‘The Haymaker’ is Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott’s opinion column on cannabis politics and culture.
Across America, police make more than 650,000 marijuana arrests every year. Most of them go unnoticed. But one of them caught my eye last week.
Chiefs cornerback Bashaud Breeland got snared by South Carolina's racist prison trap last week.
In a South Carolina town just across the border from Charlotte, North Carolina, a York County deputy rolled up on three men leaning against a parked car, sharing a blunt outside a gas station last Tuesday afternoon. Marijuana is legal for all adults in 11 states. South Carolina isn’t one of them. So the cop turned a lazy Tuesday hang into a life-or-death confrontation.
The deputy attempted to arrest one of the men, who happened to be Bashaud Breeland, the 28-year-old starting cornerback for the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. Breeland grew up in South Carolina and is riding out the quarantine at his home in Charlotte.
The arrest did not go smoothly. In a video posted on TMZ over the weekend, Breeland gestured, fidgeted, and tried to talk his way out of the situation—even as the cop attempted to cuff him. In the course of events, the deputy threatened Breeland with a taser and then a handgun. “When the deputy could not see Breeland’s hands,” the Associated Press reported, “he drew his weapon.”
‘Can’t see his hands’
In 2020 America, a cop who can’t see the hands of a Black man is a cop preparing to pull the trigger on a Black man. “Couldn’t see his hands” is code for “I believed he was reaching for a gun.” What usually follows is homicide by cop. See under: Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, O’Shae Terry, Terence Crutcher, and Botham Jean.
The race of the deputy is unclear in the video. But on the three-minute clip you can hear bystanders who are well aware of the danger to Breeland: “Yo, bro, don’t go in the car,” one man tells him. “Just chill.” A woman exclaims, “Oh god, I don’t want to be a witness to this,” expecting to see a man killed before her eyes.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. Breeland eventually accepted the cuffed bracelets and allowed the deputy to search both his phone and his car.
Breeland reportedly told the cop he was a 'marijuana enthusiast.'
In Breeland’s car the cop discovered an unsmoked blunt and three grams of weed. On his phone were “several communications about purchasing marijuana.” When the deputy asked Breeland about the texts, the Chiefs starter reportedly described himself as, in the deputy’s words, a “marijuana enthusiast.”
Breeland spent nine hours in jail before posting a $2,362 bond. Could Breeland have conducted himself in a more appropriate fashion? Sure. But let’s be real: It should never have come to this. The whole confrontation happened because lawmakers and law enforcers in South Carolina use marijuana prohibition as a tool to incarcerate men like Bashaud Breeland.
Meanwhile, in legal states
During the week Breeland was arrested, governors across America continued to treat medical and recreational cannabis as a legal and essential product sold by essential businesses. In San Jose, California, a judge signed off on the expungement of 13,000 minor marijuana convictions—many of which occurred under circumstances similar to Bashaud Breeland’s.
During the same week, former Detroit Lions great Calvin Johnson worked on plans to open his own medical cannabis company, called Primitive. Johnson told Sports Illustrated last year that he smoked marijuana after every NFL game. He’s now on the board of the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association. As the future hall-of-famer carried out his business plan, NFL officials worked with the players’ union to put the finishing touches on a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Under the new CBA, players will no longer be suspended for testing positive for marijuana.
Racist nonsense laid bare
The prohibition of cannabis in America has always been a policy of racist nonsense. But as we live through the final years of the war on weed, the added pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic is revealing the Alice-in-Wonderland lunacy of the entire enterprise.
In states where it’s legal, cannabis has been officially declared an essential product.
In states where it’s legal, cannabis has been officially declared an essential product. Millions of Americans are calming their anxiety and finding a good night’s sleep with the help of a five-milligram edible or a puff on a vape pen.
In states where it remains illegal, though, decent men like Bashaud Breeland are harassed and jailed for doing nothing more dangerous than kicking it with friends and a bottle of beer.
If Breeland had been doing the same thing in Michigan or Massachusetts, a local deputy might have broken up the blunt party by suggesting they take it somewhere private. End of story. Instead, Breeland found himself staring down the barrel of a service revolver and wasting the day in jail.
Black person is 3.6x more likely to be arrested
Eight decades after it began, cannabis prohibition is still nonsense, and it’s still racist. Last week the ACLU issued a follow-up to its groundbreaking 2013 report, The War on Marijuana in Black and White. In the 2020 update, the ACLU found that “on average, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates.” That’s down only slightly from the 2013 report, which found Black people were 4 times more likely to be arrested.
South Carolina, where Breeland was arrested, posted some of the nation’s worst racial disparities. In some South Carolina counties, Black people were six to eight times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates. In South Carolina, cannabis prohibition is nothing more than an incarceration trap meant to catch people of color.
You can read the full ACLU update here: A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform.
Voters changed, rural cops did not
A sea change has swept across America in the past decade. Voters now favor the legalization of marijuana for all adults by a two-to-one margin.
Adults now favor cannabis legalization two-to-one.
In most major cities, police chiefs and prosecutors consider the targeting of cannabis consumers to be an injustice and a waste of resources.
Rural sheriffs departments like those in York County, though, are among the last of the true believers in prohibition. Cannabis arrests give them legal leverage over otherwise law-abiding citizens, and civil asset forfeitures keep their budgets fat. For America’s rural cops, prohibition means power. That’s why the National Sheriffs’ Association, as well as state sheriffs’ groups in New York, Virginia, Texas, Illinois, and other states continue to lobby against legalization while their members pretend they don’t make the laws, they only enforce them.
Winners enjoy cannabis
It’s worth noting another event that happened last week. Houston Texans offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil signed a $66 million contract extension, making him the highest-paid O-lineman in the NFL. You might remember Tunsil from his moment of fame a few years ago: Minutes before the start of the 2016 NFL draft, somebody leaked a video of the University of Mississippi player smoking out with a gas mask.
Nasty old stereotypes about 'marijuana enthusiasts' are giving way to a new realization: Adults can enjoy cannabis safely.
As USA Today reported, “Tunsil was projected to be the third pick in the draft overall, behind Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. But after the video came out, teams were reportedly reluctant to pick him up, despite his incredible ability on the field. The Dolphins ended up drafting him at 13.” By sliding ten places in the draft, Tunsil lost an estimated $10 million on his rookie contract.
Why does this matter now? Because four years after NFL team executives freaked out about Laremy Tunsil hitting the weed, Laremy Tunsil got paid. He proved himself. Is Tunsil a “marijuana enthusiast” like Calvin Johnson and Bashaud Breeland? Nobody knows, and more to the point: Nobody fucking cares. Not the quarterback he’s protecting. Not the Texans coaching staff. Not the NFL, and not the team’s fans.
In fact, the only people who probably care are all the deputies out there in the prohibition state of Texas, waiting for their chance to use marijuana as a pretext to hassle and arrest a law-abiding Black man hanging outside a gas station on a Tuesday afternoon.