busted: america's war on marijuana
Interview FRONTLINE Interview with Ralph Weisheit. He is  Professor of Criminal Justice at Illinois State University and has done extensive research on the domestic marijuana industry. Interview conducted in the winter of 1997-98.
INTERVIEWER

What is the extent of marijuana growing in the Midwest?

WEISHEIT

Marijuana is grown in every state of the U.S. But it seems to be particularly prevalent in the Midwest. There are a number of reasons for that I suppose. One is that the climate and soil are ideal. It turns out that if you want to grow marijuana, the ideal conditions of climate and soil are identical to the conditions that are ideal for growing corn. So, you look at those places where corn grows best and those are the places where marijuana will grow best on the outside.



You also have, in the Midwest, a fair amount of marijuana that's already growing wild. That was planted during the Second World War. So, there are a lot of people who live in rural areas who have grown up around these plants and see them as a part of the natural landscape; not as something particularly hideous or dangerous. It has an air about it that is different from cocaine. In the course of doing my study you talk to people who are from farming communities, older people. And they would say, "Well, it's always been around here. I didn't use it but I never thought much about it. Because it's here. And it didn't seem to deadly to me. It's just a plant."

INTERVIEWER

What did that lead you to think about people who get involved with marijuana?

WEISHEIT

Well, it raised all sorts of interesting questions about who gets involved. Because the images we have of drug offenders and people in the drug business are almost always urban images. They tend to be minority. They tend to be from the worst parts of the city. They tend to be people with long criminal records. And I was running across people who didn't fit that profile. These were rural citizens. They were older. These were not young kids. They were typically in their late 30s, early 40s. These were people who were often active members of their community. Had no prior record in many cases. Now there is a mix. And it's important when you're talking about marijuana growers to recognize that you can't, with a single brush stroke, describe all growers. There are different types of growers and there are different reasons why people get involved. There are some nasty characters who get involve, but there are also a lot of people who get involved who are every day citizens. These are people who, in other regards, don't seem to have a life that's in any way connected to crime.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think marijuana is the biggest cash crop?

WEISHEIT

It is easily the biggest cash crop. I am awfully reluctant to give a dollar amount. Some people have thrown out figures of $60 million. Some people have said it goes into the billions. I think those numbers are always suspicious because we don't know how much is out there. What we know is that there is a lot of it. There is a lot of money in it and it can have a large impact on the local economy.

INTERVIEWER

In your book you summarize three different types of growers. Can you give a brief summary of the three different types that you found?

WEISHEIT

There are at least three different types of growers. And the types of growers will also tell you a little bit about the kinds of operations that are out there. The smallest number of growers are a group that I refer to as the hustlers. These are people who tend to have very large operations. There aren't very many of them. But their primary motive, their driving force, is to be the biggest and the best. These are people who are consumed with success, with the idea of having a larger operation and making more money than any one else they know. Now, money is important to them, but more as a symbol of success rather than as something that is needed to deal with a financial problem. Many of these people have no particular ideological commitment to marijuana. This is not a political cause. It is simply a tool or a mechanism for making money. They could just as easily get out of marijuana growing and go into some other kind of business. A get rich quick kind of scheme. They are small in number. This is not the typical grower. But they can have a substantial impact on the marijuana market. Because their operations tend to be very large.

The next most common group that is larger in number than the hustlers, and just a bit smaller in the size of their operations, are the pragmatists. These are people who get into growing marijuana because they are in a financial bind. They have some problem that they've got to resolve and marijuana becomes a way of doing that. You'll find in this group some people who you might think of being rather peculiar as growers. People who don't smoke marijuana, for example. They need to make money to solve their financial problem. A surprising number of them don't even like growing. They find it stressful. They find it unpleasant. They find it nerve wracking to worry about what's going to happen if they get caught. What happens if their crop is stolen. And they are often relieved whenever they are able to get out of growing.

