My name is Mitchell Colbert, I am now 27 years old and have been involved with drug policy reform since I was nineteen years old. While In school I made cannabis legalization my research project and became a chapter leader for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. I have since worked with numerous other drug policy organizations, including the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, Americans for Safe Access, the Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
I currently work at Harborside Health Center, volunteer with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and write for The Leaf Online, Cannabis Now Magazine, and now Weedist as well. Along the way I found time to be a regional director for 2010’s Proposition 19 campaign, which came 4% away from making California the first state to legalize adult recreational cannabis use. All of this activism stems from one incident, one fateful traffic stop which would change the course of my life forever.
I was nineteen years old and on my way to a party in Oakland with an 1/8 of cannabis, two pipes, and two previously opened (but sealed) bottles of alcohol. At 19, I did not know my rights and was clueless to the law like many teenagers; I didn’t think to stash my alcohol in the trunk, it was in my backpack in the front of the car with me. I was stopped for speeding, unfortunately by the same officer who had given me a warning for speeding on the exact same road just weeks before, and he was not happy to be seeing me again so soon.
The officer poked his head into the car while talking to me about the dangers of speeding, then claimed he smelled marijuana. While at the time I sometimes smoked in my car, which risks a DUI, I hadn’t that day and disputed his claim; without seeing me smoking he had no probable cause to search me. At the time I was also a clove cigarette smoker, which is more likely what he smelled. He returned to his squad car, I presumed to write me a ticket.
The next thing I know, a K-9 unit pulls up behind me and a drug dog is sniffing around my car before I am ever asked if they can search my vehicle. In that context, with a dog already there alerting them to the cannabis I knew I had, I panicked and consented to what was an illegal search and thus, by my extorted consent, made it legal. I admitted that I had a small amount of cannabis when asked about it, and nothing more.
I was, and still am, a reasonably effeminate man. I have often been mistaken for a gay man, to the point where I have been physically attacked over that assumption (gay bashed). Thankfully, it was in middle school and kids usually don’t play as rough as adults. The officers found the alcohol, and breathalyzed me three times; every one came up negative. The whole time they made comments and remarks about how I needed to put my lips on it and blow it better.
At the time, I didn’t think anything of the remarks; once the fear wore off the realization set in that they were making sexual innuendos at my expense when I was emotionally vulnerable and at their mercy. I was patted down and sat in the back-seat of the car while they proceeded to tear my car apart looking for more drugs and finding nothing, the whole while continuing to crack jokes.
I was allowed to keep my car that night, and my license; both things I could have lost right there for being a minor in possession of alcohol with open containers. I could have lost my license for up to two years and seen 6 months in jail. The cannabis, the initial reason I was searched, was thrown out by Marin county’s DA; 1/8 wasn’t enough to bother wasting valuable state resources on.
While 1/8 of cannabis was not seen as a drug worth going to court over, alcohol was and in the end I got very lucky with only 15 hours of community service and a $500 fine. I had a very good public defender, one thing she said that stuck with me was that if I had mentioned my cigarette smoking it would have negated his probable cause.
I would not have been so lucky if I wasn’t born a middle-class white male, or if I wasn’t living in the Bay Area. Had I been born as a different race or if I lived in another state, like Texas, I almost assuredly would have gotten jail time. The drug war, and the New Jim Crow it has created present a real challenge to the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws for all people in America.
Recent studies show that while blacks consume cannabis at roughly the same rate as whites, they are arrested at much greater rates, reflecting a racist bias in policing. According to Drug War Facts,“Black males ages 30 to 34 had the highest custody incarceration rate of any race, age, or gender group.”
My experience, seeing the unfairness of the drug war laid bare before me, crystallized in my mind to form the nucleus of all my drug war efforts. The drug war is racist, and it is also sexist, homophobic, classist, geographically based, and has all kinds of other flaws. I fight against the drug war to help rid our world of all of these scourges of human thought and behavior, and I win against the drug war because I have love for all my fellow creatures, humans, animals, and plants; I love you all. It is through intense love and passion that we can override and erase extreme hate and prejudice; the drug war is the embodiment of extreme hate and prejudice and must be done away with.
If only I knew then what I know now, things would have been radically different and I would have talked my way out of an expensive ticket and frustrating ride through the criminal justice system. It is now public knowledge that drug dogs are wrong more often than they are right, potentially having as low as 16% accuracy; worse than flipping a coin.
Additionally, according to Lawrence Myers, a Auburn University professor who studies drug dogs, “Dog handlers can accidentally cue alerts from their dogs.” Evidence is mounting to show that these false positive may not be accidents, they could be an intentional tactic used by police forces to justify illegal searches. I have now seen Busted and taken various Know Your Rights classes; I’ve even conducted my own trainings, in the hopes of preventing others from the same fate that befell me.
That is my story, how I became a victim of the drug war and how the State’s efforts to rehabilitate me gloriously backfired and made me an outspoken opponent of the failed war on drugs. California could have just let me smoke my pot in peace, but they had to pick a fight, a fight the cannabis community is very close to winning and that I am happy to be a part of.