Ed Jauch worried that Springfield might adopt a medical marijuana law — and he was dead-set against it.
It isn’t that the officer with the La Salle County SAFE (State’s Attorney Felony Enforcement) Team favors eradicating cannabis from the face of the earth. He recognizes the industrial uses of hemp, the breakthroughs derived from medical research and marijuana’s potential in end-of-life care.
But during his extensive police training, Jauch once enrolled in Oakland’s notorious Oaksterdam University — the unaccredited training school for the cannabis industry — and then closely watched how legalized medical marijuana played out in California.
What he saw did not impress.
“Patients” walked into marijuana repositories with phantom medical problems and left with A-grade pot from providers who wished them a speedy recovery with a wink. Growers reported that legalization made the black market explode, not shrink, as repositories laid claim to the top product, squeezing the growers’ profit margins and leaving them with a gross oversupply.
Worst of all was the violence: Legalization pitted the Mexican cartels against the northern California growers for shares of the growing black market, with a surge in bloodshed.
“They can put their spin on it about medical marijuana,” Jauch shrugged. “At the end of the day it boils down to simple greed.”
His worries were put to rest, for now. The Illinois General Assembly adjourned Wednesday, a day ahead of schedule, without even calling House Bill 30 to the floor.
Though it looked for a while as if Illinois would join the swelling ranks of pot-friendly states, bill sponsor Lou Lang counted noses and found the votes weren’t there. HB 30 was left in the dustbin.
State Rep. Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) was a no-vote out of the chute. He sensed it might pass — and says it might pass next time — but this time around lawmakers worried that the supplying company would be headed by a former staff member who’d hold a monopoly.
“For people on the edge, that made them more nervous,” Mautino said, “and it dropped votes.”
Jauch was pleased with the outcome — not that passage would have made a difference. Even if medical-marijuana had been adopted, the SAFE Team would not have folded. There would have been more black-market transport across Interstate 80, not less, and the SAFE Team would have continued plucking haulers off the roadway.
There have been plenty of bad actors taken out of the game already. Jauch said the team has put away haulers with links to organized crime and even terror cells.
“We’ve taken some very bad people off the street,” he said.
La Salle County state’s attorney Brian Towne pulled out of the Tri-County Drug Enforcement Narcotics Team back in March 2011 to focus on reviving a drug interdiction unit. Though state police and other police departments still make drug busts, there hadn’t been a unit devoted to trafficking in years. Towne felt it was long overdue.
Manpower was an issue; but funding wasn’t. Towne had at his disposal a drug fund comprised of forfeitures — contraband, illicit cash and even vehicles — taken from dealers and haulers. The law, too, was pretty flexible as to how the funds could be used.
Towne called some local police chiefs, and a few retired officers, about joining a new unit. Not everybody wanted in; but Spring Valley chief Kevin Sangston was willing and assigned Jauch.
Towne recruited two more undercover officers and Brian Zebron, La Salle’s K-9 officer, to walk a drug-sniffing dog around suspect cars.
For Sangston, participation has paid unexpected dividends. With Jauch on the freeway, the rest of his department could concentrate on the goings-on in Spring Valley. Then there was the money: The SAFE Team began collecting busts and cash seizures, and Spring Valley took in a share of $100,000.
“And that was just for last year,” Sangston said. “I’m completely pleased. It’s been very successful for us in terms of seizures, and we’re able to direct more of our efforts to local issues.”
Brian Vescogni, head of Towne’s narcotics division, was no less pleased. In the year since the SAFE Team, they’ve made more than 40 collars and reasserted the police presence on I-80.
“TRI-DENT is geared more toward street-level enforcement,” Vescogni said. “Obviously, the SAFE Team is geared completely to interdiction.”
The team’s arrival didn’t come without controversy. Chicago defense attorney Rob Campbell was among the defense lawyers who cried foul, terming the SAFE Team a “money-grab” and accusing the unit was profiling vehicles from California, Arizona and Colorado.
Campbell challenged the case against his client, John A. Huls of Sacramento, Calif. Towne, he argued, could manage the SAFE Team or prosecute drug cases; but doing both was a conflict of interest.
“This thing doesn’t look right,” Campbell said. “It smells wrong.”
Chief Judge H. Chris Ryan Jr. did not agree. In a July ruling, he considered whether Towne’s management violated the separation of powers — “Money doesn’t concern me too much” — but declined to declare a conflict of interest.
The SAFE Team had passed a key test.
Dressed in street clothes, Jauch parks on the I-80 roadside at the wheel of a confiscated Lincoln Aviator — a La Salle County drug suspect declined to fight its seizure — listening to the radio band the team uses while watching for traffic infractions.
Jauch disputed the notion that they profile motorists or look for out-of-state plates. They simply watch for traffic violations and then for clues that the trunk might hold something other than luggage and jumper cables.
Maybe the driver has a leaky story about why he was driving across country. Or maybe he has some priors. It’s not uncommon for the passenger compartment to smell like dope; a few motorists have been known to light up to pass the lonely hours at the wheel.
But speeding and failure to signal are the best clues that something is amiss. Drivers always obey posted speed limits when they first pull out of California, he explained, but few motorists can pass through the monotonous landscape of the Great Plains without tapping the gas a little harder.
“If you drive from California across this country,” Jauch said, “it’s very hard not to break the law in some way.”
The SAFE Team also uses conventional intelligence to decide when to hit the road. The Mexican harvest wraps up in fall, making it imperative to set up patrols before the first frost. They regularly tune into the Weather Channel, watching for western storms and road closures, to gauge whether conditions are ripe for drug transport.
“The SAFE Team has never gotten a tip about a load to date,” Jauch said. “To the contrary, we’ve given other law enforcement agencies from our informants rather than the other way around.”
Drug traffickers are well-aware of La Salle County and the risks of hauling pot here. California growers and the Mexican cartel have sent pilot cars through the Illinois Valley — a Mexican driver was stopped in June with $1.1 million in cash and admitted to making a “dry run” — in hopes of gauging how best to pass through unnoticed.
“We do have credible information,” Jauch said, “that Illinois — La Salle and Lake counties, in particular — is deemed high-risk for drug interdiction.”
Most of those stopped will drive away with only a written warning; but Jauch bristles at the notion that the SAFE Team isn’t interested in road safety.
“There are people who think, ‘You can go by the SAFE guys at 100 mph and nobody cares.’ That’s not true.”
The SAFE Team doesn’t look only for marijuana; drivers have been busted with cocaine, heroin and even crystal methamphetamine. But the majority of product moving across I-80 — the SAFE Team spends only a little time on I-39 — is cannabis from California and Mexico.
The two sources generate product of wildly varying quality. California weed is consistently more expensive and of substantially better quality. Growers in northern California cultivate potent strains and sift out low-grade “skunkweed” — Jauch has nursed headaches from the odor of bad weed — to fetch anywhere from $1,500 to $8,000 per pound.
“A lot of them take pride in their craft,” said Jauch, who sat through Oaksterdam lectures telling no one he was a cop. “It’s truly an industry out there.”
The Mexican drug cartel, on the other hand, is interested in moving cannabis in bulk and is therefore less concerned with quality. Mexican weed generally trades in a tight range of $800 to $1,000 per pound, with much of the product tainted with pesticides.
If users knew what he did about the lack of quality in trafficked cannabis, Jauch said, many more would abstain.
“It’s all buyer beware,” Jauch said. “A lot of people are not that educated. If you’re going to use drugs, you should at least have some education about it. And most people don’t.”
Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 223-3206 Ext. 130 or email@example.com.