August 28, 1999
Austin, Texas, USA
Fifteen minutes ago, shortly after getting on the bus, I asked the driver, a black female in her 30s, and a black male in his 50s, sitting behind her, "Do you think all plants should be legal?" and added "Im mainly speaking of the laws regarding prohibition of Cannabis, mushrooms (psychotropics) and peyote (Cactus). " They replied that those plants should stay illegal because kids would be able to get a hold of them easier.
I informed them, "Seven billion of your tax dollars were spent on the enforcement of marijuana prohibition last year alone, and the main forces keeping it illegal are the industries that would lose money if it wasnt-- petroleum, cotton, forestry, tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, law enforcement, prisons and of course, politicians."
"Ive never heard of anyone dying from cannabis, mushrooms or peyote. Youd have to eat more than anyone with a spit of sense in them would think of... and even then, youd know what your putting into your body; unlike processed drugs such as heroin, acid, coke and crack-- which junkies concoct in their trailer homes and cut with a mystery substance before selling."
"It is perfectly legal for me to drink a bottle of liquor, get alcohol poisoning and die. It happens every day. Illegal substances are also available to anyone who wants them, and will always be; however, they are expensive, which means a person might need to commit a crime to afford them."
"Over 2.5 million American children have one or both parents in prison, and over sixty percent of the men and women in prison are there because they were charged for having a connection with a substance that in most cases is far less dangerous than time in prison." Finally, I stated, "Government doesnt have the authority to take away what God intended for us to have."
"I can see your point. " reflected the man. "When I was in San Francisco years ago, Marijuana wasnt a problem. Now, they even say it has medical uses- like its good for treating Glaucoma, and nausea for cancer patients. "
"Have you ever tried it? " I asked
"Yeah. " he answered
"Did you find it addictive? "
"I never found Marijuana addictive when I was smoking it," he replied. "I got friends who died from Heroin and overdosed on Coke."
The man got off the bus and I continued the conversation with the driver. I asked her, "Do you know of anyone who has overdosed on weed? "
"I know of a lot of drivers who have come up positive and lost their jobs. They do random drug tests. We never know."
Im at the bus stop down town, talking to a lady in her 40s with liquor on her breath who sounds like Janis Joplin and claims to be Janis. "Ive been a drug addict all my fucking life. " Janis shares in her harsh whiny voice. "There is a lot of people out here who need help, man."
Cleon, an Austin Ranger, whose duty it is to enforce city ordinance, including public drunkenness, is standing beside me listening to our conversation.
"I am the woman who is going to make people dance. I am Janis Joplin. Have you ever heard of Janis? She is fine as wine."
Cleon has left us. Janis is showing me her journal. Her real name is Theresa Lozano. Her August 17th entry reads:
"I know I am 42. I know I was born in Lublock. My birthday is on June 24th. I am half Mexican and half German. I have 4 brothers and 4 sisters. My parents are past. I do miss them a lot. I have 3 sons. Christopher 24. Josphe 17. Santana is 15. Christopher lives here in Austin. Josphe and Santana live in Portland Oregon. I am with a man named Paul Robles. We have been together for 7 years. President Clinton is fixing to go out of office."
My bus has arrived.
Theresa offered me her beer soaked journal. I graciously accepted. I dont think our meeting was by chance. I gave her a kiss on her pockmarked cheek. She returned the affection. We both smiled. "Thank you, darlin. " I said, then entered the bus.
A sign on the side walk, shaped like a police shield, has "drugs" in thick black letters written on it, crossed out with a red circle and a line through the middle. Behind the sign, the government is making loot in the convenience store from sales of Americas two most deadly drugs: alcohol, which kills 150,000 people a year, and tobacco, which kills 340,000 to 450,000. Medical history does not record anyone dying from an overdose of marijuana. Marijuana users have the same or lower incidence of murder and highway deaths and accidents than the general nonmarijuana-using population as a whole.
I am now on the east side of Austin, the poor part of town, where Mission Possible is currently being held at the Millennium Center, a new recreation facility housing a roller skating rink, a bowling ally, an arcade, and movie theater. Mission Possible is a free, family event hosted by the Substance Abuse Planning Partnership. The brochure says: "This event will bring together well over 1,500 Travis Country community youth and their parents to promote a youth-based substance abuse education and prevention campaign. "
I am one of only 3 white males in a room filled by approximately 150 people- mostly young black kids and their mothers. The other two white males are a small boy and a dad.
