Beating the drug war

Most pot smokers never get arrested. So, what are they doing right? A quick guide to getting stoned, jail-free

Published September 15, 2012 12:00PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

I’ve been smoking marijuana since July 4, 1990, and it recently occurred to me that I have never been caught by law enforcement for doing so. I don’t feel like I’ve done very much to avoid getting caught. A quick Google search on my name will reveal more than enough evidence of my marijuana use.

So how is it that I’ve been able to avoid detection, arrest and imprisonment for my frequent use of the wacky tobaccy for over two decades?


First of all, let’s recognize that most people who smoke pot are like me – they don’t get caught. While in America, there are indeed a ridiculous 850,000 or more marijuana arrests every year, there are also 29 million people using marijuana in any given year. So just in raw numbers, any given pot smoker has only a 1-in-34 chance of being arrested this year.

But that’s in any given year, and I’ve been toking for 22 years. A lot. By raw chance, I should have been arrested by now for weed, yet I haven’t attracted even a second look from a police officer for smoking pot. What am I doing to avoid arrest for pot?

Step #1: Be White

Without a doubt, the number-one factor keeping me out of a cage for my marijuana use is my “complexion of protection,” as comedian Paul Mooney calls it. According to research by Harry Levine at Queens College in New York, Latinos and African Americans are arrested in New York City at rates far exceeding whites, even as whites use marijuana at higher rates. Similar disparities have been found in the top 25 counties in California as well as in 11 of the largest cities in the United States. The targeting of non-white people for marijuana smoking is a primary reason the NAACP has endorsed the legalization measures pending in three Western states.

Of course, some people will have great difficulty being white. While it is statistically the best thing you can do, it’s not for everyone. However, if you follow the rest of the steps below, you will probably avoid arrest for marijuana use.

Step #2: Be Middle-Aged

If you can avoid being arrested for your marijuana use until age 30, it’s probably not going to happen. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, almost two-thirds of all drug possession arrests happened to people under age 30 in 2009.

A lot of that statistic owes to the fact that it is young people who are smoking marijuana most often. Of those 29 million who are smoking pot this year, almost 17 million of them are under age 30, and 10 million of them smoke monthly. So while 58% of annual pot smokers are under age 30, 65% of all drug arrestees are under age 30. (These are figures from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health for 2010, so they represent the people who are willing to tell a stranger on the phone representing the federal government their personal violations of state and federal drug laws. These numbers may be low.)

By this point, I’m sure young black readers are disappointed. But these realities are so inherent in the Drug War that I’ve been able to violate most of the rest of the steps in this list at one time or another while smoking pot and not so much as raised a cop’s eyebrow.

Step #3: Look Square

I have smoked a joint in front of the Bush White House. I’ve sneaked a toke in an alley on Wall Street. I’ve chiefed green bud in the parking lot at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field. I’ve been all around the country and smoked marijuana in red states and in blue states, and much of what helped me avoid detection, even in my 20s, was not looking like somebody who smokes marijuana.

That’s a false distinction, because marijuana smoking transcends all racial and socio-economic backgrounds. However, because of marijuana’s prohibition, those who are known to be marijuana smokers by the public tend to be the fringes of the smoking demographic. Fair or not, your long hair, scruffy beard, hippie dress, tie-dye, dreadlocks, pierced face, multiple tattoos, sagging britches, tribal ear discs, or pot-leaf T-shirt are going to arouse more suspicion than my suit and tie, polo shirt and Dockers, or Green Bay Packers T-shirt.

Step #4: Be Aware

Simple things can give you away. When you are smoking outside, which way is the wind blowing? One friend of mine was busted smoking behind a hedge, unaware the smell was penetrating through to the busy sidewalk. Where are the security cameras? Another friend was busted smoking in the parking lot of a casino on Indian land, of all places, forgetting that casinos have cameras everywhere.

At night, don’t pass a pipe back and forth in the dark parking lot – that flickering lighter going off every 30 seconds can be visible for up to a mile. A joint is your best bet, especially if you can mingle with cigarette smokers; otherwise make sure to be sly in passing the joint so that little orange glow doesn’t make slow back-and-forth circles for anyone looking.

I’ve found being in the open, but distant from others, is much preferred to trying to hide somewhere. Stairwells, alcoves, cul-de-sacs, alleyways, and “just around the corner” have caught some of my friends who have been snuck up on by police, leaving them stuck literally holding the bag with nowhere to go. But alone, smoking a joint while walking through a large empty parking lot, I am indistinguishable at a distance from some cigarette smoker walking to his car, and I’ve got some time to eat that joint if someone should approach.

Step #5: Don’t Smoke in Your Car

Your car is the number-one place you will most likely have an encounter with law enforcement. Looking for people with marijuana in their cars keeps some police departments in business. So smoking in your car, whether it is moving or not, is never a good idea.

At some point, however, you do have to move yourself with some marijuana from point A to point B in a rapid fashion. So if you have to have marijuana in your car, you should keep it in the trunk or locked up in the back somehow. Your center console, your glove compartment, and for pete’s sake, the dashboard, are not storage places for your stash.

Step #6: Only Break One Law at a Time

In drug reform circles, this is known as Steinborn’s Rule. If you are going to be smoking marijuana, this is not the time to be breaking other laws like noise ordinances and traffic laws. If you’re driving with marijuana in your car and you can’t say with 100% certainty that your blinkers, tail lights and headlights are in perfect working order and your registration tags and insurance and license are up to date, you’re just waiting to be one of those 850,000 marijuana arrests this year.

Step #7: It’s Not Weed, It’s Evidence

What’s the first rule of Weed Club? Don’t talk about Weed Club. It has become ludicrously easy for law enforcement to build cases to get search warrants based on information pot smokers willingly give up about themselves on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Your phone calls, voice mails and texts, no matter how clever you think your code words are, can all be used against you by law enforcement.

You need to develop protocols, especially if you are in a less marijuana-tolerant section of country. Not one crumb of weed evidence should escape your attention. Stems and seeds in the garbage have brought people down; burn and flush them. All your marijuana should be stored in one place, not separate places where you may lose track of some and not in separate storage where you can be hit with an intent-to-distribute charge.

Don’t smoke in your front room where the smell can be detected by people at the door. One friend of mine blows smoke into the over-the-stove fan. Another who travels often uses a toilet paper tube stuffed with dryer sheets to mask exhaled smoke. Keep air fresheners, eye drops and gum available.

That’s what I’ve done for 22 years to avoid getting busted for weed. If you think being young, black, counter-culture or careless is a lousy justification for police harassment, then help me to end this stupid prohibition on marijuana.

By Russ Belville

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