Friday, November 29, 2013

Sort of Heartbreaking,,,Drug War Trails

Well, it's sort of heartbreaking to me, that for all the years I worked at High Times on the hard side of drug war news, I couldn't do what I wanted. I had successes for sure, though some took a long time: Steve Hager told me to make medical marijuana a national issue and I did. A lot of others were involved for sure, but I pushed that and pushed that and at Steve's suggestion made Dennis Peron the face of the medical marijuana legalization movement and Kenny and Barbra Jenks, two people who died from AIDS after he got a tainted blood transfusion (he was a hemophiliac) the poster kids for medical marijuana.
    I had luck when I wrote about the wildly unfair forfeiture reform laws--you know, the ones where the police could confiscate your home for having a single marijuana plant in the back yard--even if the neighbor kids admitting planting it. Oh, and the police got to keep the proceeds from the auctioned off confiscated goods. After a 1992 series on that, Henry Hyde's office got in touch with me and Hyde spent 10 years getting those laws reformed to some extent. Now St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other papers wrote about those abuses as well, so I wasn't alone, but yes, I was one of those whose work finally got those laws changed.
   I had luck with hemp, when Steve Hager told me to go do some editing on a crazy California guy's book. That book was Jack Herer's Emperor Wears No Clothes, and High Times made Herer the face of the hemp movement in the U.S., while our stories on Ben Dronkers made him the face of the hemp movement in Europe.
   Again, would be ridiculous to claim all the credit: Herer was already Herer when I met him. The Girls of the Cannabis Movement traveled all over the country in a tour arranged by Steve Bloom, HT's music editor and a great writer and friend. And then a million other people got schooled and then there was that movement and it will not be long before hemp is not just a specialty item but a big time crop I believe.
   So I take a good amount of credit  for being the journalist who hammered away at these issues until people like Peter Jensen and 60 Minutes and The Atlantic picked up the ball. But there were also the activists who taught us at High Times and whom we taught with real facts and good information and who then went out there and began schooling other people. There is a lot that goes into social and political change but I'm happy for the work I did on those three things yet understand I was not working in a vacuum and wouldn't have done the hundreds of aggregate stories I did over the years on those topics if Steve Hager hadn't pushed me and pushed me in the right direction.
   But this piece is about the heartbreak of other things, the heartbreak of the failures I had. Hundreds of people would call me every year during the height of forfeiture abuse and say something like: "My kid was busted for selling pot and the police just raided my home and found an ounce in his room and now they're saying they're going to forfeit my house. Can they do that?" And the answer was, yes they can. And they're encouraged to do it because once they sell your house at auction they will have enough money to buy 15 new police cars, which will allow them to save the money they were going to put into those cars and use it for guaranteed overtime and a police gymnasium instead.
    They would ask what I could do to stop it and the answer was nothing. There was nothing I could do. I was sorry for them. Sometimes I knew a lawyer who might give me a pro bono because I'd put his/her picture in the magazine at some earlier time, but generally there was nothing I could do but be angry at the laws, angry at the police, sad for the family.
     People would call saying they were busted with pot and were going to lose their children and what could I do? Nothing.
    They would call and say they had their money sniffed by a drug dog and subsequently confiscated because it was tainted with cocaine and what could I do? Nothing. And that was even after some great newspaper--I think it was Miami Herald--tested bills in 1985 and found that 96% of all bills they tested had traces of cocaine on them during the late 1980s and early 1990s--meaning confiscating money was shooting ducks in a barrel.
    Sister Somayah called several times at my house, screaming and cursing before she hung up. After about a year of that every month, she called once and was calm enough to explain that she and every other sickle sell anemia patient was generally given morphine for pain, which made millions of people simple junkies getting morph every two days for years at a time. She accused me, a white guy whose people don't suffer from sickle cell anemia, of ignoring this enormous problem. How could I help? I asked. Check out my story, she said. See what they're giving patients in New York, and then you'll know why so many black people are nodding out on their stoops there. They're government junkies! Again, I asked, what could I do?
    Tell people marijuana dilates the blood vessels so that the sickle cells can pass around the joints painlessly, she said. I did. It took years to get people to get it but they finally are starting to and there are fewer sickle cell patients on morphine these days.
    But other who called collect from prisons begging for help, couldn't get help. What the hell could I do?
     I'm writing all this because a guy named Bobby V. called recently. He'd been in touch from prison maybe 16 years ago. He was serving 30 years at Missouri State Prison, maximum, called The Walls, often referred to as "the bloodiest 47 (or so) acres in the U.S." What was he serving for? For being a habitual offender. At 20 or so he'd taken a 17 year old across state line for purpose of prostitution. He was later guilty in a couple of small time burglaries. He served time, got out, helped a friend score a $40 bag of pot and then discovered the friend was now a snitch. I think he was offered 15 years but turned it down, went to trial and got 30-40. I made him my first Prisoner of War in a column I occasionally wrote for High Times (the column started with "Bobby V is no saint...") and it gave him some breathing room at prison, he said. It also helped in some way get some people motivated to lobby on his behalf that 17 years was enough time. So he got out.
    He married, got a job, had two kids. He recently called from jail. He committed some sort of parole violation and they want him back at the state pen (The Walls closed in 2004, so it would be a different penitentiary) to serve out the remainder of his original sentence. He wants me to help. How? I called a lawyer I know in Missouri and hope that helps. But who knows if that attorney will have the time or if Bobby will have the money to pay him? And even if Bobby has the money, who knows if it will work?
     Yeah, he was a habitual criminal: Caught once at 20 years old; caught again at 25; arranges for a pal to buy $40 bucks worth of pot when he's about 30. That's three things in 10 years. Oh, not that it excuses things but the young woman crossing state lines was already a prostitute with a long line of arrests, so it wasn't like Bob was forcing her into anything. And $40 pounds of pot is just that: Not even illegal beyond a ticket for $100 in most states. And now, after about 10 years free, no issues, he's got a parole violation and they want him back. That happens when the locals just have it in for you.
     So there's probably nothing I can do for Bobby. And nothing I could do for the hundreds and hundreds of others who got in touch. Once in a while the work made a difference; most of the time I failed.

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