The war on weed
Prohibition costs Illinois big bucks
As marijuana traffickers go, Jason Alan Spyres was far from the best.
He was just 19 when police in Woodford County found a bag of pot in Spyres’ car and arrested him for possession. Less than a year later, he was arrested again and charged with cannabis trafficking in Macon County – his mother had shipped 38 pounds of pot to him from California via United Parcel Service, with police intercepting the package. While out on bond, he was caught again, this time during a raid that also netted a meth dealer, and received a second trafficking charge.
“I was not thinking very clearly – I was in the height of my addiction,” explains Linda Spyres, a recovering addict who was using methamphetamine when she shipped the box to her son.
After six months in a California jail, Linda Spyres was sentenced to three years of probation. Her felony drug conviction has been set aside, and she now works as a counselor in the same treatment program that helped her kick drugs. She expects to receive a master’s degree in social work this spring.
“My life is definitely turned around,” she says.
The meth dealer arrested along with Jason Spyres pleaded guilty and received a 12-year sentence. He was released from prison years ago.
Jason Spyres, who had no prior record, is not so fortunate.
Three cannabis charges within 18 months netted Spyres a 30-year sentence, 20 years of it for the same marijuana that got probation for his mother, his supplier. After nearly 10 years in prison, he has a projected parole date of June 11, 2018. By the time Spyres, 30, gets out, he will have spent nearly half of his life behind bars. He is incarcerated at Taylorville Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison where it costs $20,034 a year to keep an inmate locked up.
“I was a very arrogant and stupid young kid who didn’t realize how much of his life he was jeopardizing,” Spyres says. “I made a conscious act that was in violation of our laws. That deserves punishment. … You don’t get to prison by making good choices. I’m here for selling marijuana.”
Assuming Spyres is paroled on schedule, taxpayers who have already spent six figures arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating him will spend another $120,000 keeping society safe. And make no mistake: In the eyes of the Illinois criminal justice system, Spyres is a menace to society. Cannabis trafficking is a Class X offense, the most serious category of felony on the books. Someone convicted of second-degree murder is considered a less dangerous criminal and can pay their debt to society via probation, without ever seeing the inside of a state prison.
Although he has earned an associates degree via correspondence school, there is no real incentive for Spyres to do anything but watch television, sleep and read. Unlike other categories of criminals, Class X felons don’t get time off their sentences if they enroll in drug treatment, educational or work programs.
Spyres is not alone.
As of Dec. 31, 777 people were locked up in Illinois prisons for cannabis offenses, according to the state Department of Corrections. It is not a lucky number for taxpayers. At an average annual cost of $21,911 per inmate, according to the prison department’s most recent figures, the public is paying more than $17 million per year to keep pot peddlers and users behind bars.
In Sangamon County, 21 people were locked up in the county jail for cannabis offenses as of three weeks ago. That’s more than $1,000 a day in incarceration costs based on the $53 per diem the county charges for housing federal prisoners.
It’s money well spent, according to Jack Campbell, chief deputy of the Sangamon County sheriff’s office. Legalizing pot, he says, isn’t a good idea.
“They’re still going to commit crimes to go out and get their drugs,” Campbell says.
Legalization advocates scoff.
“People don’t rob liquor stores at gunpoint to get money to buy pot,” says Jon Gettman, former head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) who now teaches criminal justice courses at Shenandoah University in Virginia. “It’s not smoking pot that leads to kids snorting cocaine. It’s the people they buy pot from that leads to cocaine.”
“It’s just such a political issue”
The prosecutor who sent Spyres to prison says that he is exactly where he belongs. Although he wasn’t convicted of selling meth, Spyres was nonetheless trafficking in methamphetamine, says Jay Scott, first assistant state’s attorney for Macon County (Spyres says he passed a police polygraph regarding meth involvement). Beyond that, Scott noted that Spyres caught additional cannabis charges after his first arrest.
“In my opinion, that’s a person who’s just kind of thumbing his nose at the system,” says Scott, who testified against Spyres during a clemency hearing last year before the state Prisoner Review Board.
Scott, who is running for state’s attorney in Macon County, says that marijuana should remain illegal.
“So many times, it’s a gateway drug to harder drugs,” Scott says. “The arguments to the contrary, I don’t accept them after being involved in prosecution for 25 years. It gets kids into that culture and drug use. I think the laws are fine the way they are.”
But George Atterberry, a retired Illinois prison guard who spent nearly a quarter-century watching over inmates including Spyres, says that it’s time to overhaul marijuana laws.
