Fireworks glowed in the sky on a beautiful Fourth of July weekend evening at a gathering of friends in the hills and valleys of the Driftless Region.
People sat in lawn chairs talking. Some drank beer or mixed drinks -- some water or soda. There was plenty of food. Children played and roasted marshmallows.
On occasion, a small group of adults, young and old, would move away from others at the campfire and stand in a circle under a tree. A marijuana joint was lit, passed from person-to-person and finished. Then the people went back to the party.
Marijuana has been an illegal drug in the United States since the "1937 Marihuana Tax Act" was passed, which made possession or transfer of it illegal. In Wisconsin, there are numerous criminal repercussions for anything from simple possession of marijuana to its distribution.
The recent arrest of a Viroqua man on a charge of manufacturing marijuana has led to public discussion regarding the legal status of marijuana. While not commenting on that case, opinions vary widely on how marijuana should be treated in society.
The criminal status, judicial ramifications and social stigma attached to marijuana have been molded over nearly a century of battles between different interests. Although the United States has spent billions of dollars to eradicate marijuana, it is just about as easy to obtain today as it was when President Ronald Reagan launched America's "War on Drugs" in 1982.
An annual study done by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the federal government in 2007 found that 31 percent of high school seniors surveyed said they had smoked marijuana. The study has shown that marijuana use is falling, but still, about 80 million Americans have smoked marijuana.
What is Marijuana?
Marijuana, known in slang simply as "pot" or "weed," is a psychoactive product of the plant Cannabis sativa.
The herbal form of the drug consists of dried mature flowers, or "buds," and leaves of female plants.
Marijuana can be smoked or ingested in food or drink. Upon using marijuana, people experience distorted perception/vision, euphoric feelings and other effects. Marijuana use is often called "getting high" or "getting stoned." The University of Massachusetts describes marijuana's peak effect lasting the first two hours of use and fading after about four hours.
Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol ( THC ) is the most psychoactive property. THC is found in the plant's resin.
Historic records dating back as to 2737 BC show marijuana was used by people for a number of reasons, according to the 2008 Columbia University Encyclopedia.
Marijuana in Vernon County
In the 1940s and 1950s, there was a field of hemp virtually around every country corner in Vernon County.
Wisconsin farmers were encouraged to grow fields of hemp during World War II to provide raw materials for rope. The practice was promoted by the United States government, which had a movie made titled "Hemp for Victory."
Some of these fields still exist.
"Every once in a while we come across a large field of wild hemp," Vernon County UW-Extension Agent Tim Rehbein said. "It's commonly referred to as 'ditch weed' and it's very low in THC."
In fact, just 15 years ago, the idea of growing hemp in Vernon County was briefly considered as an alternate crop to tobacco. Rehbein said the idea was short-lived as the federal government wouldn't change industrial hemp's definition, keeping it classified the same way as high-yield marijuana, which is a Schedule 1 drug, similar to that of LSD and heroin, according to the Controlled Substances Act.
"The difference is you have to look at industrial hemp as being similar to non-alcoholic beer to the user," Rehbein said. "The THC content is so low in industrial hemp that you can't consume enough of it to get 'high.' It would be like trying to drink non-alcoholic beer, which has just a trace of alcohol, to get intoxicated."
Rehbein said those growing illegal marijuana do not want to grow it near wild hemp, because cross-pollination leads to lower yields of THC.
Vernon County's ridges and valleys provide an almost ideal landscape for growing illegal marijuana, Vernon County Sheriff Gene Cary said.
"Our terrain -- woods, large agricultural operations -- all give someone the ability to grow marijuana easier than if they lived in a more populated area," Cary said. "We have a lot of public area, such as the Kickapoo Valley Reserve and county parks. In the past, people used to grow marijuana in these areas because there was no property owner and no person to trace the marijuana back to."
However, as times changed, so has the manufacture of marijuana and its distribution. Cary said more indoor marijuana growing operations exist than ever before and his department has uncovered some of the most elaborate in the state.
