We Need To Free Up Our Police To Fight Crime, Not the Drug War

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PHOTO: SWAT raid in Lakewood, New Jersey

“Why Cops Bust Down Doors of Medical Pot Growers, But Ignore Men Who Keep Naked Girls on Leashes” – so reads the title of an AlterNet article by Kristin Gwynne that made the social media rounds this week.

The article explains the lure of asset forfeiture laws: why should law enforcement waste time chasing violent criminals when the true payout is in busting people with medical marijuana businesses and taking everything they own?

If you haven’t read the article, if you haven’t shared it with everyone you know, now is the time.

Despite the fact the system has operated like this for years, it’s still like a punch in the gut of compassion every time there is a raid, an arrest, a property seizure. And the SWAT team resources used on medical marijuana operations in contrast with the lack of investigation in the Castro case is not just eye-opening, it’s horrifying.

Thinking of this disparity brought me back to a terrifying experience of my own a few years ago.

I was a single woman living alone on a remote farm, on the outskirts of a small town. It was late at night and I saw headlights coming up my private driveway, past my house and up toward my barn.

The headlights went out, but not before I saw the silhouette of a tall man slowly open the barn doors and turn on a flashlight.

Terrified, I dialed 911 and was informed it would be at least an hour before police could arrive. I later discovered this delay was because they were involved in a drug sting on the other side of town.

Here I was, victim of a property invasion, and not a single officer could be spared because it was more important for the local police department to use all their forces to go after a non-violent offender who was growing some marijuana a few miles away.

“Don’t go up there!” warned the dispatcher after I told her I was going to take my gun up to the barn to confront the trespasser. “It’s only stuff,” she said, in reply to concerns about my barn and its contents.

Here’s the thing about stuff: the “stuff” on the other side of town – the home, cars, and cash owned by the marijuana grower – might become the police’s stuff if the sting worked out right. It could be a very profitable night for the local cops.

“Here’s the thing about stuff: the “stuff” on the other side of town – the home, cars, and cash owned by the marijuana grower – might become the police’s stuff if the sting worked out right. It could be a very profitable night for the local cops.”

In the meantime, my stuff – which the police had no claim to – simply wasn’t a concern.

Nor, apparently, was the issue of my own safety. Even if I didn’t confront the trespasser, I feared my house would be his next stop. I waited, shaking, for him to come down to my house, my mind reeling with thoughts of robbery, violence, rape.

Law Enforcement Officers take a vow “to protect and to serve.” Who was being protected that night on the other side of town? Who was being served?

The events this week in Cleveland have brought to light the fact that protecting and serving was not happening in that community for years. Numerous calls over the years from neighbors, including a call about men walking naked young girls on leashes and a woman and child banging desperately on an attic window were summarily ignored.

What if the neighbors had instead called to report that Ariel Castro was growing marijuana? My guess is the police would have arrived and searched every inch of his property, ransacked the place, and tore apart his furniture, his kitchen, his attic.

“What if the neighbors had instead called to report that Ariel Castro was growing marijuana? My guess is the police would have arrived and searched every inch of his property, ransacked the place, and torn apart his furniture, his kitchen, his attic.”

But calls that women were in distress led to nothing but a knock at the door once or twice, no searches, no further investigation.

What, after all, do the police have to gain these days by serving and protecting? Had they come to my home during my property invasion, they might have made a simple arrest. All of the property there was mine, and I was not committing a crime – there was nothing they could seize. They would not have gotten the bonuses, the promotions routinely offered to cops who get “stuff.”

And across the country it continues, from raids on small personal grow operations to raids on huge state-licensed medical dispensaries.

Just this week, San Bernardino, California, became the latest in a growing list of cities that have banned dispensaries.  Most businesses closed immediately, leaving people out of work and patients out of medicine. Those that elected to remain open are being raided, one by one, by armed narcotic task force teams. And they are seizing everything.

Every time the raids are in the news, a rush of grief washes over me. First, for the people in the noble profession of compassionate care who are losing their livelihoods, their money, their homes. Then for the patients, who will have to scramble to find access to their medicine or go without. And finally, for those citizens who are the victims of violent crimes, whose protection is no longer a priority for law enforcement.

In my own case, the intruder on my property sped away after I flashed my porch lights on and off as a warning. I never had to confront him with my gun. But I will always wonder what might have happened if things had gone differently.

This weekend, I am moving from an affluent, comfortable, New Jersey suburb back to that country farm where the trespasser terrified me years ago. I will be alone again, in a dark, secluded valley.

If, some night, a trespasser appears in my barn, I will call 911. I will tell dispatch there is a giant marijuana grow operation on my property and that I have a mansion, a fleet of luxury automobiles, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.

And I imagine a heavily armed battalion of officers will waste no time in coming right over.