At 10:57a.m. on Friday in June, Aaron Genuth, a long-time psychedelic activist saw police lights flash in the rearview mirror. In upstate New York’s Ulster county, Officer Eric Cruz stopped the car over an expired sticker. During the search he found a hefty trove of psychedelics. The subsequent arrest and court case is a stark reminder that even as legalization gains traction in the U.S., police continue to target and arrest citizens carrying psychedelics.
In a real-life reenactment of rapper Chamilionaire’s 2005 hit, “Ridin’,” Genuth was indeed “riding dirty.” In the official report, the arresting officer wrote that he had “blood shot watery eyes, impaired speech” and “foam” around the mouth. In an interview with Lucid News, Genuth resolutely stated that he was not under the influence. No drugs. No alcohol. He did have in the car 98 grams of natural psilocybin, 26 tabs of LSD, 2 grams of MDMA, 1 gram of ketamine and under 3 ounces of cannabis.
“People aren’t aware,” Genuth told Lucid News. “That’s an A2 felony in New York. The minimum sentence is three years.”
He said years of activism prepped him to suppress anxiety because “cops feed on fear.” He remained polite but firmly said no when asked three times by Officer Cruz to take a breathalyzer test and later declined a blood test. Genuth said there was an element of surrealism. “While at the station,” he said, “they saw my material in Yiddish to do outreach to the Hasidic community in the Catskills. The cops actually said it was great work, fully aware of the benefit, while also stacking the mushrooms and celebrating getting a collar. They retreated into the ‘just doing my job’ shtick.”
After giving a talk about the arrest at the Hudson Valley Psychedelic Society, Genuth’s network of friends came to his aid. He was well positioned to challenge the draconian laws. His lawyer knew the District Attorney prosecuting the case and brought a copy of an article in The New York Times on psychedelics. The charges were downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor. Although Genuth hopes to avoid a trial, the next court date is October 3rd.
Aside from the legal panic over the possibility of three years in jail, Genuth experienced a financial catastrophe. His car was impounded and the lawyer costs were high. Genuth started a GoFundMe with a target of $18,000 and hit almost $10,000. The Dr. Bronner’s chocolates he sent out as a courtesy to donors were a gift from the company, a long-time funder and proponent of psychedelic research that Genuth had worked with in the past.
Considering his long history as an activist, Lucid News asked if his activism made him a specific target. “As much as I’d like to think so, it wasn’t,” Genuth said, “It was just a cop at a speed trap I didn’t see. I was pulled over for an expired sticker, which is a marker of poverty. And that’s how cops operate. They’ll go for the old car because it’s probably not someone with money.”
The classism baked into law enforcement was the one point he repeatedly made during the arrest.
“How many people with money do you mess with?” Genuth asked Officer Cruz. “People should be aware of how dangerous it still is. Others without my connections could really jeopardize say, a custody battle or end a career.”
Shooting Fish in a Barrel
“Get rid of any pretext the police might use,” attorney Eric Sterling, who doggedly defended drug possession cases for decades, told Lucid News. “If people into psychedelics want to protect themselves, make sure the lights work, don’t drive under the influence or have an out-of-date sticker.” He said especially on highways, cops constantly patrol, looking for fatalities.
Added on to the pressure of state surveillance is a generational difference that can lead to a false sense of safety. Sterling said in his 70s youth, he and his cohort were sharply conscious that carrying psychedelics was a felony. Even though the recent Psychedelic Renaissance has gone a long way to drain the stigma, these substances are still illegal in all 50 states. In a few cities like Oakland and Santa Cruz, the possession and growing of psilocybin, iboga and mescaline are technically low law enforcement targets. In Arcata, California, voters decriminalized the use, cultivation and distribution of psychedelics. In popular culture, Michael Pollan’s book “How to Change Your Mind” and the subsequent Netflix series, and psychedelic scenes in films from “Girl Trip” to “Black Panther,” alongside countless podcasts and articles, have shifted the framing of psychedelic use from criminality to healing. But it can invite a cavalier attitude.
“Young people have a sense of invincibility,” Sterling said. “The jails are filled with naïve young people who were not self-protecting.”
One factor Sterling stressed is that policing is decentralized. Most of it is done by local cops and judges who are hostile to people perceived as drug dealers. They may well comprise the bulk of law enforcement. According to the website Drug Policy Facts, in 2020 there were 1,155,610 drug arrests in the United States, though the number of arrests for the possession of psychedelics is not broken out from the total. Sterling said cops witness overdose deaths from opioids and barbiturates and believe that these arrests protect us from danger.
Another factor is the relative ease of busting psychedelic users. “Drug enforcement is the enterprise of betrayal,” said Sterling. “A cop gets someone who is suspicious to trust them, and then the bust. If you do this with a big-time gangster moving heroin, maybe they’ll shoot you. Maybe it’s better to practice on a non-violent psychedelic user who won’t hurt you.”
The Festival Gauntlet
This summer, it is a fair bet that thousands of festival goers have put themselves in the same risk as Genuth. Against the backdrop of a new tolerance for psychedelics, many people pack cars to drive to late summer festivals like Elements in Pennsylvania or Burning Man in Nevada. In Nevada, it has long been understood by Burners that an unofficial “gauntlet” of police will make easy busts by pulling over and searching cars with drug sniffing dogs, or arresting participants at the festival. In 2019, According to the Reno Gazette Journal, 58 people were arrested at Burning Man, most for drug possession. The Pershing County Sheriff, Jerry Allen vowed in 2015 to come down on the annual American bacchanalia on the playa with a tougher law-and-order response.
Unlike Genuth, many will not have years of activist training or a legal network to aid them in a crunch. A search and arrest could lead to a catastrophic court case that sends a life into a downward spiral of jail and debt. It may seem like a nightmare vision of the past, but under current law it is a clear and present danger. Listen to Chamilionaire, again. Don’t be ridin’ dirty.