And then there's the third group and, by far, I think, this is the largest group, the greatest number of growers. Although their operations are often rather small. And want of a better term I've called them communal growers. These are individuals who simply [enjoy] the process of growing. They like marijuana. It does have some ideological function for them. They are believers in a larger cause. But they also enjoy the process of cultivating and growing and harvesting the plants. There's no logic behind it that can be explained by simply using money. They obviously are happy to get money from it. That money helps offset some of their other costs of production and it may help them in their daily lives with small bills. But money isn't the primary motivating factor. If you took away the money, they'd probably still be growing the marijuana, because they find it enjoyable. That may sound odd to people who've never been involved in it, but it's really not much different than someone who becomes passionate about gardening.

INTERVIEWER

Not the criminal type?

WEISHEIT

No. There are some criminal types who get involved, but marijuana growing is different than other kinds of drug activities. If you were to get involved in the cocaine business you could drift into it, deal some cocaine and if things got bad you could get out of the cocaine business. Marijuana growing requires a patience. It requires that you be committed to staying with this project for several months.

You cannot dispose of your goods, in the way you could dispose of cocaine if you're a cocaine dealer. That means that someone who has a long record of criminal activities is not likely to have the patience to want to get involved in the growing. They may want to get involved in a higher level of distribution or marketing. Where they can drift in and out. But the process of cultivating and growing requires a patience that not everyone has.

INTERVIEWER

Sounds like you're almost fascinated with these people.

WEISHEIT

Well, they're a fascinating group. And what I found is that they don't look just like what we normally think of as criminals. And they have a lot of features about them that really reflect our American culture. And it's also an observation of mine that I'm not the only one who finds them fascinating. When I interview police who are directly involved in the investigation of marijuana growers, many times these police are, themselves, absolutely obsessed and fascinated with the process of growing. And they will often say, "Well I'm educated because that's what I have to do to do my job." But if you listen to the passion in their voice it's clear that it's more than just doing their job. That they also find this whole enterprise to be a curiosity that once it catches your attention, it tends to hold on to you a bit.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think is going on here?

WEISHEIT

I don't have a good explanation for why there is that reaction. Certainly marijuana, for as long as it's been a recreational drug in our society, has had a somewhat different role than other drugs. It has had a mystical sort of atmosphere about it for some and it's been the embodiment of evil for others. You'll find as you talk to people that there are some very strong reactions to marijuana. When people talk about legalizing drugs often times they don't want to talk about cocaine or heroin, because there's a lot of agreement that these are things that are fairly harmful.

The heated debates tend to come up when you talk about marijuana. And certainly the current debate about medical marijuana is an example of the passions that are raised by this substance.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that marijuana has become kind of a trigger point for visions of America? For the way we think of our culture?

WEISHEIT

Marijuana certainly represents a very basic battle we have within this country. A battle that while both political parties talk about, neither of them have really resolved, and that's this tug of war between individual rights and the right to be left alone and, on the other hand, the right of the government to try to help people, or encourage people to do things that the government considers healthy or good or beneficial for them. I think marijuana is a perfect [example] of a substance that brings out that battle very clearly. You'll find, on the pro-legalization side, some very conservative people, primarily libertarian types, in the same group as some extremely stereotypically liberal people. And you'll find the same thing on the opposite side. The anti-legalization. It brings out that basic battle of the role of government in our lives and the role of individuals in making choices and having some responsibility for what they do.

INTERVIEWER

Historically, the government's attitude towards marijuana has been somewhat ambivalent, right?

WEISHEIT

Certainly, of all the illegal drugs, there's been no drug about which the government has had more mixed feelings. The restrictions against cocaine and heroin, for example, first began in this country at the federal level in 1914. It wasn't until 1937 that they had federal restrictions against marijuana and that was after a substantial battle. It was a difficult law to get into place. But marijuana has been different than other drugs in terms of how we have viewed it. I would argue that it is different even today that when we have our war on drugs there is pretty much agreement among officials and enforcement people that crack cocaine is bad, powdered cocaine is bad, and this is something that needs to be worked. Metamphetamines need to be taken away.

