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Big Tobbaco, Potheads & Poor Folks

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By Sherwood Ross

Do the manufacturers of cigarettes go to jail for peddling their products, even though 440,000 Americans die each year from smoking them?
Absurd thought, right?

So why are thousands of marijuana peddlers languishing in the nation's prisons even though prosecutors cannot point to a single death anywhere in USA from inhaling a joint?

This is not to argue smoking pot is healthy. But let's put the alleged damage it inflicts into perspective, compared, say, with brand-name cigarettes, which are the all-time, All-American star-spangled red-white-and-blue killers.

Could it be the reason for arresting all those potheads is to make a buck off them? If I didn't know better, I'd say their prosecution brings joy to a lot of folks who aren't even inhaling.

Look at all the paychecks that get cut: The cops make their collars. The bail bondsmen get their rake off. The prosecutors make their cases. The social workers write up their interviews. The clerks push their papers. The lawyers collect their fees. The judges render their verdicts. The prison guards make their rounds. The vendors sell their baloney sandwiches. The construction firms build their additions. And the shrinks nod their heads. For all I know, the K-9 pooches with the sharpest sniffers are paid off in juicy bones --- and all thanks to the potheads. Let the good times roll!
What's true of pot peddlers may also be true of low-income individuals, which includes a goodly number of African-Americans and Hispanics.

Since well-off suburban kids don't have to steal, and can look forward to a good job and secure future after graduation from USC or Yale, not many are caught holding up the local 7-11.

This writer has two siblings; combined, we have produced ten offspring, all of them college graduates, all reared in good neighborhoods, not one of whom has done time. That would be unthinkable, really!

A couple of miles from the suburbs where our kids grew up, there are mean streets in Chicago and Trenton where a majority of young men are either locked up, out on parole, and/or in between crimes. Most of the miscreants are high school dropouts.

Reread paragraph five above with these young men in mind. Could it be we don't mind if Justice System workers make a buck off the poor?

Some years back, the warden of Rahway prison, New Jersey, gave me a tour. He strode the corridors energetically, shaking hands with this man, nodding to that, answering a question from a third. ("I reviewed your case in detail. You didn't leave me any choice but to take away your privileges.")

Apart from the warden's fairness, the two things that struck me were (1) he walked unarmed among ordinary men Hollywood portrays as vicious and violent, and (2) virtually every prisoner carried a book. Rahway was one huge academy, where inmate scholars earned high school diplomas.

Why oh why, I wondered, hadn't these men gotten degrees in the normal course of growing up? Why does USA, which likes to tell other countries how to behave, have a record 2-million offenders behind bars? If those Rahway prisoners had grown up in Lincolnwood, Ill., and Princeton, N.J., would they have gone down for armed robbery? The statistics say no.
Back in 1962, Whitney Young of the National Urban
League called for a Marshall Plan for the inner cities. Nobody listened then. Nobody listens now. Was it because from the bail bondsmen to the prison guards, there were people who were profiting from the Justice System as it was then --- and as it is now? It's enough to make a sober man want to light up.

Getting back to the big cigarette-makers, they might show a little remorse by creating a memorial to honor their victims. Call it The Tomb of the Unknown Smoker. I see a 30-story-high wall rising alongside Interstate 95 at Richmond on which the last photographs of dying smokers submitted by their relatives are supersized for 60-seconds each in memorial tribute, all 440,000 of them, one after another. Viewers could say, "There's Aunt Mildred!" Or, "Hey, there's Dad. He looks great, even with his oxygen tank!" Actually, a fantasy like this could come true one day. But don't hold your breath. #
(Sherwood Ross is a Virginia-based columnist. To arrange for speaking engagements or to comment, contact him at
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Sherwood Ross worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and contributed a regular "Workplace" column for Reuters. He has contributed to national magazines and hosted a talk show on WOL, Washington, D.C. In the Sixties he was active as public (more...)
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