In the last four years, Illinois, like many states, has been loosening its drug laws: legalizing medical marijuana, allowing universities to research industrial hemp, and decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana. At the same time, a surge in heroin and prescription drug abuse and overdoses has left ruined lives and death in communities across the United States. In the following Q&A, Ralph Weisheit, a Distinguished Professor of Criminal Justice, talks about these trends and the peculiarities of American drug laws.

Weisheit has been researching illegal drugs and rural crime since the early 1980s. He is the author of eight books, including Domestic Marijuana (1992) and Methamphetamine: Its History, Pharmacology, and Treatment (2009). His recent scholarly work includes a new edition of the textbook Pursuing Justice (2015) and the research article “Rural Crime: A Global Perspective,” which was published last year in the International Journal of Rural Criminology.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What did you think about the legal expansion of medical and recreational marijuana across the country in the November election?

The election set the stage for an interesting clash between state and federal laws regarding marijuana. At the state level, both medical and recreational marijuana expanded dramatically. Voters in four states approved recreational marijuana, bringing the total to eight, covering 21 percent of the U.S. population. At the same time, voters in five states approved medical marijuana, bringing the total to 28 states covering 62 percent of the U.S. population. This is an unprecedented level of public support for access to marijuana.

At the federal level, the attorney general sets the tone for drug law enforcement, and the new attorney general (Jeff Sessions) has been a passionate opponent of any access to marijuana. Complicating matters is that a Republican Congress in the previous administration explicitly forbade the federal government from enforcing federal laws against marijuana when individuals were properly following state laws. Thus, the stage is set for a legal and ideological battle between states’ rights and federal authority. How that plays out remains to be seen.

A lot of people take one side or the other in the drug war debate. Has it been important to you to be impartial?

It has been enormously important to me. It depends on the drug, but in the case of marijuana, I really do have mixed feelings. I will say the current move toward legalizing marijuana is something I never would have dreamed of 10 or 15 years ago. This is not because I think marijuana is evil. I see good and bad. I just never would have thought that would happen, because we are in a time when people want to know what’s in their food. They don’t allow tobacco smoking within so many feet of a building. And it just never seemed consistent that you would then loosen up on something like marijuana, even if it was proper and deserved. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

One of the things about studying the drug issue that makes it a challenge is that it’s an emotional issue. For some people, it’s up there with abortion, or the death penalty, or other things that people get very passionate about.

Why do you think marijuana laws have been changed the last few years?

I think some of it has to do with an aging population. A lot of the things that medical marijuana is useful for are things that people who are getting older can relate to.
And aging is important in another way. Older people vote. But these older people were around in the ’60s, and they saw marijuana and they heard government proclamations that it wasn’t much different than other illegal drugs. And they thought, that’s not quite right. Even if they weren’t using it, they saw it as different from other drugs.

Then, as medical marijuana goes in, people look and say, “Gee, the sky is not falling. We haven’t had the end of times because medical marijuana has come to our state. Maybe it is not as bad as we thought and maybe we need to talk about changing how we view it.” I think what you are finding on marijuana legalization is not so much a call to make it completely free and available, but a call for dramatically reduced penalties, particularly for small amounts. You are seeing a lot of support for that from around the country.

Where are we at in Illinois with medical marijuana? It’s legal now. Are there places for people to get it? Do we have dispensaries all across the state?

We have dispensaries, but a few words about the Illinois law. It is probably one of the more restrictive in the nation. It literally costs multimillions of dollars just to get permission to grow, and it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up a dispensary.

And you might think that’s going to be a problem for the people who want to do this. My experience has been that they are pleased that Illinois has such restrictions while possessing and distributing marijuana continues to be a federal crime, because the federal government is not going to step in as long as you are following state law. But if the state law is fuzzy as it is in California, the DEA (federal Drug Enforcement Administration) can more easily justify going in and arresting people.

The law is so strict in Illinois that to get an ID to legally buy medicinal marijuana is not only expensive, but you have to have a meaningful relationship with a doctor. You have to have a very limited number of conditions for which you can get marijuana, and the amount you can possess is limited. In California there are no conditions. You can literally say that your toe hurts and it would feel better if I used marijuana, and a doctor who has never seen you before and who has done no thorough physical examination can say, “OK.”

