Drug war alive in Iowa

Local sheriff boasting about pot bust sparks debate

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My hometown became the epicenter in the drug war debate, for just a moment last week.

Johnson County Sheriff’s deputies reportedly confiscated more than 80 pounds of pot during a traffic stop on Interstate-80 outside of Iowa City earlier this month. A photo of the deputy smiling behind his haul drew tens of thousands of mixed reactions online. In the past week, nearly 1,000 people around the country stuck it to the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office by giving a 1-star review on Facebook.

If that sounds familiar, you might remember I wrote last month that the Henry County Sheriff’s Office suffered a similar internet thrashing in response to the department’s Facebook posts about running traffic checkpoints and digging up ditch weed.

To be fair, Johnson County officials do deserve some credit for their progress in mitigating the drug war’s destruction. The jail diversion program, started after voters rejected a new jail bond in the early 2000s, has earned national recognition as a model for reducing incarceration. Local departments have also started collaborating on crisis intervention training, intended to keep mentally ill people out of jail.

However, Johnson County’s big marijuana photo shoot is a reminder that the bipartisan drug war still is happening right in our backyards. Non-violent people are getting captured by law enforcement for handling a substance that is much safer than alcohol and many pharmaceutical drugs.

Most frustrating is that in nearly every case, our politicians and bureaucrats justify prohibition with information that is at least unscientific, and sometimes intentionally misleading.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek has supported some limited forms of marijuana reform, but not full legalization. He declined to be interviewed for this story, but he did send me a link to a study about the impacts of marijuana in Colorado and Washington.

The study was published by federal drug control operatives, who have a direct professional interest in making sure drugs remain outlawed. As you have probably already guessed, that report stretches the truth about the impact of marijuana liberalization. Analysts with the federal government’s High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program strongly hint in their report that there is a causal link between marijuana legalization and traffic deaths and health hazards.

However, the data doesn’t really support that conclusion and multiple news outlets have called the report misleading. The nonprofit watchdog site FactCheck.org concluded “the data don’t conclusively prove,” a link between marijuana and traffic fatalities.

In contrast, a substantial body of data indicates marijuana is actually less dangerous for drivers than alcohol.

“Because of ... an increased awareness that they are impaired, marijuana smokers tend to compensate effectively while driving by utilizing a variety of behavioral strategies,” researchers wrote in a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Addiction.

As for booze, the researchers wrote, “unanimity exists that alcohol use increases crash risk.”

The prohibitionists are correct that marijuana is not completely harmless. Even though marijuana carries no risk of overdose and very little risk of addiction, I hope it’s obvious that you shouldn’t get high and then go drive a car.

Still, many Americans are rightfully outraged that people get locked up for marijuana, while other people get rich off the sale of alcohol. Within a few miles of Johnson County’s big pot bust on Interstate-80 last week, there are dozens of places to purchase liquor, and even a few beer breweries.

Both parties’ policymakers have consistently chosen to escalate the drug war. Even the cool, young President Barack Obama admitted as a candidate that he “inhaled frequently,” but was criticized by many drug reformers for ramping up federal raids on medical cannabis operations.

The drug war rages on, even though overwhelming evidence shows that it does not solve any legitimate problem. A report published this month by the Iowa Office of Drug Control Policy showed only 6 percent of Iowans use illegal drugs, one of the lowest rates in the country. Plus, the portion of Iowa youth trying pot has dropped, even as other states make marijuana more available.

Nevertheless, drug busters have persisted. Iowa leaders continue to waste their time and our money, and then they boast about it on Facebook.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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