The insanity of marijuana prohibition is beginning to be seen as exactly that, and a California voter initiative next year represents potentially the greatest challenge to prohibition yet.
It’s such a commonplace occurrence that it has almost lost its ability to shock: A random encounter in a U.S. metropolitan area leads to an armed confrontation with the police that ends with a young black man dead.
Is the above referring to Michael Brown and his run-in with the cops in Ferguson, Missouri? No. Eric Garner’s encounter with Staten Island’s finest in New York City? No. Perhaps, Walter Scott, who was shot in the back by a North Charleston patrolman in South Carolina? Wrong again. How about Justus Howell, the 17-year-old who was also shot in the back by Chicago-area police a few days later? Not at all.
No, the case in question happened down south in suburban New Orleans, where a young man by the name of Desmond Willis was shot and killed by Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputies on April 6. According to the sheriff’s department, the incident began when Willis committed a traffic violation and sped away as deputies approached his truck, which he crashed and then attempted to flee on foot. During the foot pursuit an order to raise his hands was given, which Willis disregarded, and he chose instead to shoot it out with the cops. In the ensuing gunfight Willis died in a hail of bullets in the parking lot of a New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood joint, a local restaurant chain.
On the face of it, this shooting seems justified. After all, Willis ran and fired at the deputies. And in the end, it turned out he had very good reason to flee: Deputies reported that in the initial encounter they smelled marijuana wafting from the truck and, in the post-shootout search, found 228 grams of pot packaged in various amounts as well as several rounds of various types of ammunition. Further search turned up a receipt for a storage unit in which, the Jefferson Parish deputies claim, more drug paraphernalia was found. Adding proof to the pudding, local lawmen also claim that locals have since identified Willis as a known drug dealer.
Killed over a plant
So, a law-and-order type might argue, score one for the good guys. Assuming the sheriff’s office’s version of events is true, a criminal drug dealer didn’t want to get caught, fled, traded fire with the cops, and got what he so obviously had coming to him. QED. However, take a few steps back and the absurd evil of what happened in that series of events becomes evident. Imagine, for an instant, if marijuana was not illegal. Willis, not having to ply his trade in secret and beyond the law, would have been able to openly sell his wares. Customers, in turn, would have been able to buy them openly.
There would have been no need for Willis to defend his turf or his criminal profits with a gun. Indeed, there would have been no such profits at all if there were free and legal competition. Thus, there would have been no need for Willis to fear police, and no reason for the police to arrest and imprison him for selling marijuana. Without the threat of a long prison sentence motivating him, the encounter between Willis and the deputies might have just turned out like any other driving-under-the-influence case. Might Willis have still tried to run in such a situation? Possibly, but then again it is equally, if not more likely, that Willis would have accepted his ticket and gone to court like any other drunk driver would have.
Only marijuana prohibition and the criminalization of any and all who partake of it, turned what might have otherwise ended with a field sobriety test into a deadly encounter that ended with a shootout and a bullet-ridden corpse. If one considers the scientific fact — proven by decades of research — that marijuana is far less toxic to a human being than any other known drug, including alcohol, this outcome is madness so complete that it belongs in a Kafka novel. That this is so obviously the case and proven to be so by recent experience with marijuana legalization in places like Colorado is clear to any objective bystander. Even the police, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office included, must deep down know this is true.
An emperor without clothes
After all, if they didn’t know this to be true, then Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand wouldn’t have held a press conference a few days after the shooting and engaged in mouth-breathing histrionics to defend the actions of his deputies. Red-faced and quivering with barely contained rage, Normand shouted to assembled reporters that Louisianans were “collectively stupid” for considering marijuana decriminalization, and he belittled the notion, proven repeatedly by rigorous scientific research, that pot is mostly harmless. Seemingly unaware of irony, Normand sternly warned the good citizens of Jefferson Parish that violent drug culture would kill innocents and that, so long as it was illegal, which it still is in Louisiana, motivation to join that culture is powerful because “the profit motive is still there!”
One is almost tempted to pity Sheriff Normand, considering how stupid he must be to not realize that marijuana’s very absurd illegality is what caused this situation and created the violent drug culture he so loathes, until one realizes his paycheck and social status are absolutely dependent upon him not understanding it. Indeed, the bloviating, red-faced buffoon’s entire career requires that Louisiana, the prison capital of the world, keep as much of its population under lock and key as possible. After all, decriminalization of drugs means less violence over drugs, fewer criminals and a much reduced need for uniformed cretins like Normand.
Fortunately, the insanity of marijuana prohibition is beginning to be seen as exactly that, and voters in a handful of states have stepped forward to effectively make the herb more or less legal within their confines. However, coming up in 2016 will be the biggest challenge yet to prohibition — a voter initiative in California that, if successful, will allow the state’s 39 million people and the country’s biggest consumer market full access to legal marijuana after two decades of halfway-house access through legalized medical marijuana, which the state passed in 1996. The implications are profound.
So goes California…
Although it is an open question as to whether the measure will pass, as a similar item was defeated in 2010, the signs look good. Attitudes on pot, like with gay marriage, have changed swiftly and now more Americans support legalization than oppose, a seismic shift in long-standing public attitudes toward drugs. 2016 is also a presidential election year, and young people, who mostly support legalization, are likely to come out in far greater numbers than they did in 2010. At the moment, polls show 55 percent of Californians support legalization — the largest that number has been since the question has been asked by pollsters. If the referendum were held today, legal California pot would pass by a wide margin.
So, if California legalizes marijuana outright and some of the other states that will have it on the ballot in 2016 do so, too, what happens? Official Washington is still very much opposed to the prospect, but it seems very unlikely D.C. would continue to be so steadfast in its opposition once truly large numbers of voters move to end prohibition. What’s more, California has the heft and influence to ensure that the feds, even if they remain opposed, can do little to actually interfere. If that is how 2016 breaks, then the diehard prohibitionists like Sheriff Normand of Jefferson Parish will soon have little choice but to accept the inevitable that they, like the dinosaurs they increasingly resemble, don’t have much of a future.
If we’re lucky, it might even force some of these blowhards to earn an honest living that doesn’t involve imprisoning and murdering otherwise law-abiding people over the sale and consumption of a plant that is less dangerous than a Bourbon St. Hurricane. It hardly seems possible that such a thing is possible, so ingrained is the moronic war on drugs in this country, but stranger things have happened. Gays and lesbians are getting married, America has a black president and, soon, a woman will likely take up residence in the White House as our chief executive. Change like this never seems like it will occur until it suddenly does, and afterward everyone always wonders what the controversy was about. This is precisely what is about to happen with pot, and not a moment too soon as Desmond Willis’s grieving parents can now attest.