"We've had a lot of seizures of marijuana, have confiscated thousands and thousands of dollars in cash and have confiscated hundreds of thousands of dollars in property and vehicles all related to the drug trade," Cary said. "Today we don't have so many people growing it, but we have people, who know some people, who know some people, from who they can get their nickel or dime bag of marijuana."
Marijuana and Law Enforcement
A car with six people in it was pulled over in Viroqua last Thursday night by an officer of the Viroqua Police Department.
The department's drug-search dog, or K-9 officer, "Lil' Bud," searched the car and indicated the vehicle contained drugs. A further search led an officer to uncover approximately 15 grams, or more than 1/2 ounce, of marijuana.
Viroqua Police Chief Mark Rahr said his department averages about one marijuana arrest per week on any of a litany of charges from possession of marijuana paraphernalia to distribution of marijuana. He said that "Lil' Bud's" presence on the force in the last year has led to an increase in marijuana arrests.
Most of the charges are citations for possession of marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia.
"We know there's marijuana use in the community," Rahr said. "It's out there. We have arrested people for driving while intoxicated, tested their blood, and found they were under the influence of THC. Impaired driving is a problem."
Both Rahr and Cary said that it's rare when any suspect openly says that they're under the influence of a drug.
"I can't think of one time when we've had someone definitively say,'Yes, I was high on marijuana when I committed that crime,'" Rahr said.
However, both have seen circumstances when marijuana use has been a factor in crimes. Cary said the Vernon County Jail houses inmates from other counties who were caught in the drug trade dealing or distributing drugs from Chicago to Minneapolis. He said drug use was a factor in getting them incarcerated. Rahr said his department has arrested people under the influence of marijuana during drug-related offenses. He also believes marijuana use may have been a factor in violent crimes, such as armed robbery.
Cary said he's seen many changes in marijuana culture.
In the late 1960s, there was a tremendous surge in the use of the marijuana and it was used more openly. In the next two decades, use became more private, but more of it was planted in public places and distributed locally for sale. In the 1990s to today, supply has become an "underground" operation and sophisticated.
"I don't know if there's been a peak of marijuana use in my career," Cary said. "What we've seen is there has been an increase in the amount of arrests for other drugs, such as cocaine and Ecstasy, which we didn't have before.
Marijuana is a gateway to finding harder drugs, Cary said.
"Everybody who smokes marijuana feels comfortable around other people who smoke dope," Cary said. "They talk to each other and it's a way to get them in touch with getting other drugs."
Cary and Rahr both said it's not their job to debate the legality of marijuana.
"We enforce the law and marijuana is illegal, so we're going to arrest people who grow it and use it," Cary said. "...And as long as the state of Wisconsin says it's that way, that's the way it's going to be."
Cary said that one of the most difficult issues law officers encounter when dealing with enforcing marijuana laws is that people don't consider it harmful.
"What's frustrating is that kids hear there's nothing wrong with smoking marijuana," Cary said. "There is something wrong with smoking marijuana. It's illegal."
Marijuana and the Judicial System
The price of scrap metal is currently at a historic high level. Vernon County District Attorney Tim Gaskell said he's dealing with more theft and burglary cases regarding scrap metal than ever before in his six years as a prosecutor.
"Marijuana specifically plays a bigger role in these cases," Gaskell said, because those stealing the metal are doing it to get money to purchase marijuana and other drugs.
Aside from marijuana driving thefts and burglaries, Gaskell said his office's dealings with marijuana cases have basically remained steady.
Not counting marijuana cases that were handled under local ordinances, such as those for possession of paraphernalia, the Vernon County District Attorney's office prosecuted 10 crimes related to marijuana in 2006 and 14 crimes related to marijuana in 2007.
Gaskell said the amount of work he puts into the average marijuana case isn't excessive, because the cases, by their nature, are usually easy to prosecute.
