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April 21, 2004 - The Providence Journal, The (RI)

Feds' Endless War On Marijuana

By Froma Harrop, Journal editorial writer and syndicated columnist.

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

AS COURTROOM DRAMAS go, this was hardly a Perry Mason moment. A federal judge in Los Angeles gazed at Judy Osburn, a woman found guilty of growing marijuana for a West Hollywood cannabis club. "You are a principled person," U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz told her. "I don't consider you to be a threat or menace to society." He then gave Osburn a sentence of one year's probation.

Over 2,000 miles away, in Akron, Ohio, a local judge tickled the wrist of a Catholic priest found to be raising 35 marijuana plants in his rectory. The Rev. Richard Arko received two years of probation and community service.

And that's about all the passion our courts can summon for the crime of growing pot. The public seems equally apathetic. Nine states have passed laws allowing the use of marijuana with a doctor's approval. (Marijuana eases pain and the nausea caused by chemotherapy.)

In Nevada, meanwhile, voters are sure to consider a ballot initiative this November aimed at legalizing the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana -- for any use, no questions asked. Observers predict a close vote.

The only person who still gets excited over marijuana these days seems to be U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft. He's clearly solved the terrorism problem, so he has the spare time and resources to go after patients and priests -- and regular guys who grow pot in their backyards, like Travis Paulson, of Lebanon, Ore.

Agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration last fall descended on Paulson and confiscated 104 marijuana plants -- despite his Oregon-issued license to grow pot for medical use. The agents weren't really going after medical marijuana, a spokesman at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy explains. They were going after "the marijuana threat." OH-kay.

Elsewhere in marijuana news, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving a police dog's role in an Illinois pot arrest. It seems police in LaSalle County had stopped Roy Caballes for speeding. As the trooper and driver conferred, the pooch got real agitated over what his nose knew was in the trunk -- $250,000 worth of pot. Caballes is now spending 12 years in jail for drug trafficking.

The Supreme Court is interested in whether the canine sniff constituted an unreasonable search. But taxpayers should be more intrigued by the large sums such cases cost them in trooper time, court facilities and long-term lodging for Caballes and his ilk. Wouldn't that dog's fine sniffer be better deployed looking for explosives?

All in all, the war on marijuana spends about $12 billion a year for eradication, law enforcement and jailing offenders, according to estimates from NORML, a group seeking to legalize marijuana. That's just on the federal side. State and local police make about 750,000 marijuana arrests a year. And forcing marijuana sales underground has created a nice fat market for narco-terrorists and ordinary criminals.

But wouldn't easing the ban on marijuana create a nation of potheads? There's scant evidence of that, according to research from the Netherlands, where marijuana is openly sold in coffee houses. A recent University of Amsterdam study also came up with this interesting factoid: Only 2.5 percent of Dutch people over the age of 12 are regular users of marijuana, compared with 5 percent in the United States.

Finally, a few nice words for states' rights. Every state is allowed to monitor and tax the sale of alcoholic beverages. The same should apply to marijuana, argues the Marijuana Policy Project. This group wants pot regulated like alcohol -- which means it would not be plopped on the candy counter next to the Snickers bars. If the people in Washington state want marijuana legalized and the people in Mississippi don't, then fine. Let each state plot its own course.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco recently ruled that use of medical marijuana is no business of the federal government if the pot didn't cross state lines and was not sold. But the Feds seem determined to keep their snouts in, out of a distorted sense of morality and perhaps more potent love of money -- $12 billion in taxpayer dough is a big pot of pork.

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