Demystifying Decriminalization | The American Word

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Demystifying Decriminalization

Anonymous | 5/14/16 10:02pm
| Updated 5/14/16 10:02pm

Jaclyn Merica /
American Word Magazine

The red and blue lights of the police car refracted in the smoky air of my Subaru. The laughter between me and my friends ceased immediately, replaced by frantic profanities. Smoke spilled out of the window as I cracked it open to greet the officer. Immediately, my rights were unknowingly abandoned.

In November 2014, Washingtonians voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Initiative 71 allows residents 21 and older to grow up to six plants and possess up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use. However, parts of the initiative are still muddled. The law does not establish a system for the sale of marijuana, so while possessing weed is legal, buying and selling it is not. The law does not specify where marijuana can be smoked, like in a rental house or apartment, or in a privately-owned club. Marijuana cannot be used on federal property, which comprises a large part of the city. Many unintentional lawbreakers are unaware certain spots are federal land, such as Battery Kemble Park.

News of Initiative 71’s passing prompted a slew of overzealous stoners to smoke in the streets. It also prompted eager law enforcement to capitalize on the average person’s ignorance of the law. As a former naïve marijuana smoker, I can attest to the usefulness of knowing your constitutional rights, as well as the marijuana laws in your area. Police are great at manipulating situations, and knowing I was young, scared and high was an invitation to take advantage of me. The officer utilized scare tactics by telling me I was going to lose my financial aid at school, my parents were going to be notified and I had ruined my future if I didn’t admit to their claims – all claims with no legal standing. I was coerced to comply with the officers’ demands in exchange for a promised acquittal, which led me to incriminate myself. In actuality, the officers used my compliance against me to heighten my charge. I was dead to rights.

The officer ordered me to exit my vehicle to be searched. According to the Fourth Amendment, a car or house is private property, and you have the right to refuse a search. If an officer pulls you over with no reasonable suspicion, you can decline a search. Yet some states consider marijuana odor to be probable cause, and refusing a search is futile in states with probable cause laws. D.C. does not have probable cause laws. Agreeing to the search doesn’t absolve you from incriminating evidence found in your car or home, and saying no doesn’t ensure police won’t perform a search anyway. Refusing a search, however, does make a case more credible if it goes to court.

Similarly, asking if you’re free to leave can provide legal protection. The officer’s response indicates how to handle the situation. If the officer says you are not able to leave, consider yourself in custody, and subsequently refuse to give any extraneous information. If the officer says you are free to go anytime, you can exercise your constitutional rights by leaving. The officer needs to have a legal reason to hold you for questioning. It is important to note, unless you explicitly say you want to leave, the law acknowledges the interaction as voluntary.

It is never smart to smoke in a car. Thankfully, my car was off and my keys were out of the ignition, so the officer had no evidence that I was Operating Under the Influence. In the event that you are smoking in your car, place the keys outside of the vehicle. If a cop finds you smoking with the engine running, that an OUI, and the punishment is severe. Ultimately, the little bit of weed left at the bottom of the sandwich bags resulted in a possession charge and a hefty fine.

It’s a horrific experience to feel entirely helpless defending yourself. Education makes the difference between avoidable arrest and legal trouble. The key is to properly assert your constitutional rights when necessary, and that’s impossible if you don’t knowyour rights. So before you smoke up, read up.