"We're dealing with good arrests where the defendant was found with paraphernalia on them or they were in possession of marijuana," Gaskell said. "Unless it's a larger investigation where a lot of time went into it, and larger amounts are found, it's not difficult."
Wisconsin state law classifies first-time possession of marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia as misdemeanor crimes punishable by county jail time and fines. Subsequent arrests for marijuana possession or any charges related to manufacturing or distributing marijuana are felonies punishable with state prison sentences and fines.
Gaskell said the typical marijuana arrest in Vernon County results in a paraphernalia or possession charge stemming from a traffic stop.
"Then there are the cases where officers go to investigate a domestic ( dispute ) and they go in the house and find paraphernalia," Gaskell said. "That leads to questioning and then they find a bag of dope."
Gaskell said in regard to domestic abuse calls "alcohol plays a much bigger factor" in initiating them.
Vernon County Circuit Court Judge Michael Rosborough said there are fewer cases of marijuana manufacturing in Vernon County than there were when he first took the bench 22 years ago.
"We almost used to gear up in the fall for law enforcement coming in with their investigations and requests for search warrants," Rosborough said. "...That wasn't a huge part of the case load, but ( its decline ) is noteworthy."
Rosborough echoed the comments of those who are in law enforcement, saying marijuana's production today has become more sophisticated. He said that is due to law enforcement agencies effectively finding outdoor marijuana growing operations.
Any use of marijuana should be referred to as "abuse," Rosborough said, because using marijuana is illegal.
Investigations into marijuana growing operations, sometimes lasting months or years, don't always end with those on the top tier of the operation being prosecuted, Rosborough said. Instead, those involved in distribution may be the bulk of those prosecuted.
Rosborough said forming an opinion on how marijuana abuse itself leads to other criminal activity is difficult.
"Are there a substantial number of cases where marijuana use is a factor in someone's criminality? I don't think so," Rosborough said. "I think it's a symptom of other things going on in the lives of people."
Marijuana Incarceration and Costs
As of last Friday, Wisconsin had 22,829 adults in state prisons, John Dipko, of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections said. The cost to house an inmate was $27,300 per year in 2007, according to the DOC.
Not all inmates in the prison population today will be there for the entire span of any given year. With that understood, incarcerating all of the adults currently in prison for an entire year would cost $623 million.
The state doesn't exactly have information readily available saying how many of its adult prisoners are incarcerated on marijuana charges. This is because the inmate might have other charges in addition to marijuana charges, Dipko said.
According to the Wisconsin Sentencing Commission's semi-annual report from March 2007 titled "Sentencing in Wisconsin: Drug Trafficking," there were more than 2,200 Class I ( less than 200 grams of marijuana ) and 465 Class H ( between 200-1,000 grams of marijuana ) felony convictions between January 2003 and October of 2006. It's difficult to pin down how many more severe felony convictions ( Class E-G ) during that time were made for marijuana. That's because the report compiles those cases with felony cases related to other drugs in the same felony class. The total number of drug related cases for those convicted of felonies in Classes E-G in the time period considered in the report was 5,170.
On a national level, in 2005, Jon Gettman, leader of the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, estimated that national criminal justice expenditures for enforcing marijuana laws is $7.6 billion per year. That's broken down into $3.7 billion being allocated to police, $853 million to the courts, and $3.1 billion to corrections. Gettman's estimates were included in a study done for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws ( NORML ).
A report commissioned by Taxpayers for Common Sense and written by visiting Harvard University economist Dr. Jeffrey Miron found that efforts to reduce marijuana use and supply cost federal taxpayers more than $3.67 billion in in 2004.
A Marijuana User's Story
"Jack," a 42-year-old professional with master's degree, has been a daily marijuana user for the past 20 years.
He has lived a good deal of his adult life in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin, but now lives in a nearby metropolitan area. He's in a long-term relationship, but has no children.
"I don't think ( marijuana ) has had an affect on my life," he said speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The biggest crime you hear about is people who smoke pot are lazy or unmotivated. I don't consider myself either of those things.
