A Pilot Special Report: Weed Whacking
After decades of a frustrating "war on drugs," marijuana possession has suddenly been made legal in Colorado and Washington, is under discussion in at least five more states, and is now allowed in California for loosely-defined "medicinal" uses.
When Iowa lawmakers gather Monday, they will find one member proposing a bill to decriminalize marijuana in the state, a step short of legalization, and another making a second attempt at a bill to allow full medicinal use. It is unlikely that Iowa will bend to pressure to follow Colorado and Washington into complete legalization this year, as Governor Branstad has already pledged to veto such an effort.
Storm Lake area law enforcement leaders admit the drug remains readily available on the streets, but are far from ready to give up their war on weed.
"I think it's atrocious," Storm Lake Public Safety Director Mark Prosser said of the concept of states legalizing the drug.
"It is the wrong thing to do and the wrong message to send," agrees Buena Vista County Sheriff Gary Launderville.
Prosser said that if you speak with law enforcement and medical officials in the states with legal marijuana, "you hear of countless abuses, illegal activities and health risks that have presented themselves even under the veil of legal use."
Proponents of legal marijuana argue that gutting efforts for legalized pot would only benefit Mexican drug cartels, who would reap the profits instead of cash-strapped state budgets.
NORML, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, is one of the fastest-growing student organizations on the Iowa State University campus. Member Josh Montgomery calls the legalization votes in the two states "The shot heard round the world." The group is advocating for responsible adult use of the drug, he said, adding that it feels that the state's laws do more damage than the pot does. "Students and community members alike lose their education for small possession charges," he said.
Marijuana arrests in the city are now happening at middle school age, Prosser argues. "Ten years ago, that would not have been the case. That's a sad statement."
A 'BACK SEAT' DRUG?
The best approach to cutting into drug abuse isn't to decriminalize it, but to enforce the laws already on the books, the sheriff feels.
"We have penalties in place, but if we don't prosecute people, or we just give them a slap on the hand, who's going to take it seriously? For every officer, it's a frustration. Countless hours and money is invested to investigate drug cases, and then they have to sit and watch it go away like it's no big deal, and the people are right back on the street doing it again.
"I'm not saying that everybody who has used marijuana should be in prison, but I have close to 85 people on probation to me for various reasons, and for a lot of them, it's a joke. They can violate probation and nothing ever happens to them."
What would be the point of making more laws, if we don't enforce the ones we already have?"
Launderville guesses that of those on his probation list for various crimes, 60-70 percent probably use marijuana.
"We see a vast amount of marijuana out here. It's unfortunate, in my opinion, but with concerns over some of the other hardcore drugs, attention on the marijuana problem gets a back seat. People think of meth and coke as the problem, and they don't even see marijuana as a drug but some kind of recreation," Launderville says.
Prosser said that one problem is inconsistent enforcement. More rural communities take enforcement against pot seriously as a threat to quality of life in their towns, while more urban ones sometimes ignore it as they concentrate their enforcement resources elsewhere. As a result, some people who come to Storm Lake are surprised when they are arrested for possessing or selling marijuana, used to law enforcement looking the other way.
A Storm Lake High School student said that the drug is easy enough to obtain, but doesn't feel use of it is necessarily growing.
"There are people who are going to smoke, and people who aren't, and you're not going to change that, even if you make it legal. If you want it, you can buy it in a school bathroom or parking lot any time you want. Kids know who has it. People come in from bigger cities somewhere else in the country where they have had access to gangs, and when they come here, their parents probably think they are getting them away from drugs, but they keep right on selling for the same people," the student said. "It's not like everyone is doing it - most people just mind their own business, and if it's there, they go the other way."
IMPACT OF LEGALIZATION
The "stairstep effect" is obvious and easily seen in the arrests made in the area, the local officials feel - a person commonly has their first arrest for marijuana possession, and later a progression is seen to other drugs or forms of crime.
"How many times do we hear the argument - this is a good kid who gets caught with it, give him a break, it's just marijuana. They get the break, and then a few months or a year later, there's the next arrest, and it may well be for something more serious. Time after time we see this happening," Launderville says.
