Wasted Lives

Wasted Lives
Posted by FoM on January 03, 2002 at 12:11:17 PT
By Sandeep Kaushik 
Source: Cleveland Free Times
About one morning a month is really, really bad. For 38-year-old John Precup of Mansfield, 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 doesnít, itís 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, itís 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 í86, John remembers, he lost 15 pounds in 10 days before discovering the miraculous power of marijuana. Even now, on his rough mornings, he canít even hold down a sip of water until heís 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, Iíve been a convert," he states, proudly pointing out that his weightís 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 in the eyes of the state of Ohio."Iíve never gone to jail myself, thank God," he says, "but I know plenty of people who have." Itís 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, Americaís 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 nationís 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) in Washington, D.C., who points to a study based on government data that compares racial differences in pot busts around the country.Shockingly, Cuyahoga County turned out to have the third-worst disparity between black and white possession arrest rates in 1995 when comparing core urban counties. Blacks were 5.6 times more likely to get arrested for pot possession than whites, more than double the national average of 2.5 times. And when adding non-core metro counties into the mix, Lake County had the worst racial disparity of the hundreds of counties included ó blacks there were arrested at nearly 20 times the rate of whites. As St. Pierre puts it, "Itís the rust belt, running from Albany to Detroit, that comes out hottest as far as racial profiling goes."In 2000, more people were busted for pot than at any other time in U.S. history.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. Furthermore, they found that after California decriminalized pot in 1976, that state alone saved $95.8 million annually on average.Despite ó or perhaps because of ó 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 national poll this November found that 61 percent of likely voters oppose arresting and jailing nonviolent marijuana offenders. Plus, an annual national Gallup poll recently showed a jump to 36 percent support for overt legalization, after hovering for years around 25 percent. "Now that supportís passed the 33 percent mark, itís just a matter of time," John Hartman of Northcoast NORML, the organizationís local chapter, predicts optimistically.Campus Backlash  Ohio State junior Russ Selkirk had a rude political awakening. In many ways, the 20-year-old, who hails from a Cincinnati suburb, comes across as a typically bright, articulate college kid. But now thereís an overlay of serious, anti-drug-war activism atop his friendly, fun-loving demeanor. Indeed, his politicization epitomizes the mushrooming backlash against the U.S. governmentís harsh 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 didnít seem like that big a deal. Russ wasnít even arrested ó after issuing a citation, the officer cut him loose (of course, his parents found out, which was not so cool). 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 monthsí probation, ordered to perform 20 hours of community service and had his license suspended, also for six months.He still felt he hadnít 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, Iíd 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. Thatís when they saw the question about drug-offense convictions. He didnít know about the law at the time, and though he answered truthfully, he 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 didnít make sense to him. "This law doesnít counteract drug use; it just took money from my mom and dad for my mistake," he says. But unlike many others, Russ was lucky: his parents scraped together the funds to keep him in school.Unfortunately, Russ is just one of many. This year, 36,809 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 ó in 1999, more than 279,000 applicants didnít answer.This year, 36,809 college students will lose their financial aid.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 lawís 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 actís repeal, including Ohio Stateís, as have major newspapers like The Washington Post. Even new Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) head Asa Hutchinson has expressed doubts about it, Heller reports. And the push for the actís repeal ó itís up for recertification next year ó is prompting a spillover of student interest in other drug-war issues. At the SSDPís last annual meeting, attendees called for the replacement of heavy-handed zero-tolerance policies with a more compassionate harm-reduction model emphasizing education and treatment, and committed themselves to spurring public attention on the controversial U.S. involvement in Colombiaís civil war.Itís all part and parcel of a growing awareness of the fundamental flaws of the drug war on the part of todayís youth, Heller argues. "Weíre 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 weíre realizing thatís 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 a mass gathering near Columbus in May. "This could blow up into something big."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 Ravenna resident 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 ó the anxiety, pain, headaches, and her increasingly dangerous seizures ó 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." 