It’s a messed-up message.
By refusing last week to legalize medical marijuana, the Illinois House said this: Drug dealers and gangs win. Taxpayers lose.
The response to a recent column about the legalization of pot has me more convinced than ever the time has come to end a costly, dangerous and ineffective prohibition.
But don’t take my word for it.
Maybe you can imagine my surprise when Iowa 7th District Senior Associate Judge Douglas McDonald, of Bettendorf, wrote to say he also hopes to see cases of pot possession “de-emphasized or legalized.”
McDonald is 75. He served on the bench from 1988 until his retirement in 2007. He continues to serve on a part-time basis. He has never tried marijuana.
“In Scott County, we do about 5,000 indictable misdemeanors a year, and 25 percent of those are marijuana possessions,” he began in an interview Friday. “(Most) cases have an arraignment, pretrial, motion hearings, judges, prosecutors, public defenders and police officers who have to take time off to come to court.
“Public defenders are paid $400 to $500 per case, and they may have 1,000 of them. And that’s just Scott County. This is my primary concern: It’s all needless.”
McDonald acknowledges he is neither a doctor nor a chemist, but his 19-plus years on the bench have opened his eyes to the realities of all kinds of drugs. Marijuana, in his estimation, “is no big deal.”
“I guess that’s not what a judge is supposed to say,” he added. “But, from what I’ve seen, it doesn’t cause people to do bad things. It doesn’t make them angry. Unless you work with it like I do, you wouldn’t know that.”
To be clear, the judge does not advocate pot smoking. He is, in fact, opposed to any form of smoking, because it is harmful.
“But I also know what alcohol does to people, and it’s pretty severe,” he said. “I don’t see marijuana itself hurting people. Cocaine does that. Methamphetamine does that. In my opinion and my experience, marijuana is not like that.”
The experiences and opinions of another courtroom regular are strikingly similar to that of the judge.
James Gierach is a former Cook County, Ill., prosecutor who serves on the board for a group called LEAP — Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
He testified before the Iowa Board of Pharmacy last year, which voted unanimously to recommend the Iowa legislature legalize medical marijuana. He said the war on drugs was lost a long time ago and is only creating more crime.
“Pick a crisis: guns, gangs, prisons we can’t afford, health-care bills we can’t pay … yet
60 percent of the money made by Mexican drug cartels is coming from marijuana,” he said. “All you have to do is join a gang, get a gun, (because) we’ve put a pot of gold next to the thing we said people can’t have: drugs.”
The criminalization of pot has been especially good for gangs, he said, because that is where they make their money.
“All you need to go into the drug business is a pair of tennis shoes and a gun,” he said. “We corrupt the police just like we do the kids because of temptation.”
Illegal drugs not only put police in danger via enforcement attempts, Gierach said, but put officers in a position to make criminal decisions, too. Drug money that is confiscated in busts often cannot be precisely accounted for, he said, and thousands of dollars in drug money often are left in the hands of a cop’s conscience.
And then there are the jails.
“We have 2.3 million people in prison — the highest rate of incarceration in the world,” he said Friday. “In Cook County, more than half the inmates are nonviolent (no gun was used in the crime) drug offenders.
“The most unproductive thing you can do with a dollar is build a jail. We are hiring people to watch people who are doing nothing. Besides, you build a prison, and you don’t have the money to build a school.”
LEAP’s mantra is: Legalize, regulate, tax. Its members point out the end of alcohol prohibition put Al Capone and his thugs out of business. They no longer were killing cops and hiding millions.
Maybe all of that is too far from our backyard?
So consider the viewpoint of Jeff Terronez, Rock Island County state’s attorney.
He predicted the “feel-good” medical marijuana law would have created a slew of legal challenges. But that doesn’t mean minor pot possession should remain a crime.
“My suspicion is this: If the law passes, everyone who smokes marijuana is going to come up with a reason to use it,” he said of the medical marijuana measure that failed. “If they want to legalize marijuana, they should legalize it. My personal opinion: If the State of Illinois legalizes marijuana, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”
The ones losing sleep, say Gierach and McDonald, are politicians who are too afraid to enter the fray.
“The most important thing to a legislator is his or her seat,” Gierach said.
McDonald told of a conversation he had with a former police officer-turned-Iowa-legislator, a Republican.
“He was sympathetic to what I was saying, and he agreed with the inefficiencies and needlessness of criminalization,” the judge recalled. “But his answer was, ‘Maybe you know of some Democrat you could talk to?’
“No one wants to appear soft on crime.”
Some people will read this column and, for a moment or two, agree the arguments for decriminalization make sense. But the myths, hysteria and propaganda are hard to shake.
In fact, they’re almost addicting.
Contact Barb Ickes at (563) 383-2316 or firstname.lastname@example.org.