Leonard C. Goodman is a Chicago criminal defense attorney and co-owner of the newly independent Reader.
Like other states, Illinois has recognized that marijuana can provide effective and affordable relief to people suffering from many debilitating medical ailments, including multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, inflammatory bowel disease, and loss of appetite from chemotherapy drugs. And after January 1, 2020, Illinois will allow adults to buy and consume marijuana recreationally, acknowledging that its prior policy of jailing people for smoking a substance that provides enjoyment or stress relief to many and is less toxic and less addictive than many other legal substances, including alcohol, is pointless and cruel, and wastes valuable resources.
Last week, however, people who live in subsidized housing were reminded that the long overdue changes to the pointless and cruel war on drugs don’t apply to them. Chicago Housing Authority residents and recipients of Section 8 housing vouchers have been warned that the “CHA can terminate all assistance . . . if you, a member of your household, or a guest” are found to have used or possessed “marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.” In other words, after January 1, when pot becomes legal in Illinois, people in subsidized housing will still face eviction if anyone smokes marijuana in their home, even if that person has a valid medical marijuana card.
The reason for this disparate treatment is that under federal law marijuana is still classified as an illegal, highly addictive drug with no medical value, in the same category as heroin. The healing properties of marijuana to treat certain medical conditions have been well-known for decades, yet the federal government refuses to even study whether a substance that you can grow at home can be called medicine or should be allowed to compete with expensive store-bought pills.
A generation ago, Americans looked to the federal government for more enlightened policies in areas of civil rights and criminal justice reform. Today, the tables have turned. Progressive ideas are now getting a hearing only in statehouses while the federal government has turned its back on the poor and politically powerless. No policy that threatens the investment returns of the major campaign donors to the Democratic and Republican Parties can get a fair hearing in the halls of Congress or at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The federal government launched its war on drugs in the 1980s. Congress passed a series of new laws that set harsh mandatory sentences for crimes involving illegal drugs, including marijuana. Federal prosecutors targeted mostly poor people, often sweeping up large groups of young men in public housing and charging them with conspiracy to distribute illegal drugs.
Most of the states, including Illinois, joined the war on drugs, stepping up prison sentences and prosecution rates. The feds encouraged the states by providing funds to local police forces to target drug offenders.
The result of this war on drugs has been a dismal failure. Fifty billion dollars a year has been spent. The nation’s prison population has exploded, going from about 500,000 in 1980 to about 2.2 million today, making the United States one of the world’s largest jailers of its own people. Families have been torn apart as parents are sent away for decades for nonviolent drug crimes. And meanwhile, both addiction rates and the supply of illegal drugs on the streets have remained unchanged.
In light of this record of failure, states like Illinois have begun to reexamine the drug war, and especially the utility of prosecuting people for possession of marijuana. State and municipal governments don’t have the luxury of deficit spending and thus actually have to deliver services—ie., education, garbage pickup, public safety—within a limited budget.
In contrast, the federal government has little concern for budgets or deficits. It currently spends about a trillion dollars more annually than it collects in taxes. If a policy is beneficial to the donor class, it continues on, regardless of its effectiveness. Keeping marijuana classified as an illegal, highly addictive drug with no medical value benefits Big Pharma, a major donor to both Democrats and Republicans, because it forces people to purchase their products instead of using homegrown remedies that are cheaper and often more effective and less toxic. It also benefits for-profit prison companies like the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, also major donors to our politicians. In 2018, more than 650,000 people were arrested for a marijuana law violation.
As for the data that shows marijuana provides relief for people with serious medical ailments, the feds simply ignore it. And because marijuana is illegal under federal law for any purpose, research on the medical benefits of marijuana is hard to do.
Some people suggest that the federal government repeats its mistakes because it never learns from the past. This is not true. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover assembled a panel of experts, the Wickersham Commission, to see how the prohibition of alcohol could be saved. Instead, the commission cataloged the failure of Prohibition and set the stage for repeal. From this experience, the government learned that when it wants to continue a failing program like the war on drugs, don’t fund any studies. v
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