Pubdate: Sun, 02 Jun 2002
Source: Star, The (IL)
Copyright: 2000 The Sun-Times Co.
Note: The Star prints 23 local editions in Illinois
Author: Stephen Young


Like a weed that thrives in drought, the drug war continues to grow in 

The state is facing a $1.2 billion budget deficit, but legislators are 
supporting increased funding for drug prohibition.

Last week, Illinois state Senate members approved a measure to increase 
penalties for possession of small amounts of heroin. The legislation calls 
for felony possession of a single gram of heroin to be punished with up to 
15 years in prison. House members had already approved the bill, so now it 
goes to the governor.

A single senator voted against the bill, citing concerns about prison 
crowding, already a problem in the state.

Other legislators think it's a good idea. The logic is impeccable. Just ask 
Sen. David Sullivan, the sponsor of the plan.

"We are trying to take away the tactical advantage of selling heroin," 
Sullivan said. "This is a logical step of bringing penalties for heroin in 
line with cocaine."

After decades of drug war, one might think that Sen. Sullivan could 
understand that new pools of dealers and drugs always fill any tiny hole 
that might be caused by tougher penalties. But when the state's just a 
little over a billion in the red, why consider the actual effects of 

Maybe Sullivan will do just that when there's a real budget crisis - say a 
$2 billion deficit.

That same principle must have been at play last month when the House 
approved a bill that would limit time for good behavior for some convicted 
marijuana growers. The cost of the bill was estimated at $3.3 million per 
year. Could there be a better place in the state budget for a few million 

Gov. George Ryan recently recognized that punishing non-violent drug 
offenders may not be the most fiscally wise policy. Ryan proposed the early 
release of some non-violent prisoners, in hopes of reducing prison costs.

Of course, former drug-seller Ryan (he was a pharmacist) is a lame duck. 
Perpetually hounded by allegations of corruption, he dared not run for a 
second term. Now Ryan has little to lose by occasionally stating the 
obvious. It wasn't always so.

Back when he was still theoretically viable for a second term, Ryan vetoed 
not one, but two bills that would have allowed the study of hemp as a crop 
in Illinois. Now that Ryan's actually talking some sense on drug policy, 
other politicians don't want to hear it. Cook County State's Attorney 
Richard Devine called Ryan's early release plan "reprehensible."

What's really reprehensible is what the drug war has done to Illinois and 
its prison system. In the Land of Lincoln, African-Americans comprise 90 
percent of drug offenders admitted into prison. A black man is 57 times 
more likely to be sent to prison on drug charges than a white man, despite 
similar rates of use between races.

Similar racial disparities exist in other state prison systems, but 
according to Human Rights Watch, Illinois leads the nation in rates of 
disparity. The recent heroin legislation can only make the gap wider.

The budget crisis offers a perfect chance for legislators to quietly back 
away from decades of terrible prohibitionist policy. It's a shame lawmakers 
don't seem to recognize their opportunity.

To describe the Illinois drug war as a drought-resistant weed actually 
understates the case. Prohibition is more like the mutant plant in "Little 
Shop of Horrors: - constantly growing, and ready to devour any resources 
within reach.

It's time to stop the feeding beast with money we don't have, and lives we 
can't afford to waste.


Roselle, and formerly of University Park Via e-mail
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