Get our free newsletter
On an unseasonably warm Sunday in January, the Greenleaf Gardens public housing projects in southwest D.C. are almost deserted. The Capitol rises behind them in the distance like a mirage, and the surrounding area, shoehorned between I-395 and the Anacostia River, has the generic ugliness of a neighborhood that’s been developed as an afterthought and then left to molder. Although a church just down the street is swarming with people, the only folks milling around Greenleaf are a few sullen young men and a handful of children riding tricycles in a barren courtyard. “Fuck” is spray-painted on the wall behind them, and litter swirls like confetti in the wind. The red brick projects look like post-apocalyptic barracks. According to U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, Greenleaf Gardens is among the city’s most active drug-war zones. But this time, the commodity of choice is not crack or heroin, but marijuana.
While marijuana is grabbing headlines in California and elsewhere because of its alleged medicinal properties, D.C. authorities say the drug is ripping apart neighborhoods around Levis Street NE, Georgia Avenue NW, and the Greenleaf projects, among others. “People who live in these areas are captives in their own homes,” Holder says. Authorities blame several killings that took place around Greenleaf last year on what they term a booming marijuana trade.
“Because marijuana is now sold at substantially higher prices than a few years ago, traffickers are more willing to employ violent means to protect their profits,” Pete Gruden, a special agent of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, told the press last December.
Ward 4 D.C. Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis says that her Ward 4 constituents are now familiar with the ravages of the pot trade. “There have been homicides associated with the sale and distribution of marijuana, and there is now a thriving drug trade in marijuana in upper Northwest, east of Rock Creek Park.”
The alleged citywide dope scourge has prompted Jarvis to join Holder in pushing for tougher marijuana laws and drug sentencing guidelines. Possession and distribution of marijuana are now misdemeanors under D.C. lawunlike possession and distribution of crack and heroin, which are felonies. A marijuana possession conviction in the District brings no more than 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. And maximum penalties for selling and distributing pot are a year in prison and a fine of $10,000regardless of the amount involved. If the sale is to a minor, penalties are doubled.
The problem with the current law, Holder and Jarvis say, is that it puts dealers back on the streets too quickly and gives them an incentive to traffic in marijuana. “When we ask people who are arrested, ‘Why are you selling marijuana?’ they say it’s because you make as much money, but the penalties are far less than crack,” says Holder.
According to Holder, the District’s lenient laws lure dope traffickers from suburban Maryland and Virginia, where the sanctions are much tougher. “Eighteen months ago,” says Holder, “cars started coming in from outside the District, buying marijuana.” He and Jarvis hope to stanch the inflow by reclassifying “distribution of marijuana” and “possession with intent to distribute”i.e., possession of more than one and a half ounces of marijuanaas felonies.
Yet whether the marijuana initiative stems from a genuine attempt to improve life in the District or, as its critics suggest, Holder’s own political ambitions, it serves up a jerry-rigged solution to an undocumented problem. Marijuana use has definitely increased among the young, but claims that it’s an “epidemic” directly responsible for waves of street crime are exaggerated. Tougher laws will do more to swell the prison population and throw District courts into chaos than they will to clean up neighborhoods or cure addictions.
“Do you know what happens when you smoke too much marijuana?” Reg Warfield asks a group of young black teenagers slumped around him on folding chairs. Every Tuesday night, Warfield and counselor Arthur Rush Jr. conduct a drug-treatment workshop called “Meet the Challenge!” at the Necessary Intervention for Adolescents (NIA) program. NIA is housed at the Health and Human Services building in Northeast, just a few blocks from an area that the U.S. Attorney’s office has fingered as a new open-air marijuana market.
Each week, Warfield and Rush meet with 14 of NIA’s estimated 385 teenage clients and try to talk them down from the ledge. The majority of kids at NIA are there by court orderclean up your act, a judge has told them, or I’ll lock you away in a juvenile detention center.
When you first see these kids, though, you don’t see guns, gangs, dealers, or jail. You see yourself and your friends when you were uncomfortably 15trying hard to act cool under the scrutiny of the grown-ups. Beneath the fluorescent buzz of the conference room, the kids slap each other upside the head and make wisecracks. Every time the counselors ask them a question, they look embarrassed.
According to counselors, their drug of choice is marijuana. And today’s marijuana is not your father’s marijuana. Getting high is apparently not just a matter of sneaking a joint in your friend’s basement, listening to “Stairway to Heaven” 30 times in a row, and devouring a box of Twinkies. The drug is far stronger than it was 20 years agoand cheaper. Kids are smoking bluntsfat, 6-inch-long cigars that they’ve hollowed out and filled with dope, sometimes lacing it with angel dust, or “boat.” They’re hanging out in groups, getting high on the streets. They’re losing whatever drive they had to begin with. And they’re psychologically dependent on the drugthough of course they deny it.