“As far as I can tell, it should be legal,” says Atterberry, who once guarded Spyres and testified in favor of clemency for him. “I’ve had people in my family arrested. I’ve seen what it’s done in the prison system. I’ve just seen the lack of logic on the issue. ... The bottom line is, tobacco and alcohol kill almost a half-million people a year each year, and we don’t bat an eye – it’s sold in the grocery stores. It’s just such a political issue.”
Outright legalization has a shot this year in Colorado, where an initiative is on the ballot, and the state of Washington, where the issue is before the legislature and will go to voters if lawmakers fail to act.
Legalization has been a mixed bag in a nation where 16 states and the District of Columbia allow medical use of marijuana. Voters in California, where marijuana for medical purposes was approved in 1996, rejected a legalization proposal in 2010. Colorado voters did likewise in 2006. In Illinois, a medical marijuana measure passed the Senate in 2009 and last year came within seven votes of passing in the House.
The push to ease marijuana restrictions comes as anti-pot arguments have crumbled.
Some researchers have found that performance on driving simulators actually improves after cannabis use, and there is no evidence that a plethora of medical marijuana dispensaries in California and elsewhere that began cropping up more than a decade ago has resulted in any increase in accidents or DUI arrests.
Although the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration says that it isn’t safe to smoke pot and drive, a 1993 study funded by NHTSA determined that marijuana’s effects on driving were “relatively small.” A 1992 NHTSA study in which researchers analyzed the blood of more than 1,800 drivers killed in accidents found that drivers under the influence of marijuana were no more likely to die in crashes than sober drivers.
In December, government-funded researchers published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing that marijuana smoke isn’t nearly as harmful as cigarette smoke. Billed as the most comprehensive study ever on pulmonary health and pot, the study tracked 5,000 smokers over 20 years and found no decline in lung function in people who had smoked a joint a day for seven years. However, researchers found that lung function did decline after a decade of daily pot smoking.
“They were going to show that it was pretty harmful,” says Dan Linn, executive director of Illinois NORML, who noticed in high school that pot smokers on his school’s track team ran just as well, if not better, than teetotalers. “It showed the opposite.”
But Linn has no illusions.
“I don’t think this is something that’s the final nail in the coffin of cannabis prohibition,” he says. “These kinds of studies have been coming out for almost as long as cannabis prohibition has been around.”
When a representative from the American Medical Association testified against a federal law against marijuana enacted in 1937, proponents of a ban countered with a pharmacology professor who said that pot provoked violence and caused brain damage. The professor subsequently testified as a defense expert in murder trials when pot-smoking defendants claimed insanity, once telling a jury that he had smoked weed himself and had been transformed.
“I thought I had wings,” the professor was quoted as testifying in a story on a murder trial published in the New York Post. “Great big blue wings – and I was flying all around the world.”
“Nothing has shocked me when it comes to the history of cannabis prohibition,” Linn says. “Men growing breasts. Ax-murdering children.”
When it comes to banning reefer, Illinois beat the feds to the punch, making pot illegal in 1931, a half-dozen years before a national law was passed. And the Land of Lincoln remains tough on pot smokers.
Illinois ranked sixth in the nation in per-capita marijuana arrest rates, according to a 2009 paper published by Gettman, who studied 2007 arrest statistics and found that 58 percent of all drug arrests in Illinois were for marijuana offenses. Statewide, marijuana arrests grew from 47,754 in 2003 to 54,756 in 2007, Gettman reported, an annual increase of nearly 3 percent. The Springfield Police Department had the 36th highest marijuana arrest rate of all Illinois police agencies with at least 62 marijuana arrests; the Sangamon County sheriff’s office had the 61st highest rate.
The logic behind some enforcement efforts is questionable.
Cook County has, by far, the highest marijuana arrest rate in the state, according to Gettman’s study, but in Chicago, 97 percent of charges involving 2.5 grams or less were dismissed between 2006 and 2010, according to a December story in the Chicago Sun-Times. During the same time period, 84 percent of cases involving between 2.5 and 10 grams were dismissed and 57 percent of cases involving up to 30 grams were thrown out. One defendant had 14 of his 16 possession charges since 1998 dismissed and received court supervision for the other two, the paper found.
In New York, the number of arrests for small amounts of marijuana has risen each year for the past seven years despite a law that allows arrests for small amounts only if the drug is displayed in public. Police critics say that arrests are rising due to a police tactic known as stop-and-frisk in which officers briefly detain people and order them to empty their pockets, ostensibly to keep guns off the streets, according to the New York Times. When someone pulls out pot, they get arrested, the newspaper reported, and people of color are disproportionately busted because the tactic is most commonly applied in minority neighborhoods. A sociologist who analyzed the data estimated that the low-level pot arrests cost taxpayers $75 million.