"Im not going to preach to you." officer Carlos Casas begins his presentation, "You are going to do what you want; am I right?" He is talking about selling drugs. "Yeah, its money . . . but you will always be watching your back." What?! Sounds like he is trying to put fear in the kids. I dont like that.
He is telling a story about "a good kid ", who, "started hanging out with the wrong crowd, dropped out of school and started selling drugs."
"That young man is now serving a 15 year sentence in a juvenile prison. That boy was my son," informs officer Casas. "He didnt want to listening to his parents, or his teachers... but... by golly... he is listening now. He has no freedom. He is told when to get up, when to eat, when to work, and when to go to bed. If thats the kind of life you want... go ahead. We all learn by our mistakes " Finally he adds, "Remember, there is always someone out there watching you." I wonder if he has read George Orwells book, 1984.
After he finished his lecture, I raised my hand and asked if he had time to answer questions. I asked "What was your son selling? "
"Crack." he said. Other people are now asking questions. I missed the question a kid just asked, but officer Casas responded: "Once you start thinking on your own . . . . you can do what you want to do." He is sending the kids mixed signals. He knows people should be allowed freedom to choose, but he has been programed to preach rhetoric propaganda that says otherwise.
Ill ask the little black boy sitting next to me, "What do you think about the things he is saying?" Jermane, 8, says "Thats what they get for doing drugs."
Im going to ask the honest and wise officer to explain to me why the government spends 7.1 billion tax dollars a year on marijuana prohibition, when alcohol, a much more dangerous drug, is legal, as well as Tobacco- which the government subsidizes.
"As a civilized country. . . we need to make laws. " He answered uncomfortably, unprepared for my White-house-news-conference-like loaded question. Smiling, he continues, "But, I am not the one who makes the laws. Im not the one who runs the government. Only a few run the government. Only if you got the money. But you are right, the simplest drug of all is cigarettes, and Im a guilty party. Im addicted."
That is the end of questions. He is walking past me down the aisle. Im going to talk to him some more. I love his honesty.
"I experimented with marijuana when I was young." shares the Officer Casas.
"What did you think about it?" I asked.
"It affected my mind. . . my perception of time."
"Why did you try Marijuana? Did anyone pressure you?"
"Just curious... like anyone." he answered casually.
I told Carlos, "I think all drugs should be legal. It goes against Americans right to liberty - which means freedom of choice."
"Thats what bothers me about this country now - all this talk about individuals rights. What about the rights of others. " Officer Casas responded righteously, with his hand pointing to himself, appearing to reflect on his own experience. "I believe in human rights, but individual rights is destroying this country. The Roman Empire... it destroyed itself. "
"Do you ever get on the net?" I asked, as a lead into offering him my web site address. "No, not very often." He said. "I took it out of my home."
Our conversation ended with Carlos commenting on his 25 years of service in the police force, saying, "I love working for the community. I love it. But, I am looking forward to retiring so I can do what I want to do."
Im now sitting with Sue Hart, the director of the event that Officer Casas just spoke at. The brochure says "Sue is the current Program Director for Parents Anonymous. She is a published author of many parent and teen manuals and programs. She is also an active motivational speaker for youth, organizations and churches."
While the crowd was flushing out, Sue stopped me to talk. She asked me to tell her about myself, so I did. As soon as she started talking about how "society forces people into little boxes, " I knew Sue was cool. She explained, "Flowers grow more toward the light. The key is to encourage the children-- its not to teach them, its not to lecture them with more drug education. The vision for today was not fully realized-- the concept of natural highs."
"Its about creating a They " Sue reflects on the governments purpose for creating the War on Drugs. "If there is no They... there is no division. How could I send you to war?"
"Youd have to put fear in me. " I answered.
"Right." She affirmed. "You and I are not the same and we are exactly the same. Its like the yin and the yang. Put these two words together: Compassion and accountability. Carlos did a good job of accountability: You do drugs... you go to prison. Its like a puppy pooping on the floor, then taking his head and rubbing his nose in it and saying, This is what you deserve Compassion is: I want to guide you. I want to help you learn."
Im in the passenger seat of Sues mini-van. She is treating me to dinner. "Homeless, help if you can, God bless! " is scratched in black marker on a crumbled card board sign held in the hands of a dirty bearded man sitting on the sidewalk, ignored by crowds of Long Horn lovers religiously pilgrimaging toward the stadium, moving quickly past the man as if road kill with an unpleasant odor that should be swept up and disposed of.
