Every now and again, the war on drugs gives us a flash of good old-fashioned absurdity and even some ham-handed hostility.
For the latest chapter in that saga, let’s go to Cartersville, where scores of people at a house party were arrested and charged with possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.
COLLECTIVELY, that is. A houseful of people were arrested — and it turns out there was less than an ounce of weed in that house. Probably far less, according to the evidence photos.
The case has gotten national publicity as the “Cartersville70,” although it seems “only” 67 people were arrested, most of them between 19 and 23 years old. There were also four juveniles.
The case started with a 21st birthday party for a woman named Deja Heard. To accommodate the crush of expected revelers, the birthday girl rented a suburban-style house through Airbnb. She then put out a flyer advertising a lingerie/pajama party with jello shots and games of strip Twister which, no doubt, accounted for two-thirds of the partygoers (per the jail log) being guys.
Anyways, police were called after 2 a.m. with a report of gunfire. Apparently, it was just fireworks, but the officers said they noticed the smell of weed when they turned onto the block.
Next thing you know, the police are walking into the party and through the house, spotting some pot on a coffee table. They told everyone to freeze and then called for the drug squad, who found some more buds of pot sprinkled through the house. Again, less than an ounce when all tallied up.
No one ‘fessed up to owning the weed. So authorities did what the nuns did to us in grade school when no one would admit to throwing spitballs when their backs were turned — they punished the whole class. Thankfully, the nuns did not have Tasers or arrest powers.
But the Cartersville70(minus3) weren’t dealing with nuns. They were facing an overzealous, and perhaps bored, drug task force. And before you can say, “Freeze, punk!” a houseful of young people were handcuffed and headed to jail.
Initial news reports said three guns and cocaine were found. The police report noted that one man threw a small bag with suspected cocaine into bushes and was charged. As for the guns, two partygoers approached the police and surrendered their guns. (Just two guns in a gathering of 67 Georgians?!? I’d wager that if you frisked any three dozen random citizens you’d find more firepower.)
The third gun belonged to the homeowner and was locked away somewhere in the residence.
Racquel McGee, a 31-year-old Cartersville native and law school student, saw the mugshots because a TV station posted online photos of nearly all who were arrested because, well … reports of 70 people getting nabbed in a drug bust initially seemed like a big deal. Or at least a bit weird.
Then McGee started getting calls.
“I knew some of these kids. I coached some of them,” she said. “I knew what kind of kids they were.”
By that she means college students, people in the armed services (four, she said), folks working jobs — you know, young people.
Some of them spent a few days in jail, others lost jobs, another has gotten crosswise with the Navy.
She put out the call asking attorneys to come in and help, and also brought in the NAACP — of the 67 listed in arrest reports, 54 are black. That’s no surprise. Studies show about the same percentages of blacks and whites smoke pot but blacks are far more likely to get arrested.
Atlanta attorney Gerald Griggs jumped in and the case started getting wide media publicity nationwide.
“It was an abuse of discretion,” Griggs told me early last week. “It’s impossible for 70 people to have custody and control of that little marijuana.”
The whole issue of marijuana enforcement might seem like a yo-yo. About 60 percent of Americans support its legalization and cities and states are either legalizing it or decriminalizing it. I recently wrote about a central Georgia jury throwing out a case where a guy admitted to selling a nickel bag.
But at the same time, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a pinched-faced, singularly unhappy fellow, is pushing to go back to the hard-nosed enforcement of the Reefer Madness days.
I suppose the Cartersville bust would make Sessions smile.
I spoke with Tom McCain, a retired Air Force veteran and former chief deputy from a Central Georgia department. He is now the executive director of Peachtree NORML (National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws).
“My first idea when I heard of this was, ‘Who in the chain of supervision thought that this would be a good idea?’ ” he said. “This is egregious. You take down 65 people, spend all that time to book them and then give each one a criminal record? This is like getting busted in a speakeasy in the Twenties.”
I called Cartersville police to answer McCain’s question, but a lieutenant there, as well as the city’s attorney, told me the city didn’t make the arrest — Bartow County did.
Right after the arrests, Maj. Mark Mayton of the Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force said, “All the subjects at the residence were placed under arrest for the possession of the suspected marijuana, which was within everyone’s reach or control.”
But as the week wore on, nobody from that office wanted to touch this mess. Calls to the sheriff, the drug task force and the sheriff’s department spokesman went unanswered.
It was left to District Attorney Rosemary Greene to scrape this case off the pavement.
On Friday afternoon, she released a terse statement: “The review concludes the evidence is insufficient to convict 64 of the 65 charged. Accordingly, charges against those 64 individuals have been dismissed.”
Please, move along.