Local Police Joke About 420 As They Continue to Arrest People for a Habit Most Believe Should Be Legal

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IowaStateU Police/Twitter

For 420 yesterday, Ames and Iowa State University police joined in on what’s become an annual tradition for departments around the country: taking to social media to crack jokes about pot in an effort to show that law enforcement officers can be approachable and hip. #GlazeItDontBlazeIt, the two departments tweeted, advertising free donuts for ISU students on central campus.

Local reporters took the bait. “Iowa State, Ames Police Wage Hilarious 4/20 Social Media Campaign,” a WHO-TV headline raved. “Outreach officers use humor to tell compelling messages,” KCCI reported in a similarly PR-friendly story, without really explaining what was so compelling about the cops’ messages. (It did give Anthony Greiter, an ISU officer, the opportunity to express how “amazing” it was that his department’s tweets received national news coverage.) “This is great,” Des Moines Register reporter Aaron Young posted on Facebook alongside a link to his article, whose headline commended the cops for their “witty tweets.”

But what none of the reports pointed out was that the humor wasn’t original, didn’t always even make much sense, and took a very casual approach to a habit most Americans — although not most Iowans quite yet — believe should be legal but that the police departments are responsible for disrupting dozens of lives over every year. (Young’s article did provide a definition of the unofficial holiday: “According to a USA Today story, the phrase ‘420’ is ‘a longtime code for marijuana users, who work it into dating profiles or post it on signs to show their shared interest.’”)

One of the jokes was a combo effort, ripping off both Super Trooper’s “meow game” scene and an April Fool’s prank Utah cops pulled on unsuspecting travelers last year involving a “drug-sniffing cat.” (On Twitter, Ames police explained that their cat was up for adoption at the local shelter.)

The most popular joke didn’t even make much sense — isn’t it cops who are most associated with the donut-eating stereotype? But these guys are trying to catch stoners with them?

This response to a joke from the Wyoming, Minnesota, police department is more straightforward:

The 420 outreach in Ames was part of the departments’ broader #DonutDisrespect community outreach effort over several weeks in which police are encouraging people to respect authority and follow the law by driving around town in a police suburban with a “Donut Disrespect” decal in the rear window. (On Friday, the Informer spotted the officers delivering donuts to Youth and Shelter Services’ Rosedale Shelter on Burnett Avenue.)

“All we ask is that you donut disrespect, donut discriminate, donut harass, and donut hate,” said Eric Snyder, Ames PD’s community outreach officer, in a video posted on social media the previous day in which he and Greiter stuffed their mouths with donuts as they tried to stifle their laughter.

The 420 outreach appeared to be a big hit. But did its message even make sense? Awkward pseudo-hip donut-trap jokes aside, Iowa has for years ranked among the worst states in the nation for racial disparities in pot arrests. Meanwhile, the cops, in a plea to “donut discriminate,” casually joked about setting up “weed traps” to catch unwitting stoners on a campus that has been plagued by diversity problems for many months and was recently, repeatedly littered with neo-Nazi posters.

Those pot arrests have jeopardized students’ college educations by depriving them of the ability to secure federal loans, forced them into mandatory drug treatment programs they probably don’t need, and otherwise given them criminal records and the often onerous court fees that come with them — all for possessing a substance that most people view as less harmful than alcohol, which is abundantly available directly across the street from campus.

Iowa police have also been among the nation’s worst offenders in the abuse of civil forfeiture laws, which have allowed cops to seize cash and other assets from people they pull over on the pretense that there’s a reasonable suspicion the money was connected with criminal activity. Even if a person whose assets have been seized is never charged with a crime, cops keep the cash. After the Register published a series of investigative reports, the Iowa State Patrol last year claimed it had disbanded its civil forfeiture team. This year, the state Legislature put greater limits on forfeiture laws in an effort to stem future abuses.

Locally, over the 2017 fiscal year (from July 1, 2016, to June 30), Ames officials have projected (PDF) that city police will take in $21,000 in forfeiture funds. The sources of those funds are not shown in budget documents, but cops frequently use weed busts as a pretense to grab people’s cash.

If you, like the local media, are able to disregard all of that, then, sure, drug-sniffing cats are amusing.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.