"The mentality of today is, just continue to do it until you get caught. These people see the history of what's happening in the courts, they know nothing much is going to happen to them."
The more states that legalize the drug, the more it will be readily available and affordable, he suggests.
"I have no doubt that legalizing it will just result in more people using it. And it's not just a matter of them using something that is illegal - it's the things they do after they use it. I've seen enough to say that there is no question marijuana impairs the user's judgement."
In the last couple of years, local officers have seen a marked increase in cases where drivers are pulled over for obvious impaired and dangerous driving, but blow zero on the device to measure blood alcohol. "I'm not saying it is 100 percent marijuana causing this, but very often it is that used in combination with another drug."
Those who push for decriminalizing pot assume that users will act responsibly under the influence - an unrealistic concept, the sheriff feels. "Look at the incredible problems we have with alcohol. Anyone can walk into a bar and they are supposed to know what their limits are and act accordingly. Just look at the number of people who drink and drive knowing full well they shouldn't."
THE PIPELINE TO STORM LAKE
Where is the drug coming from? Everywhere, Launderville says.
"In the old days, we worked some drug cases and were able to get halfway close to the source, whether it be in Mexico or some other U.S. state. With the transient population we have, it's coming in from anywhere and everywhere. It's almost impossible to trace the supply line, because the drug has passed through so many sets of hands by the time it gets here."
Prosser said most of the methamphetamine seen in the community comes out of Mexico. Like cocaine and heroin, the bulk of the marijuana used locally has been trafficked out of several different larger cities in the midwest. "There is so much money changing hands, that as soon as you take out one supplier, there are several more standing in line to take over the spot."
The Public Safety veteran is clearly upset that the drug is popularized all the more by movies, music and social media. "It is literally advertised as less dangerous than alcohol," he said.
Officers often do more than enforce the law when it comes to drug abuse.
"Quite often they will have a young person in the back of their vehicle and they will talk to them and try to make a difference. Those conversations take place quite often. The kid will be saying ' Yeah, I won't do it again. I have all these possibilities in front of me and I don't want to ruin my life.' And then, they'll turn around and do the same thing again," Launderville said.
The message Storm Lake police officers try to share with young people who have been caught with marijuana, Prosser said, is that poor choices have a way of following a person through life. "At the same time, you need to let them know that everyone experiences some bumps in the road of life - you can choose to learn from them and turn the experience into something positive. Some do - they experiment, learn, and quickly move on in a better direction."
PARENTING & TREATMENT FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE
Ultimately, if there is any progress made against marijuana and other drugs, it won't be made in courtrooms or state legislatures, Launderville feels.
"It's got to start at home. In the world we live in today, I'm not sure there is a lot of guidance at home, or parents even knowing what their kids are up to. There is this perception that it's just marijuana, it's not going to harm me. But look at how many people's lives are harmed by 'just' alcohol..."
In many cases, the homes that avoid teen brushes with alcohol and drug experimentation are the ones where parents insist on knowing who their child's friends are, where they are at, and with curfews on when they must be home. Prosser adds.
Reducing demand for drug supply may start in the home, but he said that emphasis on treatment cannot be overlooked, especially for stronger drugs. "If people can't get themselves out of that addictive cycle, then the dangerous behavior is going to continue and continue."
While there are local treatment options, offered by services like Seasons Center, Compass Pointe and Plains Mental Health, it seems the available counselors are "swamped" with client load, Prosser says.
Launderville isn't sure the programs are having much effect. "We've beat the same drum for years, and it doesn't seem to have made much difference. We have treatment programs - you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."
A COUNSELOR'S INSIDE VIEW
A local substance abuse counselor estimates that 35 percent of the clients he sees are really trying to break free of drugs, while the majority are just there because they are required to be.
"Legalizing marijuana is a hot topic. The side that's for it seems to be growing stronger, but the side that's against it isn't going to change it's mind," said Frank Patska of Compass Pointe Mental Health. "Personally I think it is really scary to see it legalized - I question who is really to gain from it."
