You Coulda Been President

Barack Obama has been twice elected President of the United States of America.  And he smoked dope. So did William Jefferson Clinton, and I would bet Hillary and him shared a joint before Bill didn’t have sex with that woman.  The only people who have any real anger about their dalliance into dope are people who hate them anyway, so they don’t count.  And if you think George Bush the younger wasn’t toking away, you’re dreaming.

The did the dirty deed and went on to become President. The sky didn’t fall.

Both Clinton, Obama and a whole bunch of other elected officials, appointed officials who smoked a joint in their younger years (and let’s face it, pretty much everybody who came of age in the last generation smoked dope. If you didn’t, you were such a loser that you belong on an Island with Papillon.), have one thing in common: they didn’t get busted for it.

This  New York Times editorial recites some interesting statistics about the numbers of young people busted for public possession of marijuana in New York.

Law enforcement officers have often described these arrests as a way of reining in criminals whose other, more serious activities present a danger to the public. But state statistics show that of the nearly 12,000 teenagers arrested last year, nearly 94 percent had no prior convictions and nearly half had never been arrested.

Now a new study by Human Rights Watch further debunks the main premise of New York City’s “broken windows” law enforcement campaign, which holds that clamping down on small offenses like simple marijuana possession prevents serious crime and gets hard-core criminals off the streets.

The study tracked about 30,000 people arrested for marijuana possession in 2003-4 — none of whom had prior convictions — for periods of six-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half years. The study found that about only 1,000 of them had a subsequent violent felony conviction. Some had misdemeanor or felony drug convictions, but more than 90 percent of the study group had no felony convictions whatsoever. The report concluded that the Police Department was sweeping “large numbers of people into New York City’s criminal justice system — particularly young people of color — who do not subsequently engage in violent crime.” This wastes millions of dollars and unfairly puts people through the criminal system.

The worst part about this is that it’s largely predicated upon a non-existent crime, where the police pull a joint out of a person’s pocket during a baseless roust, then arrest them for its public display.  Police Chief Ray Kelly sent a memo not to do this last year, but apparently it wasn’t widely read.

[P]olice are still arresting people illegally in clear violation of both the commissioner’s directive and the state law. More than 50,000 possession arrests were made last year.

And surprisingly, this isn’t happening on Sutton Place, but on 125th Street and 168th Street, where the complexion of the criminals is darker.

The Times urges adoption of Mario’s son’s proposal to make public display of marijuana a violation, “unless the person was smoking the drug in public.”  This comes in the wake of Colorado and Washington’s referendums to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, making it a remarkably tepid reaction by the Old Gray Lady.  Why?

Marijuana is a criminal drug in New York, and despite the notion of theoreticians who have desks in editorial offices, no amount of tweaking around the edges of crime is going to change what happens on the streets.  The Times can argue for a fine-tuning of the laws, in the Utopian belief that police officers strutting their stuff on St. Nicholas Avenue are ready to lay down on stop-and-frisk, and modify their reaction when they pull a nickel bag out of some kid’s sock.  But it ain’t happening. 

And the pointy-headed dream that police will scrupulously honor the constitutional rights of young black and Hispanic men, proof-read their write-ups to make certain that every nuanced detail of their encounter is fastidiously accurate and cut loose, with courtesy and professionalism, anyone who didn’t smoke their dope in public, is a pipe dream. 

We can tweak the laws all day long, but there will still be 50,000 arrests on uptown streets for pot, as long as pot remains a criminal drug.  Why does the New York Times editorial board not realize that life on the streets doesn’t reflect their sanitized and wishful view of the world?  More importantly, when will the Times call bullshit on the whole deal, and come out for bringing New York up to speed with Colorado and Washington?

My suspicion is that they’re waiting to see how the experiment out west works out before committing to a position that, they fear, may come back to bite them in the credibility butt.  It’s a weak, cowardly stance, typical of a self-proclaimed leader who fears nothing more than the possibility it may be wrong.  it’s easy to be a self-proclaimed leader when you’re following others who have taken the chance and succeeded. 

But while New York waits for the news from out west, which may take a decade before it has much meaning, we lose 50,000 people a year to marijuana arrests, many of which are just bogus busts. At least they’re good for plenty of overtime.

That’s 50,000 young men and women who won’t become important government officials.  50,000 people who won’t be allowed to join the military, or live in public housing, get a college education or get a good job.  That’s 50,000 people who won’t be president.

It’s become a fantasy system that’s doing huge harm to huge numbers of people over, well, very little, if not nothing.  The time is ripe for us to move beyond the fantasy world where these miscarriages of law happen daily and toward a dose of reality.  Decriminalization of marijuana based on the phraseology of a cop in a report is no longer good enough to make us feel like we’ve addressed this problem. It’s time for New York to lead, and for the New York Times to lead. It’s time to free 50,000 young men and women from the chains of being criminals because they behaving like a future president.

5 comments on “You Coulda Been President

  1. Ken Mackenzie

    Not only do you make a good argument for decriminalisation – but there is also a wider case for a spent conviction regime allowing the rehabilitation of minor offenders so they can take responsible roles in society.

  2. Luke Gardner

    My suspicion is that they’re waiting to see how the experiment out west works out before committing to a position that, they fear, may come back to bite them in the credibility butt.

    Bwahahahahahahaha…. Sorry Scott. I agree with you on the substance of your post, but you can’t really believe that bit about the Times…. can you?

  3. SHG

    New York has no expungement statute, and efforts to enact one have failed numerous times. But even so, with criminal history available on the internet, the manner of notating dismissed cases, acquitted cases, reduced cases, youthful offender treatment, sealing of records, etc., has failed to suffice. While an after the fact answer would be helpful, it’s no substitute for eliminating wrongful, improper or needless arrests in the first place.

    Plus, it does nothing to change the experience of the defendant of having been searched, seized, arrested, prosecuted and convicted.

  4. SHG

    I can indeed. The Times is very sensitive to its own credibility and acceptance, fearing being seen as a mere liberal mouthpiece.

  5. Bruce Coulson

    Being one of those ‘losers’ that you referred to, I’ve always thought that my stance (I support decriminalization of most, if not all, currently illegal drugs) came across slightly stronger because I was truly disinterested in a personal sense; whether or not drugs remained illegal had no bearing on my lifestyle or fear of authority.

    ‘Consensual’ crimes (a term I prefer) have the drawback that since neither party has any incentive in reporting the offense (unlike traditional crimes, such as robbery), the police must get creative in the enforcement of those laws. Such energy often leads to far greater abuses than the original offense ever could.

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