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Dennis Marek: Is my country going to pot?

January 27, 2019

I have written about the opioid crisis and how we need to respond immediately to that problem. And it would appear that, nationally, we finally are paying attention to that epidemic.

I disagree with the present administration that all these illegal drugs are coming across the Mexican/American border, especially because some 80 percent of the fentanyl-laced drugs are being manufactured in China and come directly from the Orient.

Be that as it may, the other national drug that is coming to major attention is marijuana and its legality, illegality or moderate legality. Regardless of what the various states have done, it still is illegal federally. No, the feds have not been enforcing laws against its use and distribution in the states that have legalized it, but it might be time for the feds to make a position statement on what they will or won’t do with prosecution.

Drugs and crime have been related for years, not unlike bootlegging and prohibition. When something is illegal, there always will be those who find a way to provide that illegal substance for an increased price. Those young men on the South Side of Chicago who see no future, turn to drug sales as a way of providing for themselves. They might start as street salesmen, but they usually do not reach the real lucrative positions and more often end up in jail or dead.

I read a book called “Courtroom 302.” It was a year in a particular criminal courtroom at 26th Street and California Avenue in Chicago. The presiding judge was named LoCallo, and he presided over that court’s proceedings in one room of the many there in the criminal courts of Chicago. In a word, the book was totally depressing and totally true from my experiences in criminal law.

Most of the young offenders started selling pot and just increased to cocaine, heroin, and other more lethal drugs. They would get probation the first few times through the system, and then perhaps a plea negotiated sentence before going to a felony prison. The caseload was overwhelming for the prosecutors, the public defenders and the courtroom staff. Deals had to be made. The jails were jammed, the docket filled to the brim and really no time was available to help an offender or help prevent his return to the street and further crime.

We repealed Prohibition and put Al Capone out of one business. Do we now legalize some drugs and reduce the income of the street pusher and even the cartels that are making the billions? Don’t get me wrong: I do not ever believe there should be outright availability of cocaine, heroin or even opioids. We see how deadly they are when they are illegal. Imagine what we could see if the price were a fraction of the current street price, and it was readily available. As much as I hate drug cartel men like “El Chapo,” the risk is just too great, especially with our young people. Just see what vaping has done as the “safe” replacement of cigarette smoking.

So, that gets us to the question of marijuana, known more as “pot” in my generation, and perhaps more commonly as “weed” today. First, Colorado legalized its free use. There was no need to have it prescribed as medical marijuana. Just walk in the store with a green cross, and it is yours. Recent studies on DUIs and crime have yet to show a significant increase in accidents. Perhaps there will come a time when statistics can show if its legalization hurt organized crime or the street sellers.

If one needs an opioid for extreme pain, those drugs still are available, hopefully with good medical control and follow-up. Perhaps it is the same for medical marijuana use. But once it is out of the pharmacy, who uses it can be a bit out of control.

California has legalized its use now, and most states are reducing the seriousness of possession of it. But are there any other dangers?

We have decided each state can set an age limit before a minor can use alcohol. One would think the same should apply to pot. Recent studies clearly have shown adolescents using pot quickly lose their cognitive abilities. Its use has been shown to reduce neurocognitive functioning. While withdrawal does allow these skills to return rather quickly, there can be a dead space in learning if the use is long term. One study showed 14 percent of students in middle schools and high schools had used marijuana in the last month. A similar study showed the number of eighth-graders who believed marijuana use posed risks to their health dropped the same 14 percent.

As each state legalizes its use, acceptance grows. Perhaps it is no more dangerous than alcohol. We already do not want our children in an alcoholic buzz when going to school now, so why would we permit them to go under the influence of marijuana? We know control of alcohol is poor at best. If this legalization does occur, then we must have stricter control and keep it away from the kids. Twice the availability of substances made illegal only because of one’s age does put our youth at an increased risk of abuse. Go with care, Illinois.