“Marijuana is not only on the rise with adolescents but with pre-adolescents,” says Jackie Lester, director of NIA. “We have a pre-adolescent in the program who’s 10 years old. We have many unfocused, misdirected, unnurtured children who are self-medicating. These children can be and are addicted to marijuana.”
Almost every kid in the group, Lester says, is a product of inner-city neglectno father around, plenty of poverty and violence at home, their “crew” or their “young’uns” a substitute family. If their parents have jobs, they’re often dead-end gigs at McDonald’s or KFC. Few of the teens see any hope or any reason not to smoke dope.
“I’ve been in three courts: Virginia, Maryland, and D.C.,” says Wes. At 14, Wes is the youngest member of “Meet the Challenge!” His frame is still small, his face as smooth as a plum. Perhaps to give himself bulk, he’s got on baggy pants, Nike basketball shoes, a puffy jacket, and a knit ski cap. But his voice hasn’t even sunk to its lowest registers yet.
“D.C. court told me to come here. It’s helping me, but I still smoke. I can stop, but I can’t stop for long. I know for a fact I need help. I don’t think nobody can help me,” he says softly. Wes has been getting high since he was 9 years old.
Lester asks him, “What about your future? Don’t you think you’ll see 30?”
Wes shakes his head.
He shakes it again. “I’m probably gonna get shot or something,” he shrugs.
Wes personifies everything Holder and Jarvis are trying to target through tougher drug laws: the dope being sold to minors, the gangsta street code, the way juveniles become lookouts and accomplices to dealers, and the way they become addicted, derailed, and sucked in until they’re the ones hassling people on the corners. Yet if the tougher laws fail to prevent kids from becoming like Wes, they will protect society from kids like Wes once they reach 18. Making the sale and possession of marijuana a felony will either deter today’s young people from participating in the drug trade, or it will incarcerate them for it. Theoretically, at least, it promises a clean sweep.
Yet as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Holder has the unique choice of trying defendants under either local or federal law, which already classifies possession and distribution of marijuana as felonies. Under federal statutes, possession of any amount fetches perpetrators up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine; possession with intent to distribute or selling marijuana triggers up to 20 years in prison and a $1-million fine. With these big guns at his disposal, why does Holder believe he needs tougher local laws as well?
“Federal laws are really for midlevel and major dealers. To get an adequate sentence in federal court, a case has to involve really substantial amounts of marijuana,” he says. “Beyond that, people on the street level are more appropriately tried in local courts, just like local crack and heroin dealers. People who are importing drugs are tried in federal courts.”
Holder also advocates huge sentences for what had been minor offenses: mandatory minimum sentences of 18 months for first-time offenders, three years for second-time offenders, and six years for third-time offenders. Mandatory minimums, Holder argues, will serve as a cudgel to compel offenders to accept plea bargains. “Right now, most defendants are willing to go on trial because they know they can get probation,” he says. He cites D.C. Superior Court data showing that since mandatory minimums were repealed in May 1995, the number of guilty pleas entered has plummeted. Meanwhile, the number of trials pending, many for over a year, has escalated.
Holder claims that tough drug laws will put an end to the system’s tendency to send drug offenders back to the streets without professional treatment or counseling. If defendants know that they face stiffer penalties, he reasons, they’ll be more willing to accept a plea bargain that includes drug treatment as one of its conditions.
On a snowy Friday at D.C. Superior Court, Judge Jose Lopez’s dim, paneled courtroom is filled with somber-looking defendants, who track slush up the aisle as they approach the bench. One at a time they explain to him a probation violation, receive a sanction, or request admission to a drug treatment program.
“Your Honor, I’m ready to do anything I need to do to be clean and sober,” a wiry middle-aged woman tells him, her body wavering slightly as she speaks.
“That’s good enough for me,” Lopez nods, approving her request. Lopez, a gentle, mustachioed man who grew up in Brooklyn, presides over the hearings with a distinctive mixture of sternness and empathya demeanor not unlike the counselors’ at NIA.
“Be good,” he instructs the woman, who shivers slightly.
