Pubdate: Thu, 18 Oct 2007
Source: Shepherd Express (Milwaukee, WI)
Copyright: 2007 Alternative Publications Inc.
Author: Lisa Kaiser
Bookmark: (Marijuana)


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." 
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