"Do you believe marijuana should be legal?" I asked Sue.
"Im going to leave that for other people to decide. Its like abortion.... I cant say whether or not it should be legal. My job is to help educate woman so they never have to make that decision."
We are now waiting for our meal at the Bombay Grill. Our conversation has continued to be fascinating and enlightening. I read to Sue "Aug 21st " from Theresas soggy Journal:
"I love God. I love my 3 sons. I love my parents. I love my brothers and sisters. I love all my husbands. I love all my friends. I love to sing and dance. I love to walk. I love to have picnics. I love to swim. I love the sun. I love to farm and sell. I love flowers. I love colors. I love fashions. I love food. I love to cook. I love rainbows. I love seafood. I love prime rib. I love ice-cream. I love early morning. I love sun down."
Sue suggests I dry the journal and find a way to give it back to Theresa, symbolizing that she too can be dry and have the things she wrote about it in her journal.
I am back at the Millennium center, talking to a black teenage female employee. "Do you think drugs should be legal?"
"I dont do them, so I dont really care. " She answered, which is unfortunate for the many millions of people(many with children who miss them) wasting away in prisons around the world.
Im the only white male in the roller skate rink where a teen-dance is in progress. Its dim, but not dark. No funky strobe lights or lasers. Just a throbbing beat. Most of the kids look between ten and fifteen. Their clothes are expensive designer name brands; Tommy Hillfiger, Fabu, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie. Girls clothes are painted on tight . Boys clothes are likely too big for their father. Hands grasp asses and tits. Elaborate hair dos are immaculate.
Kids are running-- rushing to see something. A voice is on the loud speaker, insisting, "Back up and disperse ". A security guard has a fat chick by the arm, escorting her to the exit. The girl looks pissed at the security guard, but is not struggling with the much larger Latino man. The voice on the loud speaker is asking everyone to leave, saying "Its over!" A mass of people are slowing spilling out the front doors into the parking lot. It was the eighth fight of the night.
"Who you fuckn with?!! " an eight year old little black boy antagonizes his sister, a few years his senior, after punching her in the arm then skittering and hiding behind an older friend.
I am sitting on the cement steps in front of the Millennium Center, observing black youth as a whole, for the first time in my life, looking at a portion of society, together. There are over a thousand kids in the parking lot and they are not going any where, despite the two cop cars have arrived and the people in blue on the horn saying "Go home. The party is over." The dance wasnt supposed to finish for another hour and half.
I feel like a rock of sanity as a tide of black rushes past, front and back, racing, curious, stampeding toward a fight in progress-- as if seeing blood would make it worth while.
They are all coming back, disappointed. It was a hoax. Someone yelled "Fight! " and there was none.
They are running back again. Less this time. Im sure someone is having a good laugh.
Im sitting on the side walk in front of four sassy preteen girls. "Im a journalist." I said. "You girls mind if I ask a few questions? " I have to listen closely to understand their rapid speech and foreign dialect.
"Shootn, fightn, stabbn, rapen " reeled off one of the little girls, answering my question, "What kind of problems do you have in your neighborhood? "
"I go to school. I go home. End of story." Kim shares her life in a breathe.
"41 is the Zip code. Lots of gangs. " Brittany said of her neighborhood, where she hears gunfire, but never sees guns.
"If you have friends that smoke marijuana, they are going to make you try it. " Erica tells me why she doesnt hang out with those who do it.
Im standing on the front steps again. Brittany, just ran up to me. "You know what I mean. Everyday. This is going to go on all night." she commentated on the eruption of flying fists and kicks between two boys in their mid teens. I am ten feet from the senseless fury and I have no desire to intervene. Friends of the crazed hold them apart. The instigators teeth are clenched. Nostrils flare wide with each panting breathe. Eyes of abyss darkness-- I cant tell if they are intensely focused or lost in rage.
The other boy is sprawled out face down on the concrete, pinned by two police officers hand cuffing him. I count 12 police cars - most with lights flashing. There is the appearance of a riot, but there is none; theyre just kids, bored, with no place better to go. This is the most exciting event around. Police are pointing pepper spray in smiling happy faces, telling them, "Go home... the party is over!"