An 18-year-old boy in a down jacket steps up next to explain why he failed to report for his scheduled drug test: He had to watch his sister’s three kids, he says. “Why didn’t you call?” Lopez asks. The defendant shuffles a little, stares down at his feet, and says slowly that he didn’t have the phone number; his attorney quickly interjects that when the boy did take his drug test the very next day, he came up clean. Lopez eyes him warily, decides to give him the benefit of the doubt, and tells him bluntly, “Your sister has the babies, not you. You may have to tell her that you’re the one with the drug problem, not her. You not only have to stay away from drugs, you have to behave responsibly. The two go hand in hand.”
Drug Court, a new “alternative” circuit within Washington D.C. Superior Court, is the crown jewel in the District’s latest efforts in the drug war. A benevolent justice system, it offers nonviolent drug offenders the option of undergoing court-ordered drug treatment in place of serving jail time. Those who opt for the straight-and-narrow are required to sign a treatment “contract,” enroll immediately in a program, and get tested for drugs at regular intervals while remaining on strict probation. If probationees fail to appear for a therapy session, a drug test, or any other treatment appointment included in their contract, they are hauled back into Drug Court and slapped with a sanction. Depending on the offense, sanctions range from having to spend an entire day in the courtroom watching the proceedings (zzzzz…) to serving several days or weeks behind bars.
Drug Court started four years ago, under the auspices of the Justice Department, as an experiment to see whether traditional prison sentencing, a series of punitive sanctions, or court-ordered drug treatment worked best to resolve nonviolent drug cases. Law enforcement authorities found that a combination of sanctions and treatment bore the most promising results, so this year they officially established the D.C. Drug Court to handle nonviolent cases.
Lopez and his predecessor, Judge Harold Cushenberry, report that Drug Court has worked well. “In Drug Court, we’re able to put people immediately into drug treatment. We’ve had some real successes,” says Cushenberry. “Drug Court has enabled us to treat drug users with a more therapeutic approach.”
Since he assumed the bench in January, Lopez says the court has been “standing room only” most days. The crowd is unlikely to thin out anytime soon: In February, the court began hearing the cases of offenders indicted for drug misdemeanors, meaning that adults arrested on marijuana charges will be added to the calendar.
Lopez says that the bottom line in Holder’s war on dope will not be how the law classifies offenses but whether the system will accommodate all the cases. “In my way of thinking, [how effective we are] has a lot to do with whether we increase the resources for drug treatment and cure,” he sighs. “That’s what will help. Is there enough room? I don’t know. I only hope.”
While Holder says there’s enough room in the criminal justice system to accommodate tougher drug laws, his belief rests on a slim docket of evidence. The judges themselves aren’t sure if there’s room enough in the treatment facilities, and the Justice Department says prisons are fuller than ever before.
Monica Pratt, national project director of the D.C.-based Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says, “If you look at the prison population in places that have mandatory minimums, they are full of drug offenders. The District cannot afford to continue a failed experiment with marijuana-sentencing policy that diverts scarce law enforcement and other resources away from the city’s real crime problems.”
Currently, an estimated 62 percent of federal prisoners nationwide are drug offenders, up from 16 percent in 1970. Just last month, the Justice Department announced that there are more Americans in jail than ever before in the nation’s historya stunning 1 out of 163 adults is currently serving timedue directly, it says, to the war on drugs. The number of violent criminals in prison has actually declined. The Marijuana Policy Project, a D.C.-based drug law-reform advocacy group, estimates that 35,000 people are currently serving time in prison for marijuana offenses alone.
Holder and Jarvis’ initiative also presupposes that there’s actually a marijuana scourge on District streets. But data from law enforcement agencies paints an ambiguous picture.
According to the Metropolitan Police Department, there were 132 drug-related homocides in the District last yearbut it doesn’t specify which drugs were involved.
Test results from the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency show that 61 percent of all juveniles incarcerated in 1996 tested positive for marijuanaa dramatic jump from 39 percent in 1993 and under 10 percent in the late 1980s. And FBI records reveal that while nobody under 18 was arrested for possession of marijuana in D.C. in 1992, 207 juveniles were arrested for possession in 1995. Yet the number of juveniles indicted for selling or manufacturing pot dropped from 49 in 1992 to 13 in 1995. Use among young people has unquestionably increasedbut it’s inconclusive whether this use has directly involved them in street crime.
Adult trends involving the sale, distribution, and manufacture of marijuana are also hard to pinpoint. FBI figures for the District show that arrests for possession of marijuana in Washington nearly doubled between 1992 and 1995increasing from 926 to 1,694. But arrests for the sale or manufacture of marijuana have dramatically decreased, from 446 in 1992 to just 150 in 1995. And tellingly, despite claims that D.C. has become a new hotbed for marijuana trafficking, the Federal Sentencing Commission reports that of the 4,072 marijuana cases sentenced at the federal level in 1995, only one was in the District.
