Of course there are traces of pot on that money

As recently reported by RawStory, a waitress in Moorehead, Minnesota, is suing the local police department after they seized $12,000 from her under the guise that it was “drug money.”

From the article:

Stacy Knutson was working at the Moorhead Fryn’ Pan restaurant when she discovered a wad of cash wrapped in rubber bands in a to-go box.

“No, I am good; you keep it,” Knutson claimed the customer told her when she tried to return the money.

At first, police told her she could have the money back if no one claimed it 60 days. After 90 days, they still refused to return the money, telling her it was being held as “drug money.” > [… because a] drug-sniffing dog determined [the money] had a strong odor of marijuana.

Now, think about this for a second: this article on snopes.com confirms as true the urban legend that 80% of our money is contaminated with some small amount of cocaine. That, by itself, should cast into suspicion any attempt to seize money based on it being “drug money.”

As stated elsewhere in the story, Stacy said she “feels like [she] did the right thing by calling the Moorhead Police” despite the fact she “desperately needed the money.” I have to question whatever wisdom there was behind trusting the local police department with $12,000, which should come as no surprise to my regular readers. This is yet another way that drug prohibition has ruined our sense of justice and our society: it is un-American (specifically, a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution) to just take someone’s property.

What I think happened here is that the Moorhead PD realized they were strapped for cash just like Stacy, and that combined with a case of “heavy badge-itis” led someone to say “let’s just say a drug dog sniffed this and smelled pot on it, so we can keep it.” It’s entirely possible the money was even intentionally contaminated with marijuana prior to letting the drug dog sniff it.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Stacy’s lawsuit prevails after something very similar to this is revealed in court. If so, I hope some heads roll in Moorhead, as those in government (particularly law enforcement) can’t be allowed to get away with this in any decent society.

The failure of drug prohibition: a “pot” bust in Corpus Christi

Flash back a few years to the old Miller Lite commercials where they’d show two people asking to watch two different sports on TV, then a third guy says, “Let’s watch both” and then taps a bottle of beer on the TV which automagically tunes to a channel where the announcer says “Miller Lite presents…” followed by an improbable combination of two sports such as “Full Contact Golf.”

Well, that commercial played through my mind yesterday as I pondered whether I needed to write a long-overdue article about the failure of drug prohibition, or yet another article about an incredibly dumb police blunder. And then, I see a mention of  this crazy story on my Twitter stream. Why not write about both, in one post?

As reported by Corpus Christi station KRIS-TV as well as rawstory.com, some members of the Corpus Christi Police Department thought they were making a rather large marijuana seizure.

The cops haul their prize load of over 300 plants into the station, and start testing them, only to get the biggest surprise of all: these were just ordinary weeds, not pot. (Specifically, horse mint.) Corpus Christi’s finest, indeed. It’s amazing how much yard work cops will do when they think they have pot plants.

Of course, were we to handle drugs as a social problem, not a legal problem, there would be nothing for the cops to do about these weeds, whether they were the weed (pot) or just garden variety. Indeed, there are many organizations specifically formed for the legalization of marijuana, and others not actually part of the organization that at least support the legalization of marijuana even if most other currently illicit drugs remain prohibited. Before I had to start paring down the accounts I was following on Twitter, I had been following the Twitter accounts of several such organizations (I don’t even have their sites bookmarked here, but I could probably find many of them again). Groups like Drug Policy Alliance are in a small minority, but it doesn’t make their arguments any less valid.

So you wonder why I’m in favor of ending drug prohibition. No, it’s not because I want to go down to my corner store and pick up a bag of cocaine or heroin the same way I get a 12-pack of beer. It’s because of the answers I get when I pose the simple question: what has drug prohibition actually done for us?

For one, it’s given many jurisdictions a convenient excuse to hire many, if not an excess of, police officers. These cops wind up doing things like writing traffic tickets during the inevitable lull in “real crime.” More often than not, the traffic stops are rarely about safety, but often an excuse to conduct warrantless searches of vehicles. Any contraband found during a consent search usually results in a conviction. For details, see the videos at flexyourrights.org; I’ll summarize here by saying usually it is a bad idea to consent to a search (this includes allowing police to enter your premises without a warrant).