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 naÔve, she remembers. "I led the cops right to the plants, because I thought theyíd realize there was nothing going on here, that I was just growing them for medical purposes."At first, they didnít 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 (the Voinivich administration had it 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 in this community were not happy about it," she relates."My world fell apart," Eleanor continues. She pled no contest to several felony distribution charges ó though she never sold any of her pot, she vehemently insists ó and faced 18 months in Marysville. After further byzantine legal twists and turns, and with the newfound assistance of Joe Jacobs, the attorney for Northcoast NORML, she was finally ordered into six months of intensive, in-patient drug rehab. It wasnít 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."Itís frustrating that politicians are so out of touch with their own constituents."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 at the Cleveland Clinic 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 chemical preservatives. Itís nice to finally know, she says, but adds that "cannabis, for me, is still the safest and most effective treatment available."Looking back on her legal ordeal, Eleanor feels sheís been through five years of needless hell, which turned her life topsy-turvy and cost her tens of thousands of dollars. She has recently separated from her husband, a development she blames on her legal ordeal, and has now been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.Eleanorís spirit has not been broken, however. As with Precup, her experiences have boosted her zeal to push for a medical marijuana law in Ohio. Last February, along with a handful of others, they formed the Ohio Patient Network, a grass-roots group dedicated to educating the public about the medical marijuana issue and pressing state legislators to pass such a bill. At present, OPN 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 on this issue. A recent national poll revealed that fully 67 percent of Americans now oppose using federal law enforcement agencies to close medical patient cannabis cooperatives springing up in the nine states that currently allow medical marijuana use. The DEA has enforced high-profile closures recently in Los Angeles and San Francisco, despite Californiaís breakthrough medical marijuana ballot initiative, the infamous Prop. 215, on the books since 1996.Nevertheless, Ohio activists know they have a long struggle ahead of them. While the public is supportive, politicians generally are not. Thus far, Hawaii is the only state to enact a medical marijuana law legislatively (as opposed to by ballot initiative), and Precup admits that while he and fellow OPN activists have lobbied dozens of legislators, to this point, they havenít been "taken seriously." As for a ballot initiative, Kenny Schweickart, a leader of OPNís sister group, For a Better Ohio (FBO), launched a shoestring petition campaign in 1998, using volunteers to net more than 50,000 signatures ó though that was well short of the number required for inclusion on the ballot.They havenít lost heart, however. Precup says that OPN and FBO will continue to grow, and as they become more established their political clout will grow as well. "Itís 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 Iím encouraged by the growing public awareness of whatís at stake."Punishing Godís Flower Children In Ohio, possession of small amounts of marijuana is not supposed to result in jail time; less than 200 grams is considered a minor misdemeanor. But recent statutory changes and disingenuous legal interpretations have afforded gung-ho local prosecutors new opportunities to circumvent the spirit of the law, potentially turning low-key possession wrist-slaps into stiff prison sentences.In Cuyahoga County, even possession of far less than 200 grams can now conceivably send you up the river. Local dealers often bag up their pot in sealed $10 "dime" bags, so a smoker who buys $40 worth is given four such bags, usually wrapped up together in a larger, outer bag. But now, prosecutors are sometimes charging those caught with several dimes bundled together with "preparation for sale," a felony, rather than with minor misdemeanor possession, even when thereís no indication theyíre dealers and the total amount of marijuana is very small.Attorney Bradley Greene, a lawyer with Friedman and Gilbert, noticed the shift several months ago, when he was defending a 19-year-old Cleveland woman who was caught with six dimes bundled together. "There was no evidence she prepared the drugs that way herself," Greene explains. "Thereís a huge distinction between smokers and sellers, but now they can classify practically everyone as a dealer." NORMLís Hartman says the change has been in effect since 1997, when the Ohio legislature closed a supposed "loophole" in the law. Prior to that time, those caught with small amounts of pot, even if they had sold a little, were thought to not deserve the much harsher trafficking penalties. But that assumption is a thing of the past, Hartman says, and as a result, even casual smokers run real risks if theyíre 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 for selling a few ounces of what she defiantly refers to as "one of Godís flowers.""Now they can classify practically everyone as a dealer."Together 13 years, they were living a quiet but fulfilling life at their place outside Warren. Ron built a thriving landscaping business from scratch, and served his community by organizing regular community clothing drives. He was a founding member of the Trumbull Peace Council, which is now defunct without him, Mimi says.