Even counselors at NIA, who are consumed with fighting the rise in marijuana use among young people, acknowledge that the talk of marijuana street gangs is a matter of perception. “Kids are getting high in groups now; they’re not smoking alone,” explains counselor Mark Crawford. “And a lot of kids hanging around and smoking marijuana is making people nervous. Just a gathering is being defined as a ‘crew.’ It’s stereotyping coming down. Any time people see young black kids together, they think of guns and drive-by shootings. Getting high on marijuana isn’t about fighting. The word associated with it is ‘chillin.’ The kids say, ‘Let’s get high and just chill.’ Neighbors draw conclusions based on news and stereotypes.”
So far, Crawford says, he hasn’t heard of anyone getting shot over marijuana. “No. 1,” he says, “it’s a drug problem.”
Although there are drug dealers operating in the blocks around Greenleaf Gardens, the residents of the Southwest neighborhood don’t trace the activity to a recent marijuana boom.
“We get various reports from police. All of the crime stats don’t show any drug busts,” says Richard B. Westbrook, a Southwest advisory neighborhood commissioner. Westbrook adds that the police “never mentioned” whether the murders in his neighborhood were linked to the marijuana trade.
“Somehow, I think it’s more than marijuana,” he laughs. “I don’t think you have to stand around on corners just to sell marijuana.”
The hard data and testimony from people like Westbrook have critics convinced that Holder is alleging reefer madness to further his own career. “This is all about groundswell for the Eric Holder-for-mayor campaign,” says Eric Sterling, president of the D.C.-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, which for years has spearheaded efforts to decriminalize drugs. “What he’s doing is engaging in a political exercise.”
Steve Michael, the media spokesperson for ACT-UP, puts it more bluntly: “Eric Holder is flat-out lying. Marijuana is not an issue. They say there’s this awful marijuana problem? I know with absolute certainty through the needle-exchange program we run that there are no open-air marijuana markets. The problems are still heroin and crack. It’s all politics.”
Chuck Thomas, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, says, “The big problem with Holder’s approach is that it doesn’t eliminate availability, it doesn’t eliminate abuse, and yet it forces the fiercest, meanest, and most violent people into the drug trade. If the new laws go through, they will deter the old hippie types who sell a little weed here and there, while allowing the marijuana trade to fall more into the hands of gangs. More people will be driving into violent neighborhoods to purchase marijuana; more people will get robbed.”
Although Holder’s plan bumps up against a clogged court system, inconclusive crime data, and disparaging activists, it faces its fiercest counterattack from an increasingly influential lobby: proponents of marijuana-as-medicine. Michael estimates that there are some 500 people in the District who currently require and use marijuana medicinally. Although Holder has framed the call for tougher marijuana laws as a response to street crime, Michael and his cohorts insist it will land them or their caretakers in federal penitentiaries for simply trying to obtain relief from AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, or the like. The stories of the people at this end of the debate can be as sad and compelling as those of the kids in rehab.
Like so many people with terminal illnesses, Michael Davidson found himself in a medicinal Catch-22. By the time AIDS had fully taken hold of his body in 1994, he had developed cancer, which kept him in such excruciating pain that he couldn’t get food down. However, he couldn’t receive chemotherapy unless he gained weight. Doctors prescribed pills for him to help keep his food downbut he threw them up, too. The only thing that eventually eased his nausea was smoking marijuana.
“His friends had to buy it for him, and he was afraid they’d get caught. When he would use marijuana in his house, he was so afraid of being caught by his landlady and being kicked out of the apartment,” says his mother, Barbara Davidson. “But it was the only thing he could get inside his body.”
An energetic, 58-year-old white woman, Davidson has close-cropped silvering hair and a red ribbon-pin fastened to her lapel. Although she swears she isn’t an activist, since her son died in 1994 Davidson has run a support group for caregivers and people with AIDS and testified before the National Institute on Drug Abuse about the necessity of legalizing marijuana for medicinal use.
Eventually, Michael got so sick, she says, that his esophagus started swelling closed. “My husband would have to take a drag off a joint and blow it into his mouth,” Barbara says. “It was the only thing that helped him to be more peaceful.” Now it outrages her that her son’s suffering was compounded by the fears he had of obtaining and using the drug.
“It’s medicine!” she exclaims. “When someone’s dying and in pain, they should have what they need. It’s a sad thing that somebody has to be so afraid of using a medicine at the same time that they have a morphine pack hooked up to them. Morphine is a thousand times more potent than marijuana, and yet it’s legal medicinally.”
