Around midnight on Thursday, March 7, three Bolivar, Missouri police officers, one-sixth of the total force sworn to protect the town of 9,000 citizens, marched into the hospital room of Nolan Sousley.
Sousley was in Citizens Memorial Hospital in Bolivar for metastatic pancreatic cancer, for which he says he takes medical cannabis: CBD oil capsules and THC oil capsules. This is an arrangement of which the hospital was entirely aware.
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CBD oil is legal in all 50 U.S. states. Missouri voters recently legalized medical marijuana—though since state lawmakers have yet to take action, cannabis products with THC are still illegal. Sousely would take CBD capsules in his room, but would make his way outside to the parking lot for the THC capsules.
According to the hospital, a security guard making the rounds believed he or she smelled marijuana from Sousley’s room, an account later corroborated by four other employees. Rather than call a nurse or a doctor or anyone else—such as Sousley himself, an adult who is dying but nonetheless perfectly in control of his faculties—the security guard called the police, who decided they had the time and interest to respond.
And so this is what the three police officers who came to a dying man’s hospital room in the middle of the night were looking for: marijuana, which is still illegal (but not for long!).
They found no marijuana and left without any arrests or citations—but not before agitating Sousley, who recorded the exchange and posted it to his Facebook page. Medical marijuana, recall, is enormously popular in the United States and across the world.
Really, the video isn’t so terrible. Digital natives have all seen worse. So have boomers. We have seen fatal police shootings, we’ve seen police choke a man to death on the street for selling cigarettes. We’ve seen Russian dash-cam videos and we’ve seen ISIS cut poor Jim Foley’s head off. That is, we’ve seen people die on the internet. We have seen worse than three large men in crew-cuts rifle through a dying man’s things looking for weed so that they can write him a citation.
And yet this was a breaking point. This is the video that made people lose it.
By early Tuesday, the video had been seen more than 810,000 times. As of Monday afternoon, according to the Bolivar Herald-Free Press, the Bolivar Police Department was forced to shut down its Facebook page after it was “inundated by negative feedback.” Bolivar Police chief Mark Webb’s email address and voicemail inbox were both flooded with hundreds of messages from across the world. According to Bolivar Mayor Chris Warwick, fury from around the world is swamping the city’s other phone lines and internet presences.
This isn’t Bolivar’s fault—marijuana is the world’s most popular illicit drug as well as a plant with proven medical benefits, and anyone who has ever seen anyone gain the slightest bit of relief from marijuana use is often converted with the belief of a zealot—but then again, it kind of is.
It is the hospital’s fault, for training a security guard to believe that vague reports of a vague smell of terpenes justified a police response. (In their defense, the hospital did issue a statement apologizing for failing to “respect” Sousley).
It is the police’s fault, for taking “hello we believe someone may be smoking marijuana in a hospital room” so seriously that three police officers responded. That is at least two police cruisers, and given this was midnight on a Wednesday, in a town of 10,000, that has 19 cops on the force, we are given to believe this is a significant portion of the town’s law-enforcement capability. According to FBI crime statistics, Bolivar isn’t a particularly safe place: it has rates of violent crime on par with cities five times as large. Marijuana possession in Missouri these days is not a serious offense, by any metric—it is punishable by only a citation.
Thus, the question, “what the fuck did these police officers think they were doing, rifling through a dying man’s shit looking for a little bit of weed so they could write him a ticket” is a sound and reasonable one.
Bolivar officials issued a statement defending the officers’ actions, saying police are “committed to the respectful, equal and consistent application of the law to all persons within their jurisdiction.” Sousley himself issued a statement on Saturday, pleading for “civility” and insisting that the officers were not to blame. Meaning the question was not answered—but of course it is. We know what happened.
Cops love marijuana—they love something that is relatively benign but awfully stinky and an easy way to clock in, do something and call it a day—and are absolutely apoplectic, despondent and bereft to know that it is becoming legal. “Not all cops?” Maybe. Whatever. Too many, and this is obvious, obvious.
Here: Georgia’s main police lobbyist, insisting marijuana is a “dangerous gateway drug” that will harm children if legalized—all statements completely lacking in factual basis; that is, lies. And, here: police in Ohio, where medical marijuana is legal but not readily available, setting “weed traps” for people forced to drive to Michigan for cannabis.
The Sousley video is outrageous because it is routine. It is banal and boring—that is, the police are behaving as if this is nothing out of the ordinary for them—because it is isn’t.