However, what you'll find on marijuana is that both the federal and state and local officials tend to waver over time. There are periods when we are adamant about going after marijuana and there are periods where we tend to back off and you hear very little about it. It ebbs and flows. And I think that ebbing and flowing of enforcement effort really reflects this ambivalence we have.

I find that some law enforcement officials believe it is a drug and a drug is a drug, and so harsh penalties should go with that, if we have harsh penalties for other drugs. I've found others who see marijuana as completely different from cocaine or heroin, and really believe that we've gone far too far along in our handling of the drug through the criminal process. And so even among enforcement people you will find mixed feelings. Now, there's a reluctance for officers who have these personally have some misgivings about tough enforcement. There's a reluctance for them to verbalize those. Obviously, in the jobs they're in ... there's a lot of pressure not to make those kinds of feelings public. But when you talk to them privately, you find that there really is a mix of feelings out there.

INTERVIEWER

The growers, before they got caught, were they aware of what the penalties could be? For example, that one could get a life sentence without parole for growing marijuana?

WEISHEIT

Almost universally, you find ignorance about this. There is a lack of understanding as to what will happen to them. There's a general belief that they're not likely to be caught. And there's probably some support for that. Your odds, in a single year, of getting caught are probably fairly small, but if you stay in it year after year, those odds start stacking up on you and your chances of getting caught go up dramatically over time.

There was a belief, though, that they probably weren't going to be caught and they hadn't really thought much about the penalties. Penalties didn't become an issue in their minds until after they were caught and then they realized what might happen to them. Of course, that's true for most people. Hindsight is wonderful.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think about the kinds of penalties that are coming down for marijuana growing?

WEISHEIT

We live in a society that has a tendency to react in extreme ways to things. During the late 1800s, we had a tremendous increase in alcohol use and in the early 1900s we responded to that by having complete Prohibition, and when Prohibition didn't seem to work, we threw Prohibition out completely. We tend to whipsaw back and forth.

Only in America do you need something like a Guinness Book of World Records to show who's the biggest or the largest or has the grandest of something. So, it's not too surprising that as a country we tend to be excessive about our use of drugs. We also tend to be excessive about our response to them and I get very discouraged sometimes when I hear discussions and debates about marijuana as if there were only two options. Either you give it out free to people, or you put people away for life. It's such a narrow way of thinking.

The penalties we have now are really quite excessive. They are using a sledgehammer to swat a fly. We don't need to have that kind of penalty and I think we do run a real danger of blurring together in the public's mind marijuana with other drugs that are more dangerous. The idea that someone who has, let's say, 50 plants could do ten years in prison. That seems excessive to me. In fact, for small growers it's not clear to me that imprisonment is a necessary response at all. It we have a problem in our country with violent crime, and there are violent people who need to be locked up. Marijuana growers, certainly the small scale growers, generally don't fit that category and you're not doing the society a favor by locking them away.

INTERVIEWER

Here in the Midwest, how many people do you think agree with you? Do you think you're high in the wind here?

WEISHEIT

I think what you'll find is that people disagree with me strongly in the broad statement that I just made, but when you point it out individual cases, to them, a farmer who was caught and had this number of plants and got this amount of time in federal prison. When you start making it a human equation rather than a generality. I think then people would be far more likely to agree with me. It's easy to respond with harsh words and harsh tones when you're talking about abstractions, when you're not talking about human beings. When you start dealing with people with individuals then you start looking at things a little differently.

I'm not necessarily in favor of legalizing and opening everything up, but I don't think prison needs to be an answer. I think the idea of community service, of fines, even a short sentence in what we might call shock incarceration, where someone spends a month is probably enough. You don't need to go as far as we tend to go. It doesn't serve any purpose and it's taking up valuable prison space that is needed for other offenders.

INTERVIEWER

Historically, how did marijuana first come into the United States and how was it used?

WEISHEIT

Marijuana has been in this country since our founding fathers came. It came over, we believe, it was at Jamestown. It was certainly cultivated by George Washington. There was evidence it was cultivated by Thomas Jefferson. When when people hear that they may be somewhat surprised and have this image of potheads in early America, but, in fact, marijuana, which is also known as hemp, was brought over as an industrial product.

People used it only for two reasons. One is to bring out its industrial applications including cloth and fiber and oil. It's the oil from the marijuana plant, for example, [that] is an excellent paint thinner, and was commonly used a paint thinner until marijuana was banned. The cloth that is produced, which you're now seeing in some fashionable shops--hemp shoes, hemp hats, hemp coats--that cloth is stronger and more water resilient than cotton. It was the material that was used in early ships for sails and for riggings and it had that application. So, when George Washington was growing, when Thomas Jefferson was growing, they were primarily growing for that industrial application. It also had some uses at that time however, as a medicine. The oil of marijuana was mixed in with other liquids to be taken as a medicine. Keeping in mind, that in early America we had nothing like modern medicine. The idea of disease was not understood. The idea of bacteria was not understood and so they used a lot of things as medicines because that was what they had. That was what they had to work with.

INTERVIEWER

So it's only fairly recently that it has come to have this kind of sinister image?

WEISHEIT

Marijuana, actually, came to be a recreational drug in the early 1920s and 1930s. It came up from South America, in through New Orleans and was primarily used by jazz musicians and people leading the life of the artist, shall we say, and a little bit more free and loose lifestyle. It wasn't known by the general population. I know back in the early 1900s a prison in California had to provide instructions to the guards on what marijuana would look like, because inmates were growing it in the prison and guards had no idea. They assumed they were another kind of vegetable.

But the public had no concept of marijuana until the 1930s when the federal government banned it, but even then it wasn't something that the average person on the street would have heard about or known much about. It really wasn't until the 1960s that it became a popular recreational drug and today that's its primary purpose in this country. People always ask me if I believe there will be a time when marijuana will be legal in the U.S. and it's a very hard question for me to answer. Because certainly logic would dictate that we would have fewer restrictions on it, that science and medicine would suggest that it may have some uses that would justify easing up on restrictions, but our war on drugs has never really been about logic or science. It's been an emotional sort of thing. It's been an emotional reaction and politicians respond to that emotion reaction, and it's hard to blame them too much because the public has that kind of emotional reaction. I would say that I have trouble picturing it becoming legal in a time when it's harder and harder to find places where you can legally smoke tobacco. At a time when people are obsessed with every little thing that might be in their food, we are becoming consumed with the things that go into our bodies that are part of our health and lifestyle. In that atmosphere in that kind of environment, it's hard for me to image us saying that we'll now make marijuana available.

I think there's another practical problem and that is that the government has spent about 80 years building an argument that drugs are terrible, that they are these evil things and they've built a substantial body of literature arguing that. If you were to make marijuana legal today lawyers would come running out of the woodwork, the first time there's an automobile accident, the first time someone hurts themselves on the job, and they say, "Well, I was using marijuana and this person sold it to me." I can see lawsuits flying everywhere and the people bringing the suits will have 80 years of government documentation that they'll bring out showing how the seller of this knew it was a harmful product. If the tobacco companies can be sued for selling tobacco certainly we could sue the distributors of marijuana for selling marijuana. And that legal issue is one that is going to be a really difficult one to deal with when you talk about any kind of system that would allow for the distribution of it.

INTERVIEWER

How would law enforcement organizations be affected if it were legal? How would they be affected financially?

WEISHEIT

Well, law enforcement organizations are receiving an enormous amount of funding--$15 billion at the federal level alone--and that's only a fraction of what's being spent when you start putting in state and local moneys and that is to fight the war on drugs as a general idea. But in fact most of the drugs that are used are fit in the category of marijuana and hashish.

If you take those things out of the equation you now have a drug problem that is tiny compared to what we have now. It would be a very small problem. It would be hard for those same agencies to justify continued budgets at their current levels with the problem that can shown to be much smaller.

 

 
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