"I've killed a lot of hours just hanging out with people smoking, but that's the nature of the beast," he said. "It's a social phenomenon. I've found that most smokers are outgoing people who enjoy the company of others."
Jack said he didn't start smoking marijuana until his sophomore year at a small Wisconsin college. He smoked with friends living in the dorms. Since starting he's never gone more than two months without marijuana.
Only once did he have a brush with the law due to marijuana. In the mid-1990s, he drove a man to Madison to buy some marijuana and they were pulled over for speeding. The officer could smell marijuana in the car. Jack was driving. His friend had two 1/4-ounce bags of marijuana and was arrested and later fined. Jack was told not to drive, but was free to go.
Jack has lived in a number of different places and worked in a number of different jobs.
"You put me in any position and in two months I'll know who smokes and where I can buy some safely," he said. "People may have the impression that marijuana is only used by those on the bottom rung of society. I'm telling you that there are users everywhere -- bank administrators, teachers, business people, doctors -- everywhere."
Jack spends about $300 each month on marijuana. He said marijuana is more readily available to him now than ever before. He said he believes his dealer supplies marijuana to eight people or less.
Jack said the only thing that's made him contemplate quitting is the escalating price of marijuana. He said he purchases marijuana for about $120 per 1/4 ounce and he smokes about a 1/2 ounce a month. He usually smokes it in joint form. He said 12 years ago he could buy 1/4 ounce of marijuana for $45.
"Frankly, I can't believe I've used it as long as I have," he said. "It's been too easy to get."
He said the trend over the past 20 years is that marijuana is more expensive and more potent.
"That's what the War on Drugs has done," Jack said. "It's more expensive probably because it's more difficult to keep hidden, but because its growth is more controlled it's a lot better than when I started smoking it."
Jack said he's experienced paranoia using marijuana, but has had no other side effects. He said when he's contemplative after smoking marijuana, he often thinks about pot's place in society.
"I think its roots go a lot deeper than we'd care to admit," Jack said. "I think about people like Carl Sagan, who was a world-renowned astronomer, who advised NASA and did a lot for explaining astronomy to the common man.
"People didn't know until after he died that he used marijuana all the time," Jack continued. "Here's one of the most brilliant astronomers of our day and he's also one of the biggest pot smokers around. By its nature it lends itself to secrecy, but who else is using it? That's the real story. In a lot of ways people have a double life with it."
Jack said he's glad he waited until he was in college to start smoking marijuana.
"People who aren't adults shouldn't smoke marijuana," he said. "I think that's wrong and I wouldn't want children smoking pot. I don't want be be a hypocrite, but people need to have the wisdom and the knowledge to deal with it."
Jack said the legal use of alcohol presents a greater danger to society than marijuana.
"When I smoke marijuana, the only thing that I present a danger to is that Doritos bag on the table," Jack said with a laugh. "When you look at how out-of-control and violent people get while drinking, pot is harmless by comparison."
Gary Storck, 53, Madison, was born with glaucoma. Smoking marijuana decreased the pressure on his eyes and relieved pain he suffered from other health conditions, he said.
Glaucoma is a disease that slowly destroys the optic nerve and causes a buildup of pressure inside the eye. In 1972, Storck began smoking marijuana and discovered at the doctor's office that the pressure inside his eyes had decreased. He smokes marijuana daily and said it's the only thing that helps him normally function.
"If I had to take conventional drugs to treat my health problems I wouldn't be able to coherently talk to you today," Storck said. "I have serious and chronic health conditions and cannabis allows me to manage the symptoms."
Storck currently is serving as the Director of Madison's chapter of NORML. He also is an advocate for medical marijuana through the group, which he co-founded in 2000, called "Is My Medicine Legal Yet."
Storck said that marijuana's classification as an illegal drug has prevented untold numbers of people from being able to use it as medicine.