The Springfield arrest rate has dropped in recent years since the city council in 2009 passed an ordinance that made possession of 2.5 grams or less (there are 28 grams in an ounce) an ordinance violation – essentially a traffic ticket. Previously, possession was a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a permanent mark on one’s criminal record.
Officers have discretion: They can still arrest someone under state law. But in 2011, most marijuana violations were handled in a kinder, gentler way, with 111 people arrested under state law and 348 citations issued, each carrying a $300 fine. It works out to $104,400 in city coffers.
“That’s nothing to sneeze at,” says Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson, who sponsored the ordinance that decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot.
Money wasn’t the primary motivator, Simpson says.
“I did it [sponsored the ordinance] primarily because so many young people use marijuana and they don’t think about the long-term consequences if they get caught, based on the laws that are currently on the books,” Simpson said. “My desire with regard to the ordinance I sponsored was to help youth and to help the city. I think it served those purposes, dually.”
Simpson said she heard from no constituents who opposed her push to decriminalize pot. She doesn’t answer yes or no when asked if she favors outright legalization.
“Being a child of the late 60s and early 70s, hey,” she says. “There are worse things that people could do other than smoke marijuana. Do I partake? No. Do I want my daughter to? No. Look: I don’t know that anybody has come up with any long-term negative effects. … I think a lot of communities and cities are looking at legalizing marijuana. I don’t know that it would be any worse than alcohol.”
Linn of Illinois NORML says that there is propaganda on both sides of the marijuana debate, as there is in any war.
Some folks overindulge and smoke pot all day when they should be doing more productive things, he says.
“It can be abused,” Linn says.
And some legalization proponents go too far when they say that America’s addiction to foreign oil could be solved if pot were legal and farmers grew proverbial amber waves of hemp that could be converted into bio-diesel fuels, Linn allows. Economic benefits are nuanced, he says.
“If we were, tomorrow, to end cannabis prohibition, there’d be a lot of jobs created, but there’d also be a lot of jobs taken away,” he says.
Legalization could take away jobs from the drug-testing industry, police departments, probation departments and prisons, Linn said, but, on balance, he said that he believes there would be a net job gain.
Some of those jobs might have nothing to do with pot.
Being a black-market commodity, marijuana costs more than it should, Gettman said. If pot were legal, the price would go down and users would have more money to spend on restaurants, electronics and all sorts of other things, he said. Meanwhile, profits would be invested in legitimate economic activity, he added.
As for how much tax revenue could be gained if pot were legal, Gettman says that no one can say.
“The problem is, we just don’t have all the data we need,” Gettman says.
In California, taxes on the sale of medical marijuana total between $58 million and $105 million a year, according to the California Board of Equalization, which collects taxes and estimates annual sales as high as $1.3 billion.
According to a 2005 study by Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economics professor, taxes on marijuana, if it were legalized, would total $2.4 billion a year nationwide if the weed were taxed like other goods and $6.2 billion if it were taxed at rates comparable to tobacco and alcohol. Meanwhile, state and local governments would save $5.3 billion on enforcement costs and the federal government would save another $2.4 billion, according to Miron’s study, which factored in revenue currently generated by fines and forfeitures.
Reckoning a $100 billion retail market, Gettman thinks that Miron’s tax estimates are low, but he cautions that there are any number of variables.
“There’s some things we just don’t know,” Gettman said. “We don’t know if marijuana use is going to go up if we legalize. We also don’t know about the elasticity of marijuana consumption, will people smoke more or less.”
Like Linn, Gettman says that pot isn’t necessarily harmless.
“There are people who have addictive and dependency problems with marijuana,” Gettman says. “Marijuana does produce social costs. Right now, those costs are being borne by the non-marijuana-using public. Whatever the costs are, they should be borne by the people who use marijuana and profit from marijuana sales.”
Despite nearly 75 years of prohibition at the federal level, Gettman points out that millions of Americans still smoke marijuana and studies indicate that use is rising despite increasing arrests.
“Arrests are not a control mechanism, they’re just a response,” Gettman says. “The fact that we go out and arrest people, it doesn’t prevent marijuana use. It’s just something we spend money on to make it look like we’re doing something about a problem. The genie’s not going back in the bottle. They can hold this thing off for awhile, but come on: What do they have to point to?”
From behind prison walls, Jason Spyres says that marijuana is here to stay, and legalization is better than prohibition. After all, he says, Anheuser-Busch doesn’t shoot up rival breweries, but gangsters involved in the marijuana trade are killing people in Mexico. Sooner or later, he says, reason will prevail.
“As far as the state of Illinois goes, we will eventually have taxation and regulation of marijuana,” Spyres predicts. “I will be long out of prison by then.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.