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
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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