Smoked Out

An NYPD detective's eye on crime.
May 3 2000 11:30 PM

Smoked Out

What do cops really think of marijuana?

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About a week ago, I stopped by my girlfriend's apartment to pick her up for dinner. Her roommate, a nice girl from Long Island who works in advertising, was uncharacteristically unhappy to see me at the door. She gestured me inside but shot a tense look at the friend with whom she had been watching television. I figured that it was just because I was interrupting their lazy Sunday afternoon. My girlfriend was still picking out her clothes for the evening, so I plopped down on the couch with the other two and started watching television. Soon the doorbell rang and the roommate jumped up, a look of horror on her face.

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"Who's that?" I asked with friendly curiosity.

"Uh, we ordered Chinese food," she said to me. Then to her friend, "Come on, let's go eat it on the roof."

Off they went. It was a chilly day, but good detective that I am, I tend to believe everything people tell me. What I should have known but didn't guess is that they had just received a little package from one of the many marijuana delivery services that bring pot directly to New Yorkers' doors.

This is far from the first party I've spoiled. I was once told that my presence at a gathering ruined it, since the guest of honor couldn't get high while I was there. At other times, I've been forced to act as a sort of unofficial review board for complaints about my profession. And the most frequent gripe I've heard—well, up until the cops who shot Amadou Diallo were acquitted—is that someone's buddy, sweetheart, or uncle got locked up for smoking a little harmless marijuana.

What pot users may find interesting, if not entirely satisfying, is that the opinions of cops vary almost as much as those of civilians when it comes to drugs and particularly marijuana. Some cops are staunch law-and-order types who believe that laws are made by the legislature and interpreted by the courts, not the police, and that no law is too small and no violation too trivial to take seriously. Other cops believe that the use of drugs, including marijuana, is tied directly to the use of more drugs and the commission of other crimes. Some narcotics officers are embarrassed that they must spend time pursuing violators of laws about which society is ambivalent and whose consequences are so light. And there are those, like myself, who see the virtue of enforcing quality of life laws but can't help but feel bad putting a guy in handcuffs for smoking pot.

My father is a jazz musician, and he and I sometimes joke about the popular image of jazzmen spending a lot of time stoned. Viper, my father told me, was old-time slang for pot smoker; tea referred to pot. Legend has it that Louis Armstrong was a big viper. One day not long ago, my father was telling me that once he'd quit smoking cigarettes, he never smoked again for fear that he'd fall off the wagon entirely. Same for smoking pot, he added. Wait a moment, I thought. My dad smoked pot? I thought we were talking about other musicians. Can I put a guy through the system for something my own father has done?

Well, yes, I can. It's not that I think that you, smoking a little marijuana in the privacy of your own living room, are committing a wrong against society that must be righted. In fact, in New York state, possession of small amounts of marijuana in your home is a "violation," which is less serious than a misdemeanor and not legally a crime. It is on the order of urinating in public or drinking from an open beer in public. Since you're at home, invisible to anyone outside, and since violations are not grounds for a search warrant, you are almost definitely going to get away with it. Buying that pot on a street corner is a different story. The possession of marijuana in public in New York as well as in most states is a misdemeanor; if we catch you, we are supposed to arrest you. Police do have some discretion when it comes to making arrests for minor infractions, but aggressive enforcement of quality of life violations has simply become the normal way we do business.

And I believe this is the way we should do business. One of the lessons we have learned in the last few years is that narcotics enforcement is an effective way to drive down almost all kinds of crime. We've also seen that successful drug enforcement targets buyers as well as dealers. Given the proliferation of marijuana dealers and users in public spaces such as Washington Square Park a few years ago, aggressive enforcement doesn't seem so out of line. And this is where most marijuana enforcement is being conducted—not in anyone's living room.

Moreover, although pot smokers are usually peaceable citizens, their dealers can be dangerous criminals. In 1993, a detective working in Manhattan South Narcotics named Luis Lopez was shot through the heart by dealers while making a marijuana buy. He left a family behind. He was 36. Now, I don't go in for the idea that everyone who buys illegal drugs gets a little of the blood of the policemen killed by dealers on their hands. But Luis' death makes me see marijuana as more sinister, a little less harmless.

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