Wandering Hempfest amid the least furtive pot smokers in America, it is easy to forget that outside this oasis of freedom police continue to treat cannabis consumers as criminals. In 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, there were about 758,000 marijuana arrests in the U.S., the vast majority for possession.
Even in supposedly enlightened and cosmopolitan places such as New York City, police continue to bust people for carrying small amounts of marijuana. The NYPD made more than 50,000 such arrests in 2011, up from less than 10,000 in 1996.
That crackdown is especially impressive because the state legislature decriminalized possession of up to 25 grams in 1977. Cops manage to arrest pot smokers anyway by charging them with "public display" of any marijuana turned up during street stops.
New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly concedes that maneuver is illegal. According to a federal judge, so is the "stop and frisk" program that generates many of the pot busts. The NYPD, in other words, has not simply been enforcing the law; it has been breaking the law for years, just to stick it to pot smokers.
No wonder the ordinarily even-tempered McPeak gets hot when he contemplates the injustice of marijuana prohibition. "We are not criminals!" he declares from the Hempfest stage. "We are Americans, and we're proud and we're loud!"
By punishing people for their consumption decisions, marijuana prohibition makes the personal political, which is why simply lighting up at Hempfest is an act of dissent. McPeak and his fellow activists are fighting for the day when a joint is just a joint.
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