The new liberality concerning marijuana possession in the United States is long overdue, but let’s not exaggerate how much progress we’ve made. Users might not be ending up in jail as frequently as they did 10 years ago. But cops, judges, and courts still exercise arbitrary power to ruin people’s lives, and they continue to do so at astonishing rates, all over the country.
I recently saw this firsthand. I sat in a municipal traffic court from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., awaiting my own time with the judge for a petty moving violation. I was there with 150 other people, gathering cobwebs as the judge took his sweet time and shamed people as they stood at the bench and humbly submitted to his rule.
No phones or computers are allowed in court. My iPad was not allowed, either. Once you enter through the metal detector, you are trapped for the duration. There is no contacting anyone. For most people today, this would be the only time in their lives when such contact is forbidden. This rule contributes to the feeling of being controlled by and subjected to power.
You just have to wait your turn, even if it takes eight hours. So there we sat.
Not one person in this courtroom had harmed anyone. Not one. They had not stolen anything, had not mugged anyone, had not caused any car wrecks. And yet there they were, facing torment at the hands of a judge drunk on power and a criminal-justice system that is out of control.
Most of my fellow criminals were poor, young, black men who had been stopped for some traffic violation and then booked for a different, unrelated offense. Why the lopsided demographics? Were these people targeted? It would be hard to prove, but it seems highly likely.
The supposed crimes called out by the judge were all over the map: there was too much tinting on the windows, the license plate light was burned out, the vehicle was following too closely, the driver was speeding (of course), the car had expired tags, th…