While he respects the concept of medicinal marijuana, the laws so far created to govern it are full of holes and abuses, Patska says. "Anybody can go to a doctor and say they are a little nervous and get marijuana prescribed - because the doctors that are doing it are making money off it."
He said that in Montana, a "marijuana bus" makes its way around the state with a quasi-medical staff. People who want the drug go to the bus, get a quick evaluation faxed to their a doctor who issues a prescription with no questions asked, and they walk out with the drug. "It's becoming the new fix-all. Whatever your problem is, here's some marijuana... like valium used to be given out."
Prosser said that well-intentioned movements for medicinal marijuana prescribed for people with legitimate illnesses have been overshadowed.
"It's already so out of control in California. These stores selling it are just fronts for legalized pushers. The negatives far outweigh the positives."
Many state leaders have come to disagree. Some avenue of legalized use of marijuana as medicine is now legal in 18 states.
ADDICTIVE OR NOT?
Working with drug users, Patska says he has come to believe that there are social users of marijuana who manage it with seemingly little ill effect. "But I do believe it is addictive as well - anything that alters thinking and feelings is additive, at least psychologically."
Most marijuana users he sees eventually confess that they rely on the drug as their means of relieving stress. "They will say it mellows them out, reduces the problems around them, releases their anxieties. The problem is, these people lose their ability to develop healthy coping skills, and it doesn't take long before they are dependent on the drug to deal with life."
The counselor said that marijuana use among Storm Lake adolescents seems especially high. "The research I've read shows strong evidence that heavy use of marijuana at this age begins to effect brain chemistry in young people because their brains are still developing, and this can have some impacts on them later in life, Patska says.
An immediate impact is the cost of substance abuse. "People will spend money they don't really have. First you have the money they spend on the drugs, then if they get picked up they have court costs, and they could well lose a job and have trouble finding anyone who will hire them. I remember talking to one person who was homeless, and kept right on using - if he didn't have money, he managed to get people to buy it for him. It was not a pretty picture."
The addition of a new Narcotics Anonymous group in Storm Lake should be helpful, the counselor says. "They've got good things going for them, as does AA. Sometimes people have to stub their toes a few times and suddenly they wake up one day ready to change.
"What we try to get to is seeing how their lives are being affected by substance abuse. Then they are ready to look at whose other lives they are affecting."
WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO?
The two states that recently legalized marijuana stand to reap $600 million in new revenue annually - unless the Obama Administration takes them to court to keep them out of the pot business. Obama has made no move to endorse legalization of a drug he admits to once using, and Vice President Biden is one of the most vocal opponents to legal marijuana. In essence, if the feds decide to shut down the taxation and regulation of the drug by the two states, they haven't a leg to stand on. Federal law trumps state policy.
Faced with loss of the revenue that the states promised would go to schools, roads and tax relief, newfound public support for legalization could quickly be reversed.
"The public does not LIKE marijuana. What they like is community safety, tax revenue and better use of law enforcement," admits Brian Vicente, a Denver attorney who helped to write the new Colorado law.
In Storm Lake, counselor Patska is critical of the states' financial schemes. "We know they are taking in money from people using marijuana - but what I wonder is if any of those dollars will be put into substance abuse prevention and help for the people who run into problems with the drugs."
Patska says he isn't convinced that marijuana is a "gateway drug" that necessarily leads people to consume harder narcotics. "Some people use it socially and never go that route. But it is a gateway to associate with other people who use illegal drugs, and in a sense, you are who you hang out with. In many cases we see people who had no intention of using anything other than marijuana, but they end up doing other drugs because they people they are around are using them."
Police leader Prosser says his department's investigations prove that marijuana is a gateway drunk, saying that in almost all cases of arrests for drugs like meth and cocaine, the abuser had started with pot.
What the public doesn't often understand is that the drug today is not the same one a rebellious generation experimented with in the 1960s and '70s, Launderville notes "It's no different than corn. Hybrids and technology over the years have produced a drug that is a lot more potent today."