Next, when the cops and prosecutors successfully do their new jobs, we, the taxpayers, wind up footing the bill for the prison stays of most of these drug users, space that could be better used housing real career criminals that actually do pose a real danger to society. (Some do get probation but even then the probation departments still wind up having to spend money on drug testing and programs like the SAFP (Substance Abuse Felony Penalty) program in Harris County, which could arguably be better utilized on reducing the caseloads of rank-and-file probation officers by hiring more of them.)

Another aspect of drug prohibition is that it artificially drives up the cost of the now-prohibited drugs. This means that for the junkies to keep getting their fix, they wind up committing other crimes such as theft and fraud. So yes, you’re reading this right: the drug prohibition laws actually cause more crime, not only from the prohibition of possession and manufacture, but also as a side effect from the inflated prices.

Finally, there’s one more effect that needs to be said, even though it’s probably the aspect I honestly feel least comfortable talking about. The measure of career success of most prosecuting attorneys is how many cases they have won, and such things as having lost few cases. This is usually accomplished by aggressively “trumping up” charges and getting clients to plea bargain down to a lesser offense, often more serious than one the evidence actually supports. The fewer cases that go to trial, the better the “batting average” for the prosecutor, as once charged, the only path to “not guilty” is through trial. The more cases get handled by plea bargain, the more cases the courts can handle; a prosecutor that lets too many cases go to trial is likely not to build favor with judges and have a short career as a prosecuting attorney.

I don’t disagree with plea bargains in principle. However, they make the enforcement of unjust laws even more unjust than they already are, and serve to skew the perception of the fairness of the court system to the average citizen when used to enforce unjust laws.

While I agree in principle with the idea of limiting recreational drug use to an acceptable level, I believe drug prohibition has failed to accomplish this and in many cases has made the problem worse. The Corpus Christi incident only serves to underscore this colossal failure. I’m sure there are others like it, that this is neither the first such case, nor will it likely be the last.

Drug prohibition: just say no.

Maybe we need “rated P for pot”

I’m kidding, of course, but it’s tempting to suggest just that.

The New York Times reports on what many see as an unfortunate move by the MPAA Ratings Board regarding the rating of the movie “It’s Complicated.” The film is rated R, not for violence, sex, or one too many of the nastier swear words. No, it’s rated R for a scene involving marijuana use.

Quoting the story:

This is an absurd ruling rooted in old cultural thinking,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Universal and Mr. Martin unsuccessfully appealed, seeking a PG-13 rating.

A PG-13 rating is not out of line, especially if history is any guide:

Figuring prominently in the brouhaha are other depictions of marijuana in cinema, particularly the scene in the 1980 comedy “9 to 5” showing Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin getting high and raiding the refrigerator. Its rating was PG.

Everyone about my age remembers at least hearing about “9 to 5.” I will admit I’ve never seen it all the way through. If a movie with pot use was only worth a PG in 1980, why would should a movie get branded with an R rating for the same reason here in 2009?

(Note that there was no PG-13 rating yet at the time of release of “9 to 5.” That was added in the summer of 1984. Under today’s MPAA rating system, “9 to 5” would most likely get a PG-13 instead of a PG, all other things being equal.)

The MPAA needs to get real and be consistent. We are much closer to the legalization of marijuana today than we ever were in 1980. Branding a movie with an R rating needs to be taken seriously, and not done as a purely political move, which is what appears to be the case here. These ratings decisions effectively decide box office returns, whether the MPAA intended this to ever be the case or not.

If you don’t believe me, remember “Kids?” That had to be released unrated, because most theaters would not show an NC-17 film. It turned a profit, but probably would not have were it released with its original NC-17 rating. Even then, Disney’s policy (the corporate parent of Miramax, which bought the distribution rights) was to forbid the release of NC-17 rated movies, forcing the creation of a one-off company to get the film distributed.

While technically optional, there is only one realistic alternative to the MPAA’s rating system, that being the Film Advisory Board, and that one is of dubious utility outside of direct-to-video releases. So in effect, the MPAA’s rating system is a de facto monopoly. The MPAA has the power to brand a movie with an R or NC-17 rating and cost the producers seven- to eight-figure sums. This is almost as bad as the Hays Code (Motion Picture Production Code), in essence. In effect, since most cinema owners and movie rental shops and technically even the likes of Redbox enforce the MPAA ratings, in effect the ratings system is a slightly watered-down version of the Hays Code, where instead of “unapproved” we have “NC-17.”