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March 1, 2006 - Berkshire Eagle (MA)

OpEd: Prohibition's Lesson

By Peter Martin, marketing consultant.

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

OUR MARIJUANA wars and the staggering sums of money wasted on stake-outs, busts and prosecutions have never been my "bag," but kids who live in our neighborhoods are about to stand criminal trials for selling and using very small amounts of marijuana ostensibly within 1,000 feet of a school.

Given location and circumstance, this is a shaky argument in the name of "justice." Going forward to trial on criminal charges is a horrific and massive miscarriage of what justice is all about. First, full disclosure: I do not know our district attorney or any of the families or kids involved in the Great Barrington marijuana sting operation.

The relentless pursuit of these tenuous cases has the smack of posturing for political gain and, intended or otherwise, seems to be using tough "justice" as a device for personal aggrandizement. I should also note that I voted for Mr. Capeless for D.A. and have no ax to grind regarding his political future. Like the silent majority in our communities, I believe that further pursuit of these kids is wrong morally and on all other counts, mainly to curry fear in our communities.

Throughout American history fear has been a potent weapon for politicians to use to get elected, reelected and discredit incumbents to satisfy a vociferous and well-financed minority.

All too often fear is grounded in outrageous distortions of "fact." Take for instance the fight in the early part of the last century to ban alcohol. As you review the fight to criminalize booze, think of the overblown condemnation of marijuana (which I believe should be decriminalized to de-emphasize this ancient drug and rid it of profits and hence crime and eventually, such widespread use). The campaigns against booze included alcohol sold in saloons.

Numerous anti-saloon publications denounced saloons for "annually sending thousands of our youths to destruction, for corrupting politics, dissipating workmen's wages, leading astray 60,000 girls each year into lives of immorality and banishing children from school...Liquor is responsible for 19 percent of the divorces, 25 percent of the poverty, 25 percent of the insanity, 37 percent of the pauperism and 50 percent of the crime in this country."

League posters appeared everywhere depicting the saloon-keeper as a profiteer who feasted on death and enslavement. Oct. 28, 1919, was when Congress enacted the National Prohibition Act -- known as the Volstead Act, which took effect on Jan. 17, 1920. The Prohibition era gave the government a taste of what was to come and reflects upon the war on marijuana, certainly more benign a drug than booze. In the three months before the Act became effective, liquor worth half a million dollars was stolen from government warehouses. By midsummer, federal courts in Chicago were overwhelmed with 600 liquor violation trials.

In three years, 30 prohibition agents were killed. Other statistics demonstrated increasing bootleg trade and consumption. In 1921, 95,933 illicit distilleries, stills, still works and fermentors were seized. In 1925, the total jumped to 172,537 and up to 282,122 in 1930. A total of 34,175 persons were arrested in 1921; by 1925, the number had risen to 62,747 and to a high in 1928 of 75,307 (Internal Revenue Service). Convictions for liquor offenses in federal courts rose from 35,000 in 1923 to 61,383 in 1932; and the courts convicted about seven percent of those charged with liquor violations. Gang and individual crime was rampant. What does the Prohibition Era have to do with marijuana?

I have worked in Jamaica, West Indies since the early 1970s. At that time marijuana grew abundantly along roadsides, in the bush and in fields.

Rastafarians use it freely as a religious sacrament; it was smoked openly and no one bothered the smoker or the dealer.

Crime was low. Then the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) came to Jamaica with its helicopters and plant poisons and forced the Jamaican government to crack down on users and sellers.

Unanticipated consequences included the trans-shipment of cocaine on the back of the marijuana trade; crime skyrocketed and high inner city murder rates prevail.

To this day. But Jamaicans with wealth and wealthy Americans hire high-powered law firms to "beat the rap" for their kids; the poor and middle class with less discretionary income like the Barrington kids, are far more likely to be convicted. And first-time offenders, their reputations tarnished, having been sent to prison, are more likely to enter a life of crime.

So what's to be done? Mr. Capeless, certainly you are trying to do what is right under the law so I do not impugn your motives.

But I am hoping that you can learn from history. I am hopeful that you will reflect on the sayings of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the great leaders of the last century and pursue misdemeanor charges instead of felonies and punishment of community service instead of prison time: "Power is of two kinds.

One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love... Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment... The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." These lads have learned much already and you have made your point.

As Maya Angelou, American poet, writer and actress once said, "There's a world of difference between truth and facts.

Facts can obscure truth." Surely, Sir, enough is enough.

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