Only a dozen children remain-- waiting for rides. "We are keepers of the peace." Sgt. Mike Hargett explained the evacuation. I told him I was a freelance writer, working on a story for The Chronicle, though The Chronicle doesnt know it yet.
He is a tall Caucasian man with a strong build. We have been chatting casually for ten minutes. "Its like the difference between a Volkswagen and a space shuttle. " he says of Marijuana and crack.
"Im from the east coast of Canada. Crack is not common there as far as I know. I have never seen crack or met anyone I knew was using it. "
"You can come ride with me sometime. " Mike suggested, "Ill show you the world."
"I think its about recapturing what parenthood is all about, but I know its tough on the parents-- working 50 hours a week. I think the key is communication." Sgt. Haggett suggests of the solution to the social dilemma in the projects. "Enforcing the rules is important, but not as important as a parents job ".
The Sargent, a former Green Beret and ER attendant, is now an officer training coordinator and takes pride in his work. Mike says he isnt a police officer because he needs money, but does it to do his part in the community. He works for the Austin parks department.
As if on cue, a chubby boy, about fifteen, walked up to the us and asked if Sgt. Hargett would help get him a drink, because he was dehydrated and didnt think he could make it home. The kind officer hollers across the parking lot, down to the security guard at the front door, telling him to let the boy in the building to get a drink at the fountain(where the guard denied him access a minute earlier).
A few minute later, while still leaning against the patrol car in conversation, another boy approached and asked if Sgt. Hargett could help him make a phone call to get a ride home. The boy was asked the number then handed a cell phone. "Just simple things like that. " Mike smiled proudly, "People dont see that stuff. "
I asked Mike what he would do if he caught me smoking marijuana. "I didnt write the music.... but I sure got to dance to it. " he said of issuing citations for possession of the herb. Watching me write down his words, he added for the record, "I dont think marijuana should be legal."
"What was the situation with the pepper spray?" I inquired.
"Thats what is called a medium non-impact weapon. " he responded, "I dont carry one of those either."
Earlier, Mike said he stopped carrying a nightstick after the Rodney King beating. Confident in his ability to defuse a situation, he feels that using weapons is not necessary most of the time. As a law enforcement instructor, he wants to set an example of non-violent policing, but admits that extra measures sometimes need to be used by less intimidating members of the force -- especially woman.
Im talking to two girls, 13 and 14, still waiting for their ride home. They wont give their names. "It doesnt matter, " I said, "You can make up a name. " They dont want to do that either. They are telling me about gangs. "Blue is the Crypts... Red is the Bloods, Black and white... I think the Bros.... and the The Kings might be yellow. They wear yellow shoe laces. "
Larry, the Millennium Center general manager, a Caucasian male, just explained to me how and why the center was built. "It is the result of a drive-by shooting " he said, in which Tamika Ross, 16, an innocent bystander, was killed in her driveway. A short time later, fueled on anger caused by the slaying, neighborhood kids got together and approached city council to have a recreation center built in hopes of giving kids something to do that wouldnt breed violence or other criminal behavior. Today, six years later, the Millennium center officially opened.
Mike offered me a lift back to Sams apartment, which is on the other side of the city. This call was on the way. A black woman in her late 20s is standing on the sidewalk in front of a row of duplexes, halloring at though strangely calm, "He just pulled a gun on my kids!", across the road at Sgt. Hargett sitting in the patrol car, straining to here the woman over the dispatchers voice.
Mike is telling me about his work-- doing cool stuff like staking out thieves. Ill read him the last entry from Theresas journal. The ink is smudged badly because it is soaked with beer, but I can just make it out. It says:
"I feel tired. I feel anxious. I feel grateful. I feel lonely. I feel insured. I feel strong. I feel brave. I feel happy. I feel confused. I feel like an angel. I feel happy. I feel pretty."
"As a society we need to stop punishing people like Theresa as criminals. " I commented.
"Their life is punishment enough. " Mike agreed.
Sam knew all the dirt in town. Her best friends dad was the sheriff. "I learned things I didnt want to know. " Sam told me. "A lot of people were addicted, if not to crack- then Prozac."
Brad, Samanthas new friend, is telling me about watching the new Star Wars on the big screen, and says he "saw it straight, unfortunately."
"The kids wouldnt look into the cops eyes! " I said to Sam, in the kitchen fixn the munchies. "The cops are They, and to look them in the eyes is to see they are human."