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January 15, 2007 - La Crosse Tribune (WI)

Column: Early-Morning Police Visit Puts Woman Out Of Her Home

By John Smalley, editor of the La Crosse Tribune.

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Sometimes the war on drugs is fought on odd battlegrounds, and against people you would not expect.

Let's say you're a 61-year-old woman and you live in a public housing project in La Crosse. And let's say the cops knock on your door at 2:30 in the morning, looking for your grandson.

You answer the door to find two uniformed officers there, and two more on the way.

They want to know where your 17-year-old grandson is because they think he might be involved in a burglary committed about an hour earlier.

You point across the courtyard, and tell them your grandson is at an apartment across the way. While two cops go to talk to the grandson, the others ask to come in, and you say yes because you don't know what else to do.

Then they ask to come upstairs and look around, to make sure your grandson is not hiding up there. Again, you tell them OK, because you're scared, and you've just been jolted awake and you really aren't sure what's going on.

Saying yes to the police, in this case, turns out to be a big mistake.

Once upstairs, the cops find some marijuana, 2.8 grams to be exact. By anyone's measure that's a small quantity of marijuana.

Small amount or not, you're now busted. A victory in the war on drugs, right?

Well, maybe. But it doesn't really feel that way.

Because now you (if you are the 61-year-old woman) go to court, and instead of being charged you are ordered to go through a drug education program. You are a first-time offender, so if you complete the program the charges are never filed and never appear on your record.

So you're fine, right? Lucky to get out with such reasonable treatment, right?

Well, yes, except you now have no place to live.

That's because the "one strike and you're out" rules regarding public housing call for quick eviction when illegal drugs of any kind, in any amount, are found in your home. Whether it is 2.8 grams or 2.8 pounds makes no difference. You are caught, and you are out. No questions asked, no appeal possible.

So, while the court system has treated you reasonably and with decency, the housing authority has no choice but to put you on the street, without a roof over your head.

I know the local housing authority officials are compassionate people who care about helping others. That's why they do the work they do. And that's why this case seems so odd, that the punishment seems to so exceed the severity of the offense, at least according to our court system.

But federal housing rules leave no room for leeway or flexibility. No chance to explain why you had a small amount of marijuana in your home. It's one offense and done, out the door.

Nobody can argue against the idea of keeping drugs out of our public housing units. And zero tolerance on drugs sure sounds like a good idea.

Until you see the policy up close, at 2:30 a.m. Then the war on drugs feels more like an invasion of privacy than a protection for society.

Among the things I wonder as I think about this case:

  • Do burglary investigations generally involve rousing people at 2:30 a.m.?
  • Does the fact that the incident took place in a housing authority neighborhood make it different than if it happened in my neighborhood?
  • Why would someone who knows about the zero tolerance policy have marijuana in the house, anyway?
  • If you had marijuana in the house, why would you let the police upstairs to look around? How scared do you have to be to do that?
  • If four cops showed up at my door at 2:30 a.m., what would I do?

I don't what I'd do. And I hope I never have to find out.

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