James Gill: Claims on pot seem like bunk

The proposition that marijuana users commit 95 percent of violent crimes in this country is so clearly absurd that state Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, was quick to claim he had been misquoted.

Kostelka wants you to know his actual words were that “95 percent of total crime can be associated with illegal drugs.”

That’s OK, then. Here is one legislator with a firm grip on reality.

Kostelka is not just any legislator. A retired judge, he chairs the committee that will consider a bill in the upcoming session to reduce the savage prison sentences prescribed for marijuana possession in Louisiana. He led the fight to kill similar legislation last year.

Even such law-and-order stalwarts as Gov. Bobby Jindal recognize the folly of locking up nonviolent dope smokers for decades, and want to switch the emphasis to rehabilitation. But Kostelka smells a rat. The bill, filed by Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, “is nothing more than a ruse, a step toward legalization,” according to Kostelka, who vows to “fight it every step of the way.”

Badon’s bill would leave the maximum sentence for first offenders unchanged at six months. A second offense could bring two years, instead of five, and a third offense five years, instead of 20. If Badon’s scheme is really to flood the streets with skunk, he is certainly making a modest start.

Kostelka aired his ideas on drugs and crime at a meeting of the state Sentencing Commission, which nevertheless passed a resolution noting that Badon’s bill “comports with the desires of a majority of Louisiana citizens” and other southern legislatures.

Supporters of Badon’s bill, calling themselves Louisianians for Responsible Reform, issued a news release asserting that Kostelka could have gotten his over-the-top numbers from only one source, a seriously wacky website called Marijuana Makes You Violent. The site not only blames marijuana for 95 percent to 99 percent of violent crime, but claims toking brings “immediate death.” It quotes the imaginary National Institute on Marijuana Abuse and Marijuanaism. A spoof, surely.

Kostelka said he had never even heard of the website, and had arrived at his 95 percent independently. “That comes directly from law enforcement officials I’ve asked and from my 20 years as a judge,” he said. Unless Monroe residents are disproportionately prone to seek narcotic relief from everyday tedium — a possibility we cannot entirely discount — Kostelka’s memory must be faulty.

The law enforcement officials he consulted cannot have been feds, because they would have wised him up to a study of drug use in the criminal classes conducted last year. According to White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske — try getting a stoner to spell that — more than 60 percent of people arrested in five major cities tested positive for illegal drugs, marijuana being the most common. That falls a long way short of what Kostelka claimed, either in his version or the Responsible Reform crowd’s.

The pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project’s response to the study was to note that most criminal suspects had been drinking water but that didn’t mean water caused crime, which just goes to show that neither side in this debate has a monopoly on dumb remarks. It is true that correlation is not the same as causation, but the link between crime and illegal drugs is too strong to be dismissed as coincidence. Opinions may vary on just how harmful weed may be, but we know for a fact that water does not remove inhibitions, and a ready supply may be obtained without knocking over a convenience store.

Jindal has indicated he might approve marijuana to ease the pain of the chronically sick, but Kostelka thinks any legislation to achieve that would be another “ruse” on the “slippery slope” toward overall legalization.

Common sense and humanity argue for a relaxation of Louisiana’s marijuana laws, so there may not be much chance it will happen any time soon. Kostelka, we may be confident, will play a prominent role in discussions. As to what percentage of his remarks will be tosh, I wouldn’t put it below 95.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.