Wasted Lives: The Pain of America's Pot War

About one morning a month is really, really bad. For 38-year-old John Precup, first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 15 years ago, just the act of waking up can be a frightening adventure in pain and suffering. Most days he gets up feeling pretty much normal, but on those mornings he doesn't, it's ugly.

"I wake up sick as a dog, huffing, gagging, trying not to puke," he relates. "I never know when to expect it, but when it hits, it's pretty scary." Precup keeps two things by his bedside: a bucket, for when the nausea overcomes him, and a loaded pipe. Three or four puffs of marijuana, he says, and the change is almost immediate. Like magic, the retching and wooziness fades and his shaky equilibrium is restored.

The pot even gives him back his appetite; without it he loses all desire to eat and starts shedding weight at an alarming rate. When initially hospitalized back in '86, John remembers, he lost 15 pounds in 10 days before discovering the miraculous power of marijuana. Even now, on his rough mornings, he can't even hold down even a sip of water until he's fired up a bowl, rendering the anti-nausea pills his doctor prescribes effectively useless.

"When I first tried the marijuana, I felt hunger for the first time since I felt sick. It was amazing. From that day forward, I've been a convert," he states, proudly pointing out that his weight's been stable ever since. In fact, though his disease has progressed to where he needs a walker around the house and a wheelchair outside it, with the marijuana at hand to control his symptoms, he considers himself to be in "pretty good health overall."

But the very drug that has given John Precup back his well being has also made him a criminal.

"I've never gone to jail myself, thank God," he says, "but I know plenty of people who have." It's a state of affairs that leaves him frustrated and outraged. Alcohol and tobacco are legal despite the harm they cause, while pot, with its medicinal and recreational properties, remains strictly illegal. In his eyes, this smacks of blatant hypocrisy. And it hits many other Americans that way, too.

From seriously ill patients who swear that marijuana is the only drug that effectively controls their symptoms, to college students stripped of financial aid for smoking a joint, to unlucky smokers and petty dealers caught up in the ever-expanding dragnet of our criminal justice system, America's relentless war on pot damages countless lives.

Drug war, race war

In 2000, 734,498 people were arrested across the United States for marijuana offenses, the largest yearly total in our nation's history, and more than twice the number busted in 1992. Fully 88 percent of those arrests were for simple possession, rather than manufacture or sale. Or to put it another way, new people are getting picked up at the rate of more than one every 45 seconds, and at any given time, 60,000 Americans are jailed on pot charges, more than one-quarter of those for possession.

Unsurprisingly, minorities are hit the hardest by this culture of criminalization. Blacks and Hispanics comprise 20 percent of the pot smokers in the U.S., but make up 58 percent of the marijuana offenders sentenced under federal law in 1997. "The system chews up blacks and other minorities at much greater rates," confirms Allan St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Foundation in Washington, D.C., who points to a study based on government data that compares racial differences in pot busts around the country.

Nationally, African-Americans are two-and-a-half times more likely than whites to be arrested on a marijuana charge, and the difference is even higher in many urban areas, particularly in the North. As St. Pierre puts it, based on recent data, "it's the rust belt, running from Albany to Detroit, which comes out hottest as far as racial profiling goes."

All of this arresting and jailing costs money, a lot of money. NORML research claims that marijuana prohibition costs American taxpayers somewhere between $7.5 and $10 billion each year just for enforcement. After California decriminalized pot in 1976, that state alone saved $95.8 million annually on average.

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- this budding arrest-and-incarceration industry, the American public increasingly rejects criminalizing pot smoking. Sixty million Americans are estimated to have tried marijuana, and a November poll found that 61 percent of likely voters oppose arresting and jailing nonviolent marijuana offenders. The annual national Gallup poll recently showed a jump to 34 percent support for overt legalization, after hovering for years around 25 percent.

Campus Backlash

Ohio State junior Russ Selkirk had a rude political awakening. In many ways, the 20-year-old comes across as a typically bright, articulate college kid. But though still friendly and fun-loving, he's now a serious anti-drug war activist as well, and a perfect exemplar of the mushrooming backlash against the U.S. government's uncompromising decision to bring the drug war directly into the lives of university students. Since the 1998 passage of the Higher Education Act Amendments, federal financial aid is denied to many college kids, like Russ, convicted of pot possession and other drug offenses.

