Last night's episode of VICELAND's Weediquette focused on how police forces in Michigan are using civil asset forfeiture to target legally run medicinal marijuana businesses in the state. We talked to Weediquette host Krishna Andavolu about his reflections after filming the episode; an edited and condensed version of his comments are below.
In Michigan, medical marijuana is legal—but last year, arrest rates were on the rise. Why? It seems like marijuana legalization is meant to at least take the drug out of the realm of the criminal justice system, but while doing research for this season of Weediquette, we found out that there's still a strong incentive for police officers to go after legal marijuana growers in Michigan. The doctrine that the incentive is based off of is called civil asset forfeiture—which means that if a cop busts you, he or she can take your stuff in addition to throwing you in jail and charging you.
Even though medical marijuana growers have cards that say that they're legally allowed to grow, civil asset forfeiture incentivizes police departments in Michigan to pursue really small technical violations—for instance, if there's a lock on a door that isn't secure enough, or a key to a room in your grow house or dispensary is left on a counter when it should've been in a safe space. So law enforcement targets medical marijuana growers, finds enough evidence to justify a raid, takes all the growers' stuff, and then makes an excuse for it after the fact.
It's tough for Michigan cops. The state's economy is pretty bad, and a lot of their police departments aren't funded particularly well—so the police are using the doctrine of civil asset forfeiture to target mom-and-pop businesses. One of those businesses was run by the Shattucks, a family we visited who decided to go into the medical marijuana business because they saw people using it and thought it would be a good business to try for a couple of years to raise some capital to go into real estate. They were after the American dream, small business ownership.
However, the St. Clair County drug task force got wind of what they were doing, raided their grow facility, dispensary, and home, and took more than $80,000 worth of their goods. Losing the money and goods was bad enough—but their kids were also at home when the SWAT team came through the door, so their nine-year-old daughter is the one who saw the door broken down and men with guns rushing in.
You could look at the Shattucks and say, "I'm sure they were doing something wrong." But a SWAT team seems like a disproportionate reaction. It's an issue of how you implement medical marijuana legalization, but also of what we ask for in our community policing. What's the relationship between those who are being policed and the police themselves? How do you balance making sure that the marketplace is legitimate while also respecting the people who are already operating legitimately in the marketplace? The Shattucks did everything they could to show the cops that they were doing the right thing—they met with the police department and showed the cops all their paperwork—but that didn't stop the police from going after them two months later.
Another family we talked to, the Fishers, were in a hearing about a similar criminal case against them, and under cross-examination, the police officer who conducted the raid was asked if he questioned the family about whether they had medical marijuana cards—and he said no. There aren't lawmakers who are trying to crack down on this stuff, so in a lot of cases drug task forces have no legislative oversight, meaning it's up to individual cases in court to set any sort of precedent.
On Weediquette, we cover a lot of different stories—stories about medicine and recreational drug use—and this story is about how pot has always made it easy for law enforcement to go after vulnerable communities. We're on a trajectory where medical marijuana and marijuana in general is going to become legal—it feels inevitable and that the war on drugs will also inevitable fade away—but stories like this bring to light that there's a lot to still fight for.
Follow Krishna Andavolu on Twitter.