Farewell, pot bust photos

Local Media
By PHILIP EIL  |  March 20, 2014

 0321_TJI_pot_top.jpg
REST IN PEACE The Coventry-Scituate haul.

It’s time to retire the marijuana bust photograph.

So, this week in The Providence Phoenix, we are hereby sending the accompanying photo — both a recent local example of what we mean when we say “marijuana bust photograph” and a symbolic stand-in for an entire genre of news photography — somewhere warm and sunny to live out the rest of its days away from the public eye.

We cannot speak on behalf other local media outlets: newspapers, radio stations, TV channels, or online outlets like Coventry Patch, which ran this pic under the headline “Coventry, Scituate Police Make $250,000 Pot Bust in Joint Investigation,” on March 14. (There’s a nice “joint” pun tucked in there.) We can only speak for ourselves. And we see no legitimate reason to unironically, uncritically publish a Rhode Island police department’s visual tally of how much of a dried plant they successfully snatched from the folks who grew and/or sold it. In this case, it was 3.5 pounds from Coventry, and 10 pounds from Scituate. There were apparently no guns or pills involved.

Pot bust photos had a good run. For decades — at the very least, since President Richard Nixon declared drugs “public enemy number one” in a famous 1971 press conference — they were a frequent reminder, produced by law enforcement and happily reprinted by news outlets, that cops were winning the War on Drugs. Like the preceding Prohibition-era snapshots of authorities proudly flushing barrels of alcohols into storm drains, such images aimed to stir within readers the sense that justice was being served. The photo meant fewer fellow citizens would be getting stoned, and a few Bad Guys would perhaps go to prison. And this, apparently, was news.

But this time-honored transaction isn’t nearly as simple these days. For starters, the War on Drugs has been widely condemned as a failure. This was the verdict from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, an international group of former presidents, prime ministers, and US and UN officials, who collectively vowed “fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed,” in a 2011 report. Closer to home, Rhode Island Department of Health director Dr. Michael Fine told us in a February interview, “I was around when President Nixon coined the term. . . And I remember how incredibly effective it was in putting African Americans in jail and creating a huge racial disparity and not effective at all at ending addiction or reducing deaths from drugs.”

Marijuana prohibition, specifically, has faced similarly widespread, if not quite as pronounced, doubts. According to numbers released by Public Policy Polling in January, 75 percent of Rhode Islanders age 18-34 support the passage of laws legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana, as Colorado and Washington have done. Since then we’ve seen Associated Press headlines like “Colorado Collects $2M In Recreational Pot Taxes.” We’ve also seen articles like Sunday’s Providence Journal PolitiFact report that confirmed as “TRUE” a recent New England NAACP claim that African Americans are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested on pot charges in the US. While the local pot-arrest disparity isn’t as bad as the eight-to-one rate seen in other states, African Americans are still arrested for pot 2.6 times as often than whites in Rhode Island, the article reported. (According to National Household Survey on Drug Abuse and Health numbers from 2001 to 2010, usage rates between blacks and whites were never separated by more than 5 percentage points.)

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