In your book on marijuana, you note that Illinois was the eighth largest producer of marijuana in the country and Missouri was the top producer. It was a big Midwestern thing. Is that still who is producing marijuana?

No, the illegal production has changed dramatically. It’s still an issue in the Midwest, but large-scale production is going on in California. In California it is not being done on a large scale by the burned out hippies who were doing it in the ’90s. Now the largest operations are run by Mexican drug organizations that are using remote public lands, and they are bringing in crews just to do that.

Where is the marijuana coming from for the medical marijuana here?

By law all legal medical marijuana in the state must be cultivated in the state. The Illinois law is extremely detailed in terms of the circumstances under which cultivation can occur. There has to be 24-hour video surveillance of the facility that the state police can access remotely. There must be a rigorous security system in place.

The other interesting twist on this—in Illinois and other states where they have medical marijuana, is that one of the big employment opportunities for retired cops is to become security people for medical marijuana operations. In Illinois, for example, the former head of the state police is doing just such work. I think this would be an interesting group to talk to because they have spent their career fighting marijuana, and now they are getting paid handsomely to protect the operations.

Are Illinois farmers or anyone in the agriculture industry looking toward the day marijuana is legalized here?

Indoor nursery for the cultivation of medical marijuana.

Indoor nursery for the cultivation of medical marijuana.

I haven’t heard of farmers talking about that. I’m sure there is interest in hemp because it is a plant that is easy to grow, will grow in a wide range of soil and climate conditions, and can be rotated with other crops. I know that farmers in the Dakotas are very interested in it because it is being grown as a hemp product across the border in Canada. The Dakota farmers are saying, “Why can’t we do that? They are making a lot of money growing this stuff.”

And the industrial applications are really quite massive. Hemp oil can be used as a paint thinner or as a lubricant. It is used to make cloth. It is used to make rope. It’s enormously useful for paper. It grows quickly, and for paper it would be much more practical as a renewable resource than trees.

(Editor’s note: Hemp is a term commonly used for a type of marijuana that has industrial applications and low levels of the psychoactive agent THC.)

Have you researched synthetic marijuana?

I’ve done some work with a group in Franklin County that had a treatment program for kids on meth. A large number of those kids were into K2, Spice—street names for synthetic marijuana. That’s really nasty stuff. And it’s nasty for a couple of reasons. First, like a lot of the underground drugs, you don’t know what’s in it. The user can’t necessarily anticipate the effects of a given batch. Second, some of the stuff that’s in it is really powerful, and so the user can’t necessarily know what their dose is going to be.

You are hearing less about synthetic marijuana. I don’t know if it’s because it’s less of an issue or that the media has gone on to something else, like opiates. We have no shortage of drug problems, and over time the public shifts a bit in what it worries about.

The reality is that it is human nature to want to alter your consciousness. I’ve had people tell me that someone must have a mental problem if they think they have to use drugs, and my response is no. Do you say they have a mental problem if they like riding roller coasters? Because a roller coaster serves no other function than to alter your consciousness. Is that pathological?

The difference, of course, is that drugs have other negative consequences—physical, social, and legal. But the principle is the same. We don’t know why some people like having their consciousness altered more than others, but it appears to be something that is common among human beings. The trick is to get them to alter their consciousness in the least destructive way.

You talk about drug panics in your marijuana book. Do you think we are in a drug panic now with heroin?

There is no question that as a society we are in a panic about opiates. The question is, Should we be? My answer is I don’t know. Because it’s such an emotional issue, only with hindsight can we look back and say, “We exaggerated the true extent of the problem. We shouldn’t haven’t done that.” Unfortunately, sometimes we underestimate the extent of the problem. Hindsight doesn’t help you in the moment.

That’s one of the problems with drug policy. One of the things that is sometimes forgotten is the idea of unintended consequences. And unintended consequences run through the history of our efforts to control drugs.

One of the things that has happened as a result of places like Colorado, Washington, Oregon not only loosening up on medical but on recreational marijuana is I’ve seen reports that marijuana production in Mexico has dropped dramatically because the price has gone down. They can’t get as much for it, and as a result, the traffickers have moved more of their focus to methamphetamine and heroin because they are business people. You start selling less of this, and you make up for it by selling more of that. I don’t think anyone thought that marijuana legalization might have had an impact on meth or heroin coming in from Mexico. It appears it probably does. It doesn’t mean we were wrong to change our policies on marijuana. It just means these things happen. Who would have thought?

