FEATURE/Jimmy Montague

Tough but Tired: End the War on Drugs

Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Wellington Heights is one of the oldest and most beautiful neighborhoods in this once-peaceful city. Today, Wellington Heights is a combat zone.

On a warm Sunday evening last fall, I was enjoying a glass of iced tea on the front steps of my home when a firefight erupted on the corner of 4th Ave. and 15th St., just 50 yards from where I sat. The single, vicious pop of a small-bore pistol was followed instantly by the awful thunder of rapid fire from a much heavier weapon: POW-POW-POW-POW-POW-POW, six shots.

One round from the big gun ripped through trees above my head. Leaves and twigs rattled down. I rolled onto my belly and low-crawled into my living room, where I grabbed the phone and punched 911. My neighbors must have had the same idea, because the line was busy. By the time I got 911 to ring a helicopter buzzed overhead, lights flashed, sirens whooped maniacally and the area seethed with cops on foot.

The police found nothing and arrested no one. That's not to say the cops were lazy or disinterested. There was nothing the police could do because the bad guys left before the good guys arrived, and those of us who volunteered what we knew didn't see the shooters. Officers took the name, address and phone number of everyone who offered information. They patrolled the neighborhood until things got quiet. A couple of hours later, with cops prowling outside, I felt safe enough to go to bed.

That was neither the first nor the last of the shootings that occurred in this area since I moved here at the end of August. Cedar Rapids police say they've reacted to 25 reports of shots fired in Wellington Heights in 1998. At least one of those other shootings was as close to me as the one I just told of. When they happen, they are terrifying. Small wonder gunfire is a hot topic at Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association (WHNA) meetings. Folks want to know how police plan to stop the violence.

Cops respond to such questions (police and fire officials maintain a high profile at WHNA meetings) by urging us to patience and increased cooperation with their effort. They assure us that they're doing all they can. Most of us believe them--I certainly do. They are persuasive because their actions support what they say. When we call them they are with us in moments, and they lock up a lot of thugs and crooks. Cedar Rapids' "blues" are thus proud of themselves and proudly call attention to their work.

At a WHNA meeting on the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 8, police handed us a flyer bearing the seal of the U.S. Department of Justice. The flyer told us that Ellery Williams, male, formerly of 1721 3rd Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids, is convicted of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. Williams could receive anything from a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and 8 years of supervised release to a maximum sentence of life in prison and a $4 million fine. Two additional flyers told us that Raydell Lacey and Deea Maxwell, both female, formerly of Wellington Heights, are convicted of selling drugs. Both women received "10 years and 1 month in prison" plus, in Lacey's case, 8 years of supervised release. Maxwell's prison term will be followed by 5 years of supervised release. All three flyers boasted that "There is no parole in the federal system." A "Neighborhood Victim Impact Statement" attached to the Williams flyer asks:

1. PHYSICAL IMPACT: Due to drug dealing in your neighborhood, have you, or your neighbors, or anyone in your family been assaulted or hurt? Has anyone been robbed, mugged, or shot?

2. EMOTIONAL IMPACT: Due to drug dealing, how has your neighborhood changed? Has your safety been affected? How is the neighborhood different?

3. FINANCIAL IMPACT: Has drug dealing in your neighborhood caused any financial loss? Has anything been stolen from your house, apartment, or business? Has an act of vandalism taken place, such as graffiti?

Police at the meeting urged us to write responses to those questions and send them to the U.S. Attorney. Further, we were urged to attend Williams' sentencing hearing and make our feelings known. We were told that our doing so would help the judge and the prosecutor understand the impact of drugs on our neighborhood and inspire them to hand Williams a stiffer sentence.

My gut response was: "What rot! 'There is no parole in the federal system.' Instead they have 'supervised release.' Well, I don't give a damn if the U.S. Attorney's office wants to play games with semantics! As long as those dope-dealing asses are off the streets for 10 years minimum, that's good enough for me!" My neighbors, I'm sure, felt the same way. We've grown tough on crime in Wellington Heights. You would, too, if you lived here.

Now I've had a chance to think it over, my feelings are different. For plain as all of that is, what's plainer still is that being tough on crime won't solve the problem. Consider:

It has been 18 years since Nancy Reagan decided Americans should "Just say no!" to drug use, and federal officials declared war on drugs. A "drug czar" was appointed to lead the fight, and the first thing he did was demand money and tools for law enforcement. State and federal legislators answered the call. They appropriated funds, passed new laws and stiffened old ones, built new prisons and jails, hired more cops, prosecutors and judges, sanctioned covert and overt wars in Central America, beefed up the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the Border Patrol, the BATF, the DEA, the FBI, Iowa's DCI and an alphabet soup of other state and federal agencies. Cops have been granted extraordinary powers. The U.S. Supreme Court has done its part by deciding to uphold rules of evidence unheard of since the days of czarist Russia. Search-and-seizure and impound laws written to help win the war on drugs, endorsed by the Supreme Court, have left our Bill of Rights in tatters and mock democratic, libertarian values in defense of which the drug war was allegedly declared in the first place.

All of that and still, it is not enough. Drug crime rages out of control. Those who want proof need look no farther than the fact that Iowa Governor-elect Tom Vilsack recently made noises about using National Guard troops to bust the methamphetamine labs that now pop up, like poisonous mushrooms, all over our state. If police and the courts are winning the war on drugs, how come Vilsack needs the National Guard to deal with meth labs? If police and the courts are winning the war on drugs, where did the meth labs come from? We didn't have meth labs in Iowa five years ago.

It is time for Uncle Sam to admit that he cannot win his war on drugs. It will do no good to pass more laws and spend more money. It will do no good to slap longer prison sentences on the likes of Raydell Lacey, Deea Maxwell and Ellery Williams. It will do no good to arrest those who flock to the lucrative drug trade because they hope to get rich serving clients left in need by dealers newly jailed. It will do no good to hire 100,000 more police. And it will certainly do no good to fill out questionnaires for judges and prosecutors so estranged from reality that they must be told in writing what it means to live in a neighborhood where homicidal ghouls drive around and shoot guns into people's homes.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on Mar. 10, 1998, issued a press release titled "Caseload Filings Reach Historic Highs in Federal Courts." The document points to a real solution to the war on drugs: "In 1997," the release states, "the number of both criminal cases and defendants rose to their highest levels since 1933, the year [in which] prohibition was repealed."

There it is. America put murderous bootleggers out of business in the '30s by ending the prohibition of alcohol. Today, America can put murderous dope dealers out of business by ending the prohibition of drugs, and it's time the country did exactly that. We've grown tired of being shot at in Wellington Heights. You would, too, if you lived here.

Jimmy Montague is a writer in Cedar Rapids. A version of this was published in the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

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