The governor of Delaware and members of the state’s congressional delegation are speaking out after Georgia police pulled over a bus of college lacrosse players over an alleged traffic violation and searched their personal belongings in a fruitless attempt to find marijuana or other illicit drugs.
The incident happened as the Delaware State University women’s lacrosse team were making their way back home following a tournament. Students believe the black bus driver and players were racially targeted as officers threatened incarceration if they turned up any illegal narcotics.
In the end—even after going through the personal items and bringing a drug-sniffing canine on the bus—police did not find any controlled substances, as student newspaper The Hornet first reported. But advocates say the situation reeks of racial discrimination, with law enforcement using drugs as a pretext for what some are calling an unlawful search without probable cause.
As the story has gained national attention, Delaware Gov. John Carney (D), a rare example of a Democratic governor who still opposes cannabis legalization even as lawmakers in his state move to enact the reform, said that video of the encounter is “upsetting, concerning and disappointing.”
“Moments like these should be relegated to part of our country’s complicated history, but they continue to occur with sad regularity in communities across our country,” Carney said in a statement. “It’s especially hard when it impacts our own community.”
While the governor didn’t specifically weigh in on the officers’ apparent drug-related justification of the search or the allegation that they lacked probable cause, he did say the the administration “will do everything we can to assist the university with learning more about the incident and any appropriate next steps.”
At one point in the video, an officer said that he wasn’t “looking for a little marijuana, but I’m pretty sure you guys chaperones will probably be disappointed if we find it.” The incident also happened to take place on the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20.
In the background of this controversy, Delaware lawmakers are working to advance a bill to end prohibition, and supporters have repeatedly emphasized the racially disparate impact of criminalization.
On Wednesday, an activist testified about the Georgia incident at a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which ultimately advanced a House-passed legalization bill.
While the specific situation is garnering national headlines, Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network Executive Director Zoë Patchel said that such encounters occur “every single day here in the state of Delaware—over 13 times a day and over 100 times a week on average, just for simple cannabis possession events.”
“Prohibition comes with a devastating and inexcusable human and economic cost, and it’s a significant waste of taxpayers dollars as well as law enforcement time and resources,” she said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Chris Coons (D-DE) and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) also released a statement condemning the search and expressing support for the student athletes.
“No one should be made to feel unsafe or humiliated by law enforcement or any entity who has sworn to protect and serve them,” they said. “That’s especially true for students who have sought out [Historically Black colleges and universities] like Delaware State University with a long history of empowering communities of color that have far too often faced discrimination and other barriers to opportunity.”
“Our offices stand ready to assist the Delaware State community however we can as it deals with the impact of this episode, and hope there will be a swift, just resolution,” the lawmakers said.
Blunt Rochester has introduced House legislation to seal marijuana convictions and has cosponsored and voted for legalization bills. Carper cosponsored a cannabis legalization measure while facing a progressive primary challenge in 2018 but hasn’t signed onto any other reform legislation since being reelected, while Coons has cosponsored modest bills to facilitate marijuana research and banking access.
Delaware State University President Tony Allen also pushed back against the Georgia police search, emphasizing that “nothing illegal was discovered” and saying that students and staff “comported themselves with dignity throughout a trying and humiliating process.”
A Message from University President, Dr. Tony Allen regarding the DSU Lax Team Bus Incident pic.twitter.com/5J7Md1tTYr
— Delaware State University Alumni Association (@DelStateAA) May 9, 2022
“It should not be lost on any of us how thin any day’s line is between customary and extraordinary, between humdrum and exception, between safe and victimized,” he said. “That is true for us all but particularly so for communities of color and the institutions who serve them. The resultant feeling of disempowerment are always the aggressors’ object.”