At home during his freshman year, Russ went out with a friend for a little typical aimless cruising. Parked outside a local bar, it seemed a good time to kick back and smoke a bowl. All of a sudden, they were surprised by a knock on the window, and turned to see an undercover cop, badge in hand. He searched them and their vehicle, but all he found were a few leftover pot flakes in a cellophane wrapper and their pipe, which contained marijuana residue.

At the time, it didn't seem like that big a deal. Russ wasn't even arrested -- after issuing a citation, the officer cut him loose. A few weeks later, Russ appeared in court, where he pled no contest and got a fairly standard first possession sentence: he was fined $250, put on six months' probation, ordered to perform 20 hours of community service and had his license suspended, also for six months.

He still felt he hadn't done anything wrong. "To me, what I was convicted of was not a crime," he contends. "There was no violent act, and no one was hurt." Nevertheless, he was glad the whole unpleasant incident would soon be behind him. "I was sure as soon as I completed my probation, I'd be in the clear," he remembers.

Jump forward four months to spring 2000, when Russ sat down with his mother to fill out his financial aid application. That's when they saw the question about drug-offense convictions. He didn't know about the law at the time, and though he answered truthfully, still hoped to get the $4,500 in federal loans he needed.

It was only later, when his request was denied, that he learned the true cost of his arrest. He had a hard time believing it; logically, it didn't make sense. "This law doesn't counteract drug use; it just took money from my mom and dad for my mistake," he says. But unlike many others, Russ at least was lucky: his parents scraped together the funds to keep him in school.

Unfortunately, Russ is just one of many. This year, the latest figures show more than 43,000 college students will lose at least some of their financial aid for the next academic year. According to the law, students lose federal aid for one year from the date of a first possession conviction, for two years for a distribution rap, and longer for second and third offenses. Last year was the first that the federal government fully enforced the act. Before then, those who left the conviction question blank still had their aid applications processed. It was a good thing, too -- in 1999, more than 279,000 applicants didn't answer.

That this is a misdirected policy of the drug war is an "obvious no-brainer" to Shawn Heller, the national director of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), an organization formed three years ago in response to the act. As the law's stipulations have gone into effect, it has generated an explosion of resistance. SSDP already boasts 200 chapters of up to 300 members each, 30 of which are at high schools; and 400 more are in the process of forming. "This is the biggest movement on campus right now; nothing else comes even close," says Heller.

Their collective power may already be making its influence felt. About 100 campus governments have formally called for the act's repeal, as have major newspapers like The Washington Post. Even new Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) head Asa Hutchinson has expressed doubts about it, as has the main original congressional sponsor of the legislation. And the push for the act's repeal is prompting a spillover of student interest in other drug-war issues. At the SSDP's last annual meeting, attendees called for the replacement of heavy-handed zero-tolerance policies with a more compassionate harm-reduction model and committed themselves to spurring public attention on the controversial U.S. involvement in Colombia's civil war.

It's all part and parcel of a growing awareness of the fundamental flaws of the drug war on the part of today's youth, Heller argues. "We're the D.A.R.E. [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] generation that grew up hearing all this propaganda that criminalization is the only just response to drug use, but we're realizing that's just not true, and are starting to ask tough questions about the ramifications of altering our drug policies," he says, adding that SSDP plans to hold several mass gatherings around the country in 2002. "This could blow up into something big," he predicts.

Calling Dr. Doobie

Eleanor Ahrens tells a horror story that sounds like the plot of a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. The 47-year-old suffers a potpourri of ailments, including migraines, chronic seizures, severe anxiety disorder, allergies and asthma. More than 25 years of shifting medical diagnoses left her dependent on a pharmaceutical cocktail of anti-convulsive agents, painkillers and anti-depressants. With her body addicted, her finances on the brink of ruin and her conditions worse than ever, she finally decided mainstream treatments had failed her.