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. "Youíve got drunk drivers out there who kill people, yet Ron was treated like the devil incarnate" ó all because he sold four ounces of weed to a guy who turned out to be a crack dealer looking to get on the copsí good side, she claims. As a result, in March 2000, Ron got 22 months in the pen.Though heíll be released in a few weeks, Ronís 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 familyís savings, even though Mimi charges that "we have records to show where every single penny in that account came from."Mimi was emotionally and financially devastated, though she eventually found work with John Hartman, the Northcoast NORML head who also owns three area NORML stores. He gave her a job at his Warren shop.Hartman says stories like Ronís are all too common. While he believes the average smoker in Ohio is no longer likely to be locked up anymore, a lot of people still get arrested, and the prisons remain packed with small-time growers and sellers. "Remember, 200 grams is not really a whole lot of cultivated marijuana, just a few plants," he says.Eleanor Ahrens, for one, discovered that the hard way. Possession of more than 200 grams, even for personal use, can and often does result in serious charges that carry substantial prison terms. John Precup tells the revealing story of a fellow OPN member in Toledo who was turned in by a neighbor for growing two large plants on his property. Because of the plantsí 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 happens to be a quadriplegic. There are some signs of incipient change in Ohio, however, most notably the ongoing attempt by For a Better Ohio to pass a citywide ballot initiative in Columbus that aims to eliminate criminal sanctions for all marijuana misdemeanors. According to Kenny Schweickart, a recent poll showed 48 percent support for FBOís initiative, indicating a real chance of passage if it does get before the voters in May.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 thatís a tradeoff thatís becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, as the self-perpetuating drug war sends its tentacles deeper into the social fabric.The governmentís intrusion is having an effect, as the personal stories of blighted lives and pointless suffering related above suggest. However, rather than wiping out pot use, the ongoing campaign to criminalize and stigmatize pot smokers 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, to press for significant change. Every day, between 400 and 700 people contact the national NORML office in Washington alone, says Allan St. Pierre.But St. Pierre readily admits that much work remains to be done. "Itís 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, thatís what will lead to major change."Note: Marijuana arrests are skyrocketing. The war on drugs has increasingly turned on casual pot smokers: college students, petty dealers and even the seriously ill. A few nascent grass-roots organizations hope to change that.Visit These Related Links: 1) High school drug use trends: General news regarding pot-related issues: http://www.cannabisnews.com3) National NORML website: http://www.norml.org4) Northcoast NORML: http://www.northcoastnorml.com5) Ohio Patient Network: http://www.ohiopatient.net6) For a Better Ohio: Report on national marijuana arrests (Marijuana Policy Project): U.S. pot arrests by county: Racial disparities in pot busts by county: Legal help for Ohioans facing marijuana charges: Students for a Sensible Drug Policy: http://www.ssdp.org12) Government Targeting of pregnant pot smokers: Zogby Poll showing opposition to U.S. marijuana policies: Cleveland Free Times (OH)Author: Sandeep Kaushik Published: Vol. 10 Issue 16 January 2 - 8, 2002Copyright: 2002 Cleveland Free Times MediaContact: letters freetimes.comWebsite: http://www.freetimes.comRelated Articles:Store is Hardly Normal for Lodi Group Writes Bill Proposal on Marijuana Use
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Comment #4 posted by el_toonces on January 04, 2002 at 07:46:57 PT:
Like me too......
When those bad days come 'round, it is the ONLY thing that works without making me sleep for hours. And the relief is instant! It is insane to prohibit this. The guy in the article is lucky though in that his bad days are infrequent relative to mine. I get days like that thrice a week or moreL.And notice, too, what they did to the woman who gave testimony, arresting her and all! They tell us "If you don't like it, change the law." You try to change it, they know where to find you and what they might find with you and they will have their vengeance. We are trying to gather signatures in Mich. now for a ballot initiative and I want to do all I can to help out, but I don't want to alert the jackboots to come and arrest me so I can be on probation which will probably require foregoing this medicine. Without it I can't eat (chronic pancreatitis, diabetes, and nausea related side effects from the narcotic pain meds) and a diabetic being unable to eat is not good.My friend who usually supplies me is not being cooperative for the moment (probably due to fear) and I am just a half jay away from starvation, crazy glucose levels, etc. This simply sucks!El
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #3 posted by SWAMPIE on January 04, 2002 at 02:05:55 PT
I happen to live in the Akron area,and just yesterday I grabbed a copy at the local deli,never even looking at it.I didn't even know about it until I saw it on C-News.It has a few pictures,and I may know one of those pictured.It is about time that we get some real dialog going on this subject,and I'm going to send a copy to the editor of the Akron Beacon Journal.They are pretty friendly people,and I have even talked to Jan Leach who is the editor.Perhaps others who have the time to do so can send this article to their local papers as well.I'm going to get more copys today,before they run out!It's a free paper.What a good article!ONWARD THROUGH THE FOG!!SWAMPIE
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #2 posted by shrox on January 03, 2002 at 23:29:57 PT:
things in common
Those first three paragraphs sound like me.
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #1 posted by Dark Star on January 03, 2002 at 13:43:14 PT
Fine Journalism
This is a fine article that tells the truth. It will be ignored because it appears in a left wing rag with little circulation (Long may they flourish!). Good work is often relegated to obscurity when it deserves to be read and savored.
[ Post Comment ]

Post Comment