CRACKERS: Remember the crack epidemic? Fear that every man, woman and child in the United States would soon turn into wild-eyed crack fiends propelled Congress to act, establishing tough sentencing guidelines that sent anyone caught with more than 5 grams of crack to prison for a five-year minimum.

As the crack hysteria mounted, however, use began to fade. The tough sentencing guidelines did not, however, and drug users ended up behind bars for possession of small amounts of drugs.

That five-year minimum sentence has been particularly controversial, especially in comparison to the penalty for powder coke. The penalty for possession of 5 grams of rock cocaine -- five years -- was equivalent to possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine. That's a 100-to-1 ratio.

More blacks were busted for crack use (even though statistics suggest more whites than blacks use crack), resulting in an obscene racial imbalance. Last year, a staggering 84.8 percent of the defendants sentenced for having more than 5 grams of crack were black.

It's not just Rolling Stone magazine calling for reform of this monstrous injustice. The White House, the U.S. Sentencing Commission and even a group of federal judges called for changes that would allow small-time users to get drug treatment instead of prison time.

Congress finally addressed the unbalanced sentencing ratio last week. But they didn't increase the amount of crack required to trigger a five-year sentence. Instead, they decreased, from 500 grams to 50 grams, the amount of powder cocaine needed to trigger a five-year sentence.

The vote was 50 to 49, with Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl providing the swing vote to stiffen the penalties. John McCain was the only senator not to vote; perhaps he was too busy campaigning for the presidency.

The legislation -- which was buried in an unrelated bankruptcy bill -- will likely result in more small-time drug users sitting in overcrowded prisons at taxpayer expense. The U.S. Bureau of Prison is estimating the law will add another 9,163 people to the federal prison system over the next decade.

CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION: The above item demonstrates the sheer stupidity of our lawmakers, both federal and state, when it comes to the War on Drugs. And it emphasizes that only when the people have an opportunity to change the drug laws will the drug laws change.

Take marijuana laws, for instance (even though there is a world of difference between cocaine and marijuana). In every state where the questions of legalizing marijuana for medical use and reducing the penalties for possession have been on the ballot, it has passed. It passed for the first time in Arizona in 1996, leading lawmakers to charge that voters were duped into passing a law that took steps toward decriminalizing the dread weed by mandating drug treatment instead of prison sentences for first- and second-time offenders.

The state Legislature "fixed" a few things with the law, which lead to the creation of The People Have Spoken, an organization that put the changes to a referendum vote. Voters not only reaffirmed their earlier decision, they passed another law restricting the Legislature's ability to change the language of ballot initiatives.

Now The People Have Spoken group is back with an initiative for the Y2K ballot that will be the biggest push for decriminalization of pot yet.

Under the proposed law:

· The Arizona Attorney General would be required to provide medical marijuana to patients. As things now stand, even though ill patients can legally use pot under state law if they have a doctor's prescription, federal law prohibits medical use. And since the feds have threatened to strip licenses from physicians who prescribe pot, docs have naturally been reluctant to write a 'script. Making the AG's office provide the dope -- which they'd have to get from drug seizures or the federal government -- would continue to ratchet up the pressure on the feds to allow terminally ill cancer and AIDS patients to relieve their suffering.

· Anyone caught with less than two ounces of pot would get a ticket for no more than $500, which is essentially how these cases are now handled, if the prosecutor is having a good day and decides to cut the perp a break.

· Forfeiture funds would flow to drug treatment programs instead of law enforcement agencies. That provision will have cops and prosecutors howling, because those dollars for collars have become a steady cash flow for slush funds. But those forfeiture laws have eaten away at the Bill of Rights, which guarantees protection against unreasonable search and seizure. People have had their property seized even though they haven't been convicted of any crimes; once your property is seized, you have to go to court -- and incur legal fees -- just to prove it wasn't the result of criminal enterprise or used in a crime. Be ready to pay your attorney a small fortune and be sure to have enough cash to put down a bond.