In desperation, she turned to pot. The effect was nothing short of extraordinary. Just about all of her symptoms -- the anxiety, pain, headaches, and her increasingly dangerous seizures -- were almost totally eliminated. "It struck me then," she says, "that one of the purest and most natural forms of medicine there is was being taken from the people of this country." Pretty soon she was growing her own.

For the first time in years, all was well, but then came the fateful knock on her door in 1994. Back then she was naïve, she remembers. "I led the cops right to the plants, because I thought they'd realize there was nothing going on here, that I was just growing them for medical purposes."

At first, they didn't arrest her, but nearly two years later Eleanor testified before the Ohio legislature in defense of the "compassionate use" clause, which made medical necessity an accepted legal defense in state marijuana cases (it was repealed in 1997). Suddenly, the cops were back, and this time they had the handcuffs out. "I caused quite an uproar with my testimony, and the police were not happy about it," she relates.

"My world fell apart," Eleanor continues. She pled no contest to several felony distribution charges -- though she never sold any of her pot, she vehemently insists -- and faced 18 months in prison, though with the newfound assistance of a NORML attorney she was finally ordered into six months of intensive, in-patient drug rehab. It wasn't prison, but neither was it ideal. "The other recovering addicts laughed because no one had ever been admitted for just marijuana before. It was kind of a joke," she says.

But her medical condition was no laughing matter. Denied access to pot, the side effects of her return to prescription medications grew increasingly serious. She first gained 40, then lost 60, pounds. Physically, she felt terrible, and her eyelids started to twitch uncontrollably. At one point, she was admitted for a three-week hospital stay. Her condition slipped so badly, she was released from treatment months early. "Emotionally, I was anxiety-ridden. I was back to the same old thing," she recalls.

A few months ago, Eleanor finally got some very good news. After extensive testing, doctors finally figured out what was really wrong with her. It turns out she suffers from basilar artery migraines, which over the years have caused severe damage in her ears and arthritis in her neck. The condition is so rare it was only recognized in the 1970s, though it is now known that episodes of the illness are often triggered by foods, dyes and chemicals, including those in many medications. She finally knows, she says, why "cannabis, for me, is still the safest and most effective treatment available."

Looking back on her legal ordeal, Eleanor feels she's been through five years of needless hell, which turned her life topsy-turvy and cost her tens of thousands of dollars. She recently separated from her husband, a development she blames on her arrest, and has now been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Eleanor's spirit has not been broken, however. As with John Precup, her experiences have boosted her zeal to push for medical marijuana laws in the 41 states that still lack such legislation. Last February, along with a handful of others, they formed a grass-roots group dedicated to educating the public about the medical marijuana issue and to press for new laws. At present, it has grown to include more than 100 active members, with more joining every week.

They are buoyed by some encouraging developments. In 1999, a major National Academy of Sciences report concluded marijuana "appears to be suitable" for several medical conditions like "chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, or the wasting caused by AIDS," and admitted that "marijuana might provide relief" for "patients with debilitating symptoms." Just last month, the DEA announced it would allow several medical marijuana studies to proceed, the first such authorizations in close to 20 years.

Still, the government is clearly lagging behind the public. A recent national poll revealed that fully 67 percent of Americans now oppose using federal law enforcement agencies to close cannabis cooperatives springing up in the nine states currently allowing medical marijuana use. The DEA has enforced high-profile closures recently in Los Angeles and San Francisco, despite California's breakthrough medical marijuana ballot initiative, Prop. 215, on the books since 1996.

They haven't lost heart, however. Precup says medical marijuana organizations will continue to grow in political clout. "It's frustrating that the politicians are so out-of-touch with their own constituents," he admits, "but I am sure we have right on our side, and I'm encouraged by the growing public awareness of what's at stake."

Punishing God's flower children

In jurisdictions around the country, possession of even minor amounts of pot can conceivably send you up the river. In many areas, dealers typically bag their herb in sealed $10 "dime" bags, so a smoker who buys $40 worth is given four such bags. But lawyers who specialize in drug cases report that prosecutors sometimes charge those caught with several dimes bundled together with felony trafficking charges rather than with misdemeanor possession, even when there's no indication they're dealers and the total amount of marijuana involved is very small.