Did the crackdown on meth in Illinois have something to do with the uptick in heroin use and overdoses?

Yes, I would agree with that. First, before the crackdown on meth, much of the meth in rural Illinois and the rural Midwest was mom-and-pop—people making it in their kitchens, or in motel rooms, or whatever in relatively small-scale operations. You had enormous problems with damage to the environment, with explosions, all of those things that were undesirable side effects. Further, with fires, explosions, and the dumping of toxic waste from these local labs, it was difficult to deny that meth was a problem.

On the other hand, there was almost no violence. You didn’t have people fighting over turf. Seldom did you find money being changed hands. You did see some domestic violence, and part of that is when you are coming down from meth, you tend to be very irritable and you are on edge. But you didn’t see gang involvement. You didn’t see people fighting over money or turf.

You can crack down on home meth production, but the desire for the drug doesn’t go away. What you have now is Mexican meth coming in. And you don’t have the meth trash and other visible signs that the drug is present in your community. And so you trade that you no longer have all of these environmental damages, but now you have this other social consequence. Now you have Mexican trafficking organizations bringing in meth—and meth is still a big problem in this state. These are business people. They are in this to make money. The same networks that are bringing in meth can start bringing in heroin.

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Now I’m going to mix history into it. My co-author on the meth book (William L. White) is just a walking encyclopedia of drug history. And he said when we started the project, “You wait, eventually you will see these meth areas becoming heroin areas because historically there is this cycle between stimulants and narcotics.” You may turn to something like heroin to come down from a meth run because heroin is a depressant. So you have this tendency over time to go back and forth between stimulants and narcotics. The reality is someone who is an addict may prefer a particular drug but they will use the drug that is available. Now that you have Mexican distributors in the mix they determine what is going to be available.

Another example of an unintended consequence is the shift from prescription pain pills to heroin. When the government started cracking down on pills, the pills became more expensive, and the heroin by comparison was even cheaper. From the perspective of the user, there isn’t much difference between a prescription narcotic and heroin. And now you have a heroin problem. Except the heroin problem now gets worse when they start cutting it with fentanyl—that is said to be some 50 times more potent than heroin. Addicts are now overdosing because they can’t know the potency of any one batch.

Here is the weird part. Fentanyl is essentially heroin on steroids. It’s possible for doctors to prescribe fentanyl to cancer patients as a painkiller. Those same doctors cannot prescribe heroin as a painkiller. That’s considered unsafe. Our drug laws are very curious in that way.

Most people don’t realize that. They may realize that marijuana is Schedule 1, which means you can’t use it for medicine. So is heroin. So is LSD. But Schedule 2, which means doctors can prescribe it, includes methamphetamine, according to the DEA. It includes cocaine. Most people don’t realize those are drugs that can be prescribed. In effect, the DEA has decided that methamphetamine is less risky than marijuana.

In your meth book, you write that under medical supervision, properly prescribed methamphetamine can have a positive effect on a person.

There are three conditions under which it can be used. It can be used for extreme obesity because it suppresses the appetite just as any stimulant will do. It can be used for narcolepsy—people who fall asleep at a stop sign for example. Or it can be used for attention deficit disorder. We can give it to children. Wait a minute—if this is the most dangerous drug on earth and is instantly addictive, why are we giving it to children? In reality it is rare for children to be prescribed meth, but it can be. Methamphetamine is what doctors may turn to when the other treatment drugs (such as Dexedrine or Ritalin) don’t seem to be working.

One of the things about studying the drug issue that makes it a challenge is that it’s an emotional issue. For some people, it’s up there with abortion, or the death penalty, or other things that people get very passionate about.

That makes it hard to sort out the truth from fiction because you get exaggerations. In the case of marijuana, you get exaggerations on both sides. I saw someone on campus with a sign that said marijuana cures cancer. No, it doesn’t. It may ease the symptoms of cancer and its treatment, but it does not cure cancer. But that’s no more outrageous than claims it has no medical value.

In the case of drugs, sometimes we think it’s this horrible crisis, and it turns out that it is not that big of deal. Other times we don’t realize how big the problem was until we look back.

Kevin Bersett can be reached at