Forfeiture laws have too often been abused by zealous prosecutors who have targeted small-time users instead of drug kingpins. Removing any incentive for enriching law-enforcement will decrease the likelihood they'll snatch your car if they find a roach.

(Of course, if it passes, local and state agencies will probably just hand their cases over to federal prosecutors in exchange for kickbacks, but at least it's a start toward reform of a bad system.)

The People Have Spoken organization has to gather almost 102,000 signatures by July 6, which probably won't be a problem. The group again has strong financial backing from financier/philanthropist George Soros, University of Phoenix founder John Sperling, and Progressive Insurance exec Peter Lewis.

City Manager Luis Gutierrez's announcement that he will resign effective January 2 provides the City Council with a real opportunity. Gutierrez's administration has continued a trend begun under previous City Manager Mike Brown to shift power away from the Council to the city bureaucracy. We hope the new Council will take this chance to regain some of its powers by hiring someone who thinks public policy should be set by elected officials, not city staff members.

LOHR'S CALL: As we report in this issue, Amphi School Board member Ken Smith has been asked to resign by outgoing County Superintendent of Public Instruction Anita Lohr.

We're not surprised to see Amphi staff attorney Todd Jaeger instituting the effort to get rid of Smith. After all, Smith and Nancy Young Wright have formed an effective two-member block against the other three board members, who are just coincidentally the three folks most likely to keep Jaeger on the payroll.

But Lohr's move -- writing a letter demanding Smith's resignation the same day she received a written report from Jaeger -- was a sleazy way to leave office. She jumped like a dog for a bone without ever securing a written legal opinion from the County Attorney's Office. Before taking that strong an action, Lohr owed not only Smith but the voters who elected him (and her) a whole lot more.

We call it "due process." After 31 years in office, and regardless of the final disposition of the Smith matter, Anita Lohr has discredited her otherwise fine record by ignoring it.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? They ruled their domains in Tucson into the 1980s, but now one-time financial whiz kid Allan Elias and former Pima County hot shot Jim Hlawek are awaiting sentences in federal courts in Idaho and California.

Elias, a syndicator, speculator, developer, restaurateur and creator of what is now the Bank of America building at Stone and Pennington, is facing up to 15 years in prison after his May 7 conviction by a jury in U.S. District Court in Pocatello on four charges of violating the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for dumping toxic waste and knowingly endangering his employees, and for falsifying an Occupational Safety & Health Administration permit.

The charges stem from an August 1996 incident in which a 20-year-old man who worked at Elias' chemical processing plant in Soda Springs, Idaho, was severely poisoned, resulting in brain damage and a condition not unlike Parkinson's disease.

Elias, who at age 19 graduated from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, also was a founder of the Union Bank in Tucson -- the precursor to what eventually became Jim Click's Arizona Bank. Also a graduate of the University of Arizona College of Law, Elias was smart but arrogant. And, associates say, unable to leave well enough alone -- he couldn't sit back and allow his creations to flourish.

Some of those who knew and worked with him in Tucson were brought up to date by a July 22 story, titled "A Case of Toxic Greed," in the Boise Weekly.

In it, federal prosecutor David J. Uhlmann says Elias "sent his workers into one of the worst environments imaginable." Uhlmann also said Elias "is as persistent and egregious a violator of environmental laws as we've come across."

Meanwhile, out in San Bernardino, Hlawek, who left his job as personnel director for Pima County in 1986, is set to plead guilty to one count each of bribery and conspiracy in a corruption case that led to his resignation last year as San Bernardino County Administrator.

Charges stem from payoffs Hlawek and three other San Bernardino County officials received from three companies, including the Norcal Waste Management Co., to operate the county's landfills and waste operations for $20 million a year. Inland Empire rags also report that Hlawek also pocketed $10,000 from Ron Canham, another former Pima County official, in exchange for awarding him a $94,000 contract for employee motivational training. Canham had a San Diego-based management consulting business.

Pima County folks remember Hlawek, whose wife had county jobs here and in California, and Canham as pretty-boy smart asses. Hlawek pissed away hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultant studies, yet left human resources in disarray. Pleas are expected to be entered at arraignments this month.

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