Crime & Punishment: The Story of Marijuana and Militarized Police

The marijuana market in the United States is now the leading character in at least two very different stories.

One of these stories is the one usually encountered in Marijuana Investor News. It tells of the success of an industry long in hiding, but gradually emerging, state by state, into the light of day, attracting in the process legitimate above-board entrepreneurs, investors, employees and customers. In this tale, the protagonist’s fate is bound up with that of a lot of other characters—hemp, cannabis-infused beverages, specialized realty services, and so forth.

But marijuana—or the legal stuff’s still-criminal twin if you will—is also the title character in another, much darker, narrative. It is still one of the targets of a “war on drugs” led by the Feds, and ardently pursued by many authorities, state and local, across the country. Further, one doesn’t even need to put quotation marks around the word “war” in such a context. The combat between sovereign authorities on the one hand and the people who pursue the drug trade on the other—inclusive of the marijuana trade—where it remains criminal, has become frighteningly militarized in recent decades.

 

Nine Bullet Holes

A couple of recent headlines from South Carolina make it all-too-clear how dark this second narrative has become. On Thursday, April 16, 2015, the 15th Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s drug enforcement unit arrived at Julian Betton’s apartment in Myrtle Beach with search and arrest warrants because he had sold an informant 15 grams of marijuana, a little more than half of one ounce. But Betton, who possessed firearms, did not fire at the officers, contrary to early reports. And they did fire at him, as evidenced by the nine bullet holes in his body.

In an email exchange with MJINews, David Caraker, Assistant Solicitor, said that the drug investigation regarding Betton remains open, “as the charges have not been disposed of as yet.” But so far as he knows, the use-of-force case concerning Betton has been closed.

Ethan Nadelmann, the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, pointed out in a recent conversation that it isn’t at all uncommon for those who sell contraband marijuana to possess firearms, simply because it is an underground business with intense rivalries.

Asked whether the shooting of Julian Betton was an ordinary event or an outlier, Nadelmann said: “Obviously the case is an outlier. Roughly 800,000 people are arrested for marijuana related offenses each year, and very few are shot.” But it is also all too characteristic of the increasing militarization of civilian law enforcement, and the racial element thereof. “In a variety of situations in recent years, black men especially are treated violently, sometimes fatally, by the police.”

 

The ‘Rush’ of Dynamic Entry

Asked whether there exists an audio recording of the raid on Betton’s home in possession of law enforcement, and whether if there is, it will be made public at some point, Caraker said that he could not comment because such a comment “may implicate evidence in his trial, and I want to assure him of a fair trial, to the extent that I can.”

Even without audio, reports make it seem as though the official home invasion that came so close to killing Betton could have been scripted by Radley Balko, author of “The Rise of the Warrior Cop.” Ethan Nadelmann has referred to Balko as the outstanding authority on the subject of this type of militarization.

Balko wrote that when he interviewed officers with SWAT and “dynamic entry” experience, they told him that raids in pursuit of illegal drugs are “orders of magnitude more intoxicating than anything else in police work.” Balko was struck by the irony of the regular description of such raids with the sort of language typically used for the appeal of illicit drugs: a “huge rush,” or a “habit forming” high.

Furthermore, and also one of Balko’s points, such a raid is almost always unnecessary. Even given the goal of investigating and arresting small-volume marijuana merchants: after a respectable investigation, officers know the suspect’s routine. They know when he leaves home, when he is typically on the road, and so forth. So they might easily stop a suspect while in traffic, and/or enter and search his home while he is elsewhere, avoiding or at least significantly reducing opportunities for violence. Why don’t they? Perhaps an inability to “just say no” to an addiction.

 

Zachary Hammond

In a related story, also as it happens from South Carolina, autopsy reports indicate that a police officer in Seneca who shot and killed 19-year-old Zachary Hammond, did so by firing twice into his back during a drug arrest. Hammond’s crime? Driving a car in which a suspected marijuana dealer was riding.

Hammond was apparently shot at near point-black range from outside an open driver’s side window, though the police seem to be sticking to their story that the officer fired in self-defense as the 19-year-old boy tried to run him down, a story that seems, in light of the autopsy, simply impossible.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division announced its own investigation on Aug. 9, to be held in conjunction with the FBI and the office of the U.S. Attorney for South Carolina, as the story went viral on social media.

Hammond’s death doesn’t fit neatly into some of the story lines invoked these days in discussing police-on-civilian violence. (Hammond was white, for example.) It certainly fits into the darker of the two narratives for the marijuana industry though. All too well.

The issues raised in both of these cases aren’t really about race. Nor are they about marijuana, except incidentally. They are about justice, and the accountability of public officials for the actions they take when experiencing what may be their own dangerous sort of “high.”

 

Old Numbers or None

There are no good nationwide statistics on the number of police shootings. Until 2009, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, of the U.S. Department of Justice, made public numbers of “arrest related deaths,” but it has discontinued that practice.

Those numbers show that through the period 2003-09 there were a total of 4,813 ARDs. Breaking this down by race: 42.1% of those deceased persons were white; 31.8% black; 19.7% Hispanic, with the remainder about equally split between “other” and “unknown.” Further, the number 4,813 itself is almost certainly low, because the BJS acknowledges it did not “attempt to estimate for partial or non-responding jurisdictions,” and that “caution should be used in comparing counts from year to year.”

Incomplete though those numbers surely were, it would be good to have the process of collecting and publicizing them restored. That would be one very small but critical step toward accountability for the sort of violence that took Hammond’s life and nearly took Betton’s.

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