Anatomy of a pot bust

Here’s a press release from the San Francisco public defender’s office:

A good Samaritan who offered a pinch of marijuana to soothe a stressed out stranger only to have his compassion repaid with felony charges was acquitted following a jury trial, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.

After three hours of deliberation, a jury on Wednesday found Stetson Qualls Jones, 24, not guilty of possession of marijuana for sale and sale of marijuana. If convicted, Qualls Jones faced up to three years in state prison, said his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Ariel Boyce-Smith.

Qualls Jones’ ordeal began Feb. 5 while hanging out with friends in the “Hippy Hill” area of Golden Gate Park. The group was socializing and smoking marijuana when Qualls Jones thought he recognized a man approaching the group and waved him over. Upon closer inspection, Qualls Jones realized the man was a stranger, but welcomed him regardless. When Qualls Jones invited him to smoke with the group, the man declined, asking instead if he could buy marijuana.

Qualls Jones testified that he told the man that he did not sell marijuana. The man appeared agitated and stressed out, so Qualls Jones reached into his personal stash, pinched off a small amount of marijuana, and handed it to the man, who turned out to be a police decoy.

Qualls Jones, who lives a communal lifestyle and frowns upon capitalism, testified that he refused the $20 the man offered him in exchange for the marijuana.

After the interaction, Qualls Jones was swarmed by five to six police officers, who were conducting a sting operation. Police found a bag of less than 1 ounce of marijuana in his jacket pocket. Police testified they found the $20 under a blanket where Qualls Jones was sitting.

This is a press release, so let’s set aside whether Jones gave away the pot as a “good Samaritan” or was actually selling the stuff, as the police claim. The more glaring fact from this case is that this is San Francisco. If you were to draw up a list of the cities in the United States where you’d think the citizens would want to put a low priority on pot policing, San Francisco would have to be near the top. Indeed, eight years ago, the city’s Board of Supervisors passed a bill instructing the police department to make marijuana offenses the lowest law enforcement priority. And yet not only was this guy arrested for selling or giving away $20 worth of pot, but the city also apparently had about a half dozen police officers working this particular sting. What gives?

Here’s the passage that explains it all:

Under questioning from Boyce-Smith, two police officers admitted they were receiving overtime pay in exchange for the buy-bust operation. One of the officers also acknowledged on the stand that his department receives federal grants for the stings.

Federal anti-drug grants are enormously popular with both parties. Republicans like them for your usual tough-on-crime reasons. Democrats like them because they’re seen as a way of transferring federal money to low-income areas. Or just because it’s another federal spending program. And really, what politician is going to publicly oppose federal grants to pay for more overtime for cops?

These grants provide a strong incentive for police agencies to put a much higher priority on drug enforcement than they otherwise would, often at the expense of policing crimes with actual victims.

Good on this jury for acquitting Jones, in what may have been an act of nullification. But the acquittal won’t undo the waste of public money that put Jones in a courtroom in the first place.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko | June 5