One tells of recently defending a 19-year-old woman caught with six dimes. "There was no evidence she prepared the drugs that way herself," he explains. "There's a huge distinction between smokers and sellers, but now they can classify practically everyone as a dealer."

In large part, that's because after the initial easing of marijuana laws in the 1970s, many legislatures have backpedaled by closing supposed "loopholes" in the law. Until recent years those caught with small amounts of pot, even if they had sold a little, were commonly thought to not deserve much harsher trafficking penalties, but that assumption is a thing of the past, at least for some zealous prosecutors, and as a result even casual smokers can run real risks if they're caught with several bags in their possession.

Of course, drug dealers, even the penny-ante variety, have always run the risk of a trip to the pokey. Take the case of Ron Gilbert. His life partner Mimi vividly remembers the day in August 1999 the cops came banging on her door and took him away. Life just hasn't been the same since, and all because he had the temerity to sell a few ounces of what she defiantly refers to as "one of God's flowers."

Together 13 years, they were hippies and proud of it, living a quiet but fulfilling life at their rural homestead, home both for them and for Ron's legally blind adult daughter. Ron supported his little family with a thriving landscaping business, built up from scratch by the sweat of his brow, and served his community by organizing regular community clothing drives, Mimi says, the disgust in her voice evident.

And yes, she concedes, Ron dealt a little pot, an ounce or two here and there, mostly to friends. "Ron never hurt a soul in his life," Mimi contends. "You've got drunk drivers out there who kill people, yet Ron was treated like the devil incarnate" -- all because he sold four ounces of weed to a guy who turned out to be a crack dealer looking to get on the cops' good side, she claims. As a result, in March 2000, Ron got 22 months in the pen.

Though he'll be released in a few weeks, Ron's absence has already been devastating. The landscaping business collapsed without him. Even worse, the authorities confiscated more than $20,000 from the business account, the entirety of the family's savings, even though Mimi charges that "we have records to show where every single penny in that account came from."

As for Ron's daughter, she had to move in with her grandmother and aunts, who themselves were forced to sell their house without Ron around to help out. Mimi, too, was emotionally and financially devastated, though she eventually found work at a local head shop.

Stories like Ron's are all too common. While the average smoker is no longer that likely to be locked up anymore, a lot of people still get arrested, and the prisons remain packed with small-time growers and sellers. Aside from the multiple bags issue, activists point out that growing even a couple of large plants can, due to their combined weight, lead to serious trafficking charges.

Eleanor Ahrens, for one, discovered that the hard way. And John Precup tells the revealing story of a friend who was turned in by a neighbor for growing two large plants on his property. Because of the plants' weight, he was charged with felony marijuana distribution, in spite of the fact that he possessed none of the accoutrements of dealing, like a scale or bags. He also happened to be a quadriplegic.

Not so long ago, efforts to reform marijuana laws remained the exclusive province of Deadheads, libertarians and others outside the political and cultural mainstream. Sure, all sorts of people smoked marijuana in large numbers, but most were content to do so privately, behind closed doors, choosing political quiescence in exchange for personal privacy and freedom. But that's a tradeoff that's becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, as the self-perpetuating drug war sends its tentacles deeper into the social fabric.

The government's intrusion is having an effect, as personal stories of blighted lives and pointless suffering suggest. However, rather than wiping out pot use, the ongoing campaign to criminalize and stigmatize pot smokers apparently is having an opposite effect. A growing chorus of committed, organized activists have not only made inroads in educating the public about the corrosive social impact of marijuana prohibition, but also are learning how to use the idiosyncrasies of the political system, most notably the grass-roots power of the ballot initiative, as the growing success of medical marijuana efforts indicates. Moreover, every day between 400 and 700 people contact the national NORML office in Washington, says Allan St. Pierre.

But St. Pierre readily admits that much work remains to be done. "It's the people who are most affected by bad public policy who must be most invested in changing the law," he argues. "A big part of that is the victim or consumer stepping forward to talk to tens of millions to say why they want the laws changed. At some point, that's what will lead to major change."

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