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Cannabis Smell Is No Longer Cause To Search, But Advocates Still Have Concerns

Marijuana Policing WEB

ENDWELL, NY (WSKG) — On a normal Tuesday evening, the government complex in downtown Binghamton would be fairly quiet. Most office workers and public servants go home, leaving the concrete jungle vacant.

But this past Tuesday, the scene was different. It was April 20, or 4/20, the official unofficial marijuana holiday. This is the first 4/20 since New York legalized adult-use of recreational marijuana last month, and a few hundred people showed up to celebrate.

Since smoking marijuana is essentially legal anywhere one can legally smoke a cigarette, many participants decided to do it in the street in front of the Binghamton Police Department. Organizers wanted to highlight the effect marijuana prohibition and policing has had on communities of color.

In 2018, Binghamton police charged 18 people with the lowest level offense for marijuana possession, according to data provided by the Drug Policy Alliance. Of those charges, a third were levied against Black or African American people, despite the same demographic only making up 12 percent of city residents.

Still, 18 possession charges in a year is relatively few for a city of around 47,000 residents.

Alexis Pleus, Director of Truth Pharm, a Southern Tier-based organization focused on substance abuse harm reduction, said police have not been making as many low-level marijuana arrests in recent years because prosecutors are less interested in pursuing those cases. What does not show up in that data, Pleus explained, is how often police use the smell of cannabis as justification to conduct a search.

“I call it their gateway drug to other charges,” she said.

Under the new cannabis law, law enforcement cannot use the smell of cannabis to initiate a search in most circumstances. 

“Even though we're only legalizing cannabis at this point, we're actually going to be able to eliminate a lot of drug charges that police would not have been able to bring forward if they weren't able to use cannabis as the search mechanism,” Pleus said.

Khamesi Black, a community advocate at Truth Pharm and one of the organizers of the 4/20 event, said she is hopeful the new cannabis laws will reduce the number of searches, but still acknowledged police will find other reasons to stop people.

"There's stuff that they do constantly, right? You know, while probable cause around cannabis has been a problem particularly for Black and Brown communities, I mean, they'll find any reason, right?,” Black said. “We just saw with like Daunte Wright it was an air freshener.”

Daunte Wright was the 20-year-old Black man shot and killed by police in Minnesota this month.

Both Pleus and Black stressed that people need to understand their rights, including their ability to decline a law enforcement officer’s request to search them in a situation where it is not legally justified.

Binghamton Police Chief Joseph Zikuski did not reply to requests for an interview.

Vaughn Golden has been reporting across New York since 2016. Working as a freelancer while studying journalism and economics at Ithaca College, Vaughn has reported for a number of outlets including the Albany Times Union, New York Post, and NPR among others. Prior to coming to WSKG full-time, Vaughn was a reporter for the Watertown Daily Times. Vaughn now covers government and politics for WSKG.