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Want Saner Marijuana Laws?


420 Staff
If the $42 Billion War on Pot Isn't Working, What Will?

One obvious solution is to stop demonizing and criminalizing marijuana and, instead, allow people to grow their own or buy it legally and use it as they please.

But those who deal with federal, state and local drug laws say that legalizing marijuana isn't an option.

"I'm sensitive to the argument that enough's enough, just legalize it and derive some revenue from it," said Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. "But that's just not practical. The reality is the feds are never going to legalize it."

Even a criminal defense attorney who disagrees with the massive war on drugs as it's currently conducted, said marijuana shouldn't be legal.

"I believe that we are bankrupting ourselves in the war on drugs," said attorney Alex Flynn. "But I believe that it is a gateway drug and should be kept illegal."

Chisholm and Flynn said that dealing with the laws on a practical level, both in prosecuting crimes and defending the accused, is full of pitfalls that could be removed if politicians were more aware of the effects of their laws.

"There has to be some leadership," Flynn said. "We need to come off this zero-tolerance mentality because the problem is too complex. Policy-makers must think about the consequences of the penalties they're imposing."

Marijuana advocates argue that smoking a plant shouldn't be a crime, and penalizing those who do so doesn't deter them. The threat of fines or jail time just doesn't work, they argue.

Make the Charges Fit the Crime

But there has been some movement to make marijuana laws more just. Back in the late 1990s, there was an awareness that not every municipality in our area was treating the possession of a small amount of pot the same. Rather, suburban areas allowed those who were busted for carrying a small amount of pot to be punished with a municipal ticket and a fine. Nothing went on their criminal records. But in the city, users were booked on state charges and often went to jail for the same crime.

In 1997, based on the recommendation of judges, Milwaukee Alderman Michael Murphy introduced a city ordinance that made the possession of 25 grams or less a municipal offense with penalties of up to $500.

Murphy said that while he feels that smoking pot is a crime, the disparities in the charges were troubling and unfair.

"People in the city were being disproportionately charged with felonies, not misdemeanors," Murphy explained. "It's a fairness issue."

Milwaukee County now has a similar penalty on the books for possession.

"That means that people are looking at [the accused] and thinking, if this individual has a little bit of pot, let's not invoke the expense of the criminal system to saddle this guy with a crime," Flynn said. "Let's make him pay a fine. I think that should be done more and more. That seems to be the most sensible compromise."

Last year, 1,225 people were charged with possession of marijuana in Milwaukee Municipal Court; in 2005, 956 people were. In the first nine months of this year, 1,316 were charged for possession.

Of course, not all small-time users get away with reduced penalties and a clean record.

"You still have a good chance of getting tagged with a felony if you have a few prior convictions for possession," Chisholm said.

Make the Penalties Fit the Crime

At the same time, both Chisholm and Flynn said that some penalties for drug-related crimes don't make any sense. For example, those convicted on state charges for possession of larger amounts of pot or distribution of pot automatically lose their driverlicenses for a minimum of six months and a maximum of five years. Those who forfeit their licenses then have trouble getting to and from their jobs, or they drive without it and take the chance that they'll be busted for operating without a license. The legal problems then begin spiraling out of control.

Being convicted of a drug-related crime also prevents college students from obtaining federal student loans, which has the effect of unfairly penalizing someone long after the crime was committed.

"Lawmakers must think about the consequences of these penalties," Flynn said.

Chisholm said the revocation of driver's licenses creates more problems than it solves.

"It's created thousands of people with driver's license suspensions," Chisholm said. "There's very little direct connection between the offense and the suspension. If they did away with that particular part of the penalty, there are no prosecutors who would shed any tears over it."

Chisholm argued that state charges often provide leverage for prosecutors who feel that the accused would be better off in a treatment program than in jail.

"I think we should put a lot of resources into treatment providers, actually," Chisholm recommended. "That's probably, in the long run, your most effective way to cut down on the market. But it's not a short-term solution."

Target the Violent, Organized Distributors

Murphy cautioned that while suburban pot smokers may feel there's no harm in lighting up now and then, even the most casual user fuels a sometimes violent drug trade that has an impact on the city.

"It is a big deal," Murphy said.

But marijuana advocates argue that legalization would end the criminal underground that's emerged around the trade, just as ending Prohibition stopped crime-infused bootlegging operations.

Chisholm said those who traffic in the drug trade and breed violence are the focus of his resources.

He said the prosecution of the Jamaican Shower Posse in 2000 and 2001 showed just how out of control marijuana traffickers can be.

"They were large-volume marijuana dealers bringing in weed from Mexico and Canada," Chisholm said. "They were very violent because they were making so much money that people were starting to rob them and they were shooting back. You had all of this craziness going on, with automatic weapons at times. It spun out of control. That's what drew our attention, so we had to take them out."

According to the U.S. Department of Justice's April 2007 drug market analysis of southeastern Wisconsin, the marijuana trade is still thriving here.

"Canada-based Vietnamese criminal groups have increased their transportation of high-potency marijuana into Milwaukee, primarily through Detroit, Mich., increasing the availability of the drug in the region," the report states.

It noted that North Side African-American criminal groups and South Side Mexican criminal groups are also responsible for the marijuana trade in the city, along with some independent white growers of pot.

Chisholm said that he wants to target violent traffickers to make the city safer. He said he has 12 federally funded grant prosecutors to do felony drug prosecutions, but the money comes with strings attached.

"I would like to have the flexibility to say I will still do drug prosecutions, but I would like to allow those people to do shooting investigations that involve drug traffickers, [to] put the emphasis on the violence," Chisholm said. "That means that they may issue charges that don't even involve controlled substances. They may just involve the violence. But my grant restrictions are so tight that I can't do that. That's what I would recommend [to policy-makers]--quit thinking in terms of pure interdiction and suppression. Think more in terms of letting local jurisdictions get creative in their approach to solving the problem."

Source: Shepherd Express (Milwaukee, WI)
Copyright: 2007 Alternative Publications Inc.
Contact: editor@shepherd-express.com
Website: Shepherd Express — Smart, Informed, Opinionated - Shepherd Express
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