The Opportunity Cost of Cannabis Prohibition

Posted: November 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

In his latest column for the Huffington Post, Radley Balko details the saga of Jessica Shaver, a Chicago woman who experienced the distorted priorities caused by cannabis prohibition firsthand. In 2010, Shaver was assaulted outside a bar near Wicker Park, but when she took her case to the police, they were less than helpful:

Two weeks later, Shaver still hadn’t heard from the detective assigned to her case. When she finally went to the police station in person to get an update on the investigation, she was told there was no record of the incident. She filed another report, but was told it was unlikely police would be able to track down the witnesses again, and that even if they were, the witnesses’ memories were likely to have faded. Shaver says she decided to investigate on her own. She went back to the Flat Iron and questioned customers and employees herself. A bartender gave her the men’s nicknames: “Cory” and “Sonny,” the guy who hit her. Shaver learned that Sonny was also a reputed cocaine dealer. She heard he had a violent streak, and had been banned from a number of neighborhood bars.

“I was scared,” Shaver said. “I’d heard bad things about this guy, and he knew who I was.”

Shaver is thoroughly tattooed, which makes her easy to recognize. So she dyed her hair, covered her tattoos with clothing, and kept investigating. She worked her way through social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace until she was able to put actual names to her attackers’ faces and nicknames. And yet she still couldn’t get anyone at Chicago PD to help her. “I gave them the guy’s name and everything,” she said. “There were even hip hop videos online with him in them. I told them, ‘That’s the guy!’ They still wouldn’t listen to me.”

If a violent assault with a positive identification of the culprit didn’t get the police’s attention, what would? A single bag of pot, apparently:

Shaver’s next encounter with Chicago police came in April of this year. She and her then-boyfriend were living on the first floor of a three-story graystone in the Edgewood neighborhood. “Nate,” a friend of Shaver’s boyfriend whom Shaver describes as a “stoner hippie,” was between residences, and asked if he could sleep on their couch while he waited for his new apartment to become available. They agreed.

“He never had keys,” Shaver said. “He’d text us when he was coming home to sleep, and one of us would let him in. He had been here about a week before the raid.”

The raid came on the night of April 14, 2010, part of a series of drug raids across Chicago that night by the city’s Mobile Strike Force and Targeted Response Unit, essentially a SWAT team.

Shaver, her then-boyfriend and a roommate were in the apartment with her four dogs when the door flew open with the crash of a battering ram. “I thought we were being robbed,” Shaver recalled. “It wasn’t clear to us that they were cops at all. I had a flashback to my attack. I was just terrified. I peed myself. I had peed myself, and I was shaking, trying to gather my dogs while they were pointing these guns at me — these huge guns that could blow me apart. My Vizsla mix ran off, and I was afraid they were going to shoot it. I asked if I could get it, and they said ‘We don’t give a fuck about your dog.’”

According to the search warrant, the police were searching for Nate. Shaver said they looked through Nate’s belongings gathered on the couch and found about $900 and a sandwich bag filed with marijuana. They didn’t leave a receipt for what they took.

Asset forfeiture laws and federal grants allow the police to profit directly from busting people such as Nate, but there’s no money for them in enforcing laws against violent crime. Cannabis prohibition costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually in Missouri alone, but those numbers disguise the real cost. When we encourage police to pursue cannabis violations, we discourage them from prosecuting assaults, rapes, and murders. If we want police to focus their limited resources on crimes against people and property, we have to stop treating cannabis as a criminal substance.

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