Debating the Drug War

Many are mocking the GOP presidential debate scheduled for tonight. Sure, we won’t have many of the major candidates, but as Andrew Sullivan points out, we now have a second libertarian candidate in the race – former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson. Last week he was interviewed on HuffPo, and here’s his take on the war on drugs:

So going back to 1999, I came to the conclusion… that 90% of the drug problem is prohibition-related, not use-related. That’s not to discount the problems with use and abuse, but that ought to be the focus. So in 1999, I advocated then, I advocate it now. Legalize marijuana. Control it, regulate it, tax it. It’s never going to be legal to smoke pot, become impaired, get behind the wheel of a car, do harm to others. It’s never going to be legal for kids to smoke pot or buy pot. And under which scenario is it going to be easier for kids to smoke pot or buy pot? The situation that exists today, where it’s virtually available anywhere, and the person that sells pot also sells harder drugs? Or a situation where to purchase it, you would have to produce an ID in a controlled environment, like alcohol, to be able to buy it. I think you can make the case that it would be harder to buy it, in that controlled environment.

When it comes to all the other drugs – [marijuana] is the only drug that I’m advocating legalizing – but when it comes to all the other drugs, I think what we ought to really be concentrating on are harm reduction strategies – the things that we really care about, which is reducing death, disease, crime, corruption – in a nutshell, it is looking at the drug problem first as a health issue, rather than a criminal justice issue.

So here we have the border violence with Mexico. 28,000 deaths south of the border over the last four years. I believe that if we legalize marijuana 75% of that border violence goes away, because that’s the estimate of the drug cartel’s activities that revolve around the drug trade. The drug trade – prohibition – these are disputes that are being played out with guns, rather than the courts. Control this stuff, regulate this stuff, take the money out of drugs, and so goes the violence.

Hat tipAndrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald

As Greenwald points out, anything that shines a light on the stupidity of the drug war is a good thing. In many ways, the GOP debates will be a joke, particularly if the confederacy of dunces makes an appearance. But with Johnson and Ron Paul in the race, