Expensive efforts to seize drugs on I-80 harm Iowa City


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Through December, the Iowa City police are projected to spend nearly $4,500 per every pound of marijuana seized on Interstate 80. This figure does not account for detainment costs or opportunity costs, nor does it account for the far-reaching detriment to society that is commonly caused by such prohibitionary acts.

If the federal grant necessary to continue these acts is renewed again for 2012, the damaging effects on the Iowa City community will outweigh any benefits, which are ambiguous at best.

The Iowa City police are going to spend $104,984 in federal grant money — in other words, U.S. taxpayer money — to crack down on drugs along I-80 by the end of 2011. Since June 2010, these searches have yielded seizures of 20.97 pounds of marijuana, six doses of LSD, and two grams of synthetic marijuana.

None of these substances are inherently dangerous. If one person ingested all of the above as fast as humanly possible, there is exactly a 0 percent chance of death due to overdose.

But individual health effects weren't the reason given by Iowa City police Lt. Doug Hart, who is the administrator of the so-called "drug interdiction" grant.

"The drugs have had a significant impact on the quality of life in our community, including burglary, robbery, and theft," he said. "I have spoken with numerous individuals severely affected by drug use, including marijuana."

"That cop didn't lie to you," said Carl Olsen, a creator of IowaMedicalMarijuana.Org. "If you become a criminal because of the fact that you use marijuana, your whole life is destroyed in every way. You have to keep secrets from people. You can't be honest and get a job. You're completely hosed, and that just tears families apart."

In fact, studies have shown that it is more likely that drug-related violent crime is more likely caused by drug enforcement than drug availability. A study conducted by Andrew Resignato of Florida State University found that, in the three areas with a higher allocation of drug-crime prevention resources relative to other crime-prevention resources, there were higher violent-crime rates by statistically significant measures. The study, titled "Violent crime: a function of drug use or drug enforcement?," concluded, "U.S. drug policies may have more costly negative externalities than benefits" and that violent crime may only be one of many negative consequences of such policies.

For individuals in Iowa, the negative consequences of a marijuana conviction include immediate arrest, fines, license suspension, and most importantly, loss of job prospects.

The requirement of arrest for those found with even a minuscule amount of marijuana gives unwarranted social credence to the punishment of a harmless offense. Fines for minimal marijuana possession — which range from $315 to $1,000 — place significant restrictions on any struggling family's budget. License suspensions have the potential to cause schedule complications strong enough to result in job loss for individuals with limited means of transportation. Any and all of the above can result in a loss of job prospects, but from an employer's standpoint in a competitive job market, a marijuana conviction can be the difference between a long-lasting career and a 12-month tenure on unemployment benefits.

Given all of the risks associated with marijuana use, why would one indulge?

"The people that describe [their marijuana problems] to me described it as an addiction that they could not control, and it affected their lives and their families' lives," Hart said.

Olsen, who has probably had more experience than most marijuana users, provided a different perspective.

"This stuff must really make you feel good to make people run that kind of a risk," he said. "On the other side, if you're using pharmaceutical drugs, this stuff can cut down your use of those drugs. Many people would be willing to take an arrest if you're doing something that prolongs your life.

"That alone would outweigh the risks of arrest."

What is the intended result of these damaging arrests? How do these highway drug-seizures affect the market for these drugs in our area?

"I have no idea," said Hart.

"Someone is going to fill the void," Olsen speculated. "That stuff is so pervasive, and our society is so schizophrenic. So many people use the stuff, and the underground channels are so developed."

Studies support Olsen's conjecture. According to data gathered by the European Union's Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, increased seizure rates of marijuana the past decade have either a minimal or an inverse relation to its use rates. The number of marijuana seizures in Europe increased 250 percent between 2003 and 2008, but none out of the 15 countries reported a decrease in prevalence. Four countries actually reported increased rates in marijuana use.

Increased law enforcement has little to no effect on a drug's prevalence and puts those who indulge at a severe societal disadvantage, which in turn weakens their communities rather than strengthens them.

If anything, another federal grant to crack down on drugs on I-80 will have the opposite effect of its intentions. Residents of Iowa City must recognize this and advocate that taxpayer funds be put to better use.

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