The Wyoming, Minn. Police Department’s Twitter 4/20 joke involved an officer holding a net, ready to pounce on the next marijuana user who walked into their ‘stoner’ trap of an assortment of Doritos, Mountain Dew, and Xbox games in what appeared to be a public park. A few hours later, Star Tribune journalist Rachel Chazin penned the article “Minnesota police department wins Twitter again with hilarious 4/20 tweet”.
At first glance, one might chuckle at a ‘munchies’ joke on 4/20. But with an officer holding a net, it’s an allusion to criminally prosecuting someone walking through the park after using marijuana. And when you’re writing about the tweet with a byline in the newspaper of record in town, what you’re actually doing is writing a criminal justice story, whether you like it or not.
Unfortunately, Chazin’s writing was nothing of the sort; a relatively substance-free article that served more as clickbait propaganda than investigative or even balanced journalism.
Indeed, some of the responses to Chazin’s story were brutal. “Would be funnier if there weren’t hundreds of thousands of non-violent drug offenders rotting away in jail,” wrote one person. “The war on drugs has wasted trillions of dollars and ruined millions of lives,” said another. “Are you serious? We have a carceral system that’s hell bent on punishing blacks for marijuana and you think this ‘joke’ wins Twitter?” Another cited a 2010 statistic on the high costs of incarceration.
It’s a strange tweet to see from Minnesota law enforcement especially.
Police in Minnesota have fought virtually every effort to make marijuana laws more equitable, from ensuring Minnesota’s medical marijuana law would be one of the most restrictive in the nation, to challenging the closure of a loophole that allowed law enforcement to count the weight of water in a pipe to push a non-criminal, negligible amount of marijuana up to a felony carrying a maximum of five years of imprisonment.
The adage “we don’t write the laws, we just enforce them” doesn’t hold true in Minnesota. Whenever marijuana is a legislative topic, you’re sure to see police chiefs and lobbyists walking the halls of the Capitol. At a time when states across the nation are decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use—with polls showing Americans widely believe cannabis is safer than alcohol—law enforcement working against it are being congratulated on ‘going viral’.
Even with some minor improvements to the law over the years, officers continue to have broad discretion to bump a petty misdemeanor possession citation up to a misdemeanor or felony arrest if you’re near a school, have a child, or if the officer believes you intended to share or sell it. Considering that blacks in Minnesota are 6.4 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession—a statistic significantly worse than the national average—this discretion can quickly become discrimination.
Even small-time marijuana convictions can come with significant collateral consequences, some of which can be lifelong and severe: the loss of government benefits, professional licenses, and job opportunities, being barred from entire professions for life, losing your driver’s license, reduced access to housing, limitations on access to student aid, and it serves as grounds to deny an immigrant entry into the U.S. for life. Merely being arrested could result in a mugshot being spread around the internet, and a defendant not being able to make it home to take care of a child, aging parent, or pet.
And of course, safe access to cannabis has been credited for treating medical conditions and pain for many Minnesotans. To that end, not all use of cannabis is recreational nor abusive, but possession of derivative oils used for medicinal purposes outside of the limited medical marijuana program is a felony at any amount.
All of these things seem like topics worth discussing on 4/20, but none made it into the article. Nobody from a civil rights organization was quoted, nor was there any perspective from cannabis advocacy groups, doctors, or defense attorneys. Meanwhile, newspapers in other parts of the nation did topical, investigative reporting on on sales trends, federal enforcement, legislative changes, and even environmental and agricultural issues relating to cannabis.
But in Minneapolis, we have this. An article that serves solely to help the tweet go more viral without the deep analysis one would hope for from the Star Tribune. We deserve better reporting on this topic.
Chazin defended the fairness of her article, pointing out that Wyoming Police also tweeted that they would find resources for anyone dealing with substance abuse, before referring to those questioning the article as “trolling,” saying she “[h]ad enough twitter bullying today to last me a lifetime.”
The article remains online.