A University of Massachusetts report says that marijuana, or cannabis, can create appetite stimulation for AIDS and cancer patients; nausea control for cancer patients; muscle relaxation for multiple sclerosis patients; pain relief; and reduction of fluid pressure in eyes for glaucoma patients.
"The big white elephant in the room when it comes to marijuana being illegal is that it has medical benefits that are proven," Storck said.
As for using marijuana recreationally, Storck said he supports the United States regulating marijuana using the same model practiced in the Netherlands. That country regulates marijuana, taxes it, and allows for the sale of small quantities of it in coffee houses. People can use it at those places or take it home.
He said that the only problem with marijuana in the United States is that there is a strict prohibition of it.
"In my opinion that's hard to defend," Storck said. "Every time you bust somebody for pot, some of that was going to be used medicinally. Some people growing marijuana are simply providing a service.
"The government knows it's not dangerous and its abuse potential is low...," Storck continued. "Cannabis users are law abiding citizens who choose a different way to unwind after work."
The work done in the 12 states that have decriminalized marijuana or allowed medical marijuana's use has led to additional ways it can be administered, including through vaporization without combustion.
Storck said alcohol is a "scourge" on society and alcohol and tobacco are considerably more harmful to the public at large.
Problems With Marijuana
Just last week, Australian researchers released a study saying long-term heavy use of marijuana may cause two important brain structures to shrink.
The study, published in the American Medical Association's journal Archives of General Psychiatry, found that heavy cannabis users, smoking five joints a day for 20 years, earned lower scores than the nonusers in tests trying to recall a list of 15 words.
"These findings challenge the widespread perception of cannabis as having limited or no harmful effects on ( the ) brain and behavior," said Murat Yucel of ORYGEN Research Center and the University of Melbourne, who led the study.
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, Marijuana hinders the user's short-term memory and makes some tasks difficult. With the use of more potent varieties of marijuana, even simple tasks can be difficult.
According to the Drug Free America Foundation, marijuana's most dangerous side effect is that its use heightens the probability that the user will try other drugs.
"Long-term studies of students who use drugs show that very few young people use other illegal drugs without first trying marijuana," according to the Drug Free American Foundation. "Not everyone who uses marijuana will move on to other drugs, but using marijuana sometimes lowers inhibitions about drug use and exposes users to a culture that encourages experimentation and use of other drugs. Marijuana users are two to five times more likely to go on to use harder drugs."
There is a difficulty in comparing the benefits of marijuana to its negative effects. This is because there is a considerable amount of information available to counter arguments made by those who are for the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana and those who want it to remain illegal.
There's no question that long-term marijuana abuse can create addiction, a University of Wisconsin, University Health Services report determined in 2005.
The report, co-written by Michael M. Miller, M.D., the Medical Director of the NewStart Alcohol/Drug Treatment Program at Meriter Hospital in Madison, and Brian Glueck of University Health Services, said that marijuana users can build up a tolerance to THC and experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop using it.
"...Withdrawal definitely occurs in some users," according to the report. "The effects of this withdrawal are generally the opposite of the effects of intoxication: anxiety and insomnia instead of relaxation; loss of appetite rather than hunger; excessive salivation instead of dry mouth; and also decreased pulse, irritability, and sometimes tremors."
The report said there is a distinction between marijuana abuse and marijuana addiction.
"Abuse, which involves continued use despite legal, occupational, or academic problems ( e.g., recurrent use after an arrest for impaired driving, or after a drug-related work suspension ) is more common," according to the report. "Despite being considered less severe than addiction, cannabis abuse nevertheless creates distress for loved ones and other interested parties, and by definition involves an observable downturn in the user's performance of some important life task."
Higher THC content in marijuana creates a more significant risk that a regular user will become an addict, according to the report.
Newshawk: Madison NORML www.madisonnorml.org
Pubdate: Wed, 16 Jul 2008
Source: Vernon Broadcaster (Viroqua, WI)
Copyright: 2008 The Vernon Broadcaster
Author: Matt Johnson