To help sick people obtain marijuana safely, the Washington Cannabis Buyer’s Club has sprouted up in the District. The group is covert to such an extent that none of its members were available to talk to the press. “It’s really a secret,” says Etienne Fontan, road coordinator for the National Cannabis Action Network, who works out of Virginia and is in contact with cannabis buyers’ clubs across the country. “It’s run mainly by the gay community, and it’s the best underground network around.”
Which may be why some activists view the U.S. Attorney’s proposals as a veiled attack on the city’s gay community. According to Michael, Holder and Jarvis are essentially using a bogus marijuana crisis to scapegoat the AIDS community and other sick people who want marijuana for medicinal purposes. “They’re going after people with AIDS,” he says. “They’ve found the most vulnerable people in the population who use what [the politicians] consider drugs.”
ACT-UP is speeding up plans for a signature drive next month to get a very carefully crafted pot initiative on the 1998 ballot. Known as the “Protecting Patients and Providers from Marijuana Prosecution Act,” the measure will reportedly set up a cannabis buyers’ club under existing D.C. law and fashion it to “protect doctors, patients, and caregivers” from being prosecuted for administering or using marijuana for strictly medicinal purposes.
Interestingly, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the country’s leading marijuana-legalization lobby, is reluctant to jump on board. “There’s no need for an initiative,” explains Allen St. Pierre, NORML’s director. “The local law is extremely good. It only needs the feds to get out of the way.”
The District currently has a law on its books acknowledging the medicinal value of marijuana, but the federal government has kept it from being implemented. Michael is aware that the fight to pass a medicinal marijuana protection act will be nasty in the current political climate. To head off some of the outrage, the ballot initiative features a provision barring juveniles from distributing pot for medical purposes, along with a requirement that patients under 18 get written parental permission to receive it. “We expect to go to war with Eric Holder,” Michael says, “and I’m actually looking forward to it.”
The ACT-UP proposal pits one group trying to heal its members against another group doing the same thing. NIA counselors say the medicinal
marijuana movement undermines their campaign to wean youths from dope. “Kids are looking for any excuse to use marijuana,” says Crawford. “They’re in denial. They don’t want to admit or think that what they do is so bad. If you teach them that marijuana is a medicine, they’ll come up with an illness.”
Lester adds, “The kids insist that there’s no difference between a doctor’s prescribing marijuana to someone who’s ill and their own use of marijuana to alleviate their own pain. They say, ‘If a doctor prescribes it to help people, why can’t I use it to help me?’”
Balancing the competing interests in the marijuana debate is a thankless responsibility that now falls to the D.C. Council. The first step for the initiative is a hearing before the council’s judiciary committee, which is chaired by Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. An Evans staffer says the hearing will be scheduled after the council’s budget hearings are placed on the calendar. Evans is waiting to hear testimony at the hearing before taking a position on the bill, according to the staffer.
But Evans shouldn’t expect to hear any revelations on drug policy at his hearing. Every time the issue is debated, the same old arguments resurface. According to the chorus of social service agencies and counselors, the real solution is education, prevention programs, comprehensive family counseling, and plenty of drug treatment. They are followed by the legalization lobby, which will drone on about the wonders of governmental dope regulation. And finally, the well-known platform of the marijuana-as-medicine proponents. But real drug reform will require bold legislation and plenty of money in a city notoriously short on both.
Although it’s too early to say whether the council will pass the Holder initiative, in the political calculus of councilmembers the get-tough-on-crime appeal of the proposal will likely outweigh its impact on the court system. “It stands a pretty good chance,” observes a council staffer. “The council tends to be pretty conservative on these things.”
Ultimately, however, the solution to D.C.’s drug problems rests more in Congress’ hands than in the District’s. Only Congress, of course, has the power to change the status of federal marijuana laws, and it is Congressnot the U.S. Attorney or the councilthat has the ultimate jurisdiction over how and what resources are allocated to the District for education, prevention, and treatment. “Money for education and prevention, all that has to come federally,” Holder admitsand when he says this, he sounds a little defeated, as if he knows just how hamstrung his jurisdiction really is. “It’s not money the District has to spend. Police officials can’t do the job alone.”
But with or without Holder’s initiative, all the key players in the controversy will continue using pot. Young street toughs will continue lighting up. AIDS patients will continue using it to alleviate nausea. And of course, prosecutors and politicians will continue exploiting pot to show resolve against a problem they can’t eliminate.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.