsylvania and Barr’s case sets an important protective precedent for all of their 4th Amendment rights. But what about that cop? Demoted in rank or pay? Facing disciplinary action for embarrassing the department and wasting taxpayer money? Maybe a mandate that she learn the laws she is sworn to uphold? Of course not.
That brings us to our second example of the ineptitude of the authorities tasked with protecting and serving us. In Ohio, just over 48,000 residents have registered with the state’s limited medical marijuana program but nobody expects them to flip it to recreational legalization anytime soon. For the next few months, however, the state’s cannabis laws really don’t make much difference until local cops can figure out a way to tell legal hemp from illegal cannabis.
On July 30th of this year, Ohio fell in line with the federal government and legalized the hemp plant which they went on to define as any cannabis plant with less than 0.3% THC. Beat cops have found it impossible to make the distinction with the naked eye (or nose) and so they turned to science for some answers. While potency testing cannabis is the status quo in most states with any sort of cannabis legalization, Ohio apparently has not caught up to that tech just yet and so the boys in blue have no way to prove their case on cannabis possession charges. This led to Jason Pappas, vice president of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police, making the extraordinary claim that “Until these testing requirements are fixed . . . it’s going to be very difficult to go after any marijuana cases in Ohio,” he added, “You legalized marijuana in Ohio for the time being.”
So because Ohio cops or the statewide criminal justice system cannot do the simplest scientific procedures on a plant they routinely incarcerate people for, the state’s laws on cannabis are rendered moot until authorities get their act together.
Ohio’s Attorney General echoed the frustration of his top cops and warned prosecutors that it could take “several months” for them to figure out how to tell tomaytoes from tomahtoes. Until then, his office is recommending prosecutors “suspend identification of marijuana testing” and not indict “any cannabis-related items.” Spark it up while you can, Ohio!
These examples come with some satisfyingly ironic endings, but they are the rare exceptions compared to the number of cases of corrupt cops abusing their authority and using simple cannabis possession to stack charges and ruin lives. . . and get away with it. Perhaps a new plank to add to cannabis reform moving forward is mandatory continuing education for law enforcement about the cannabis plant itself, the actual research behind it, and of course the local laws that govern it. The thin blue line between ignorance and corruption is not sustainable in a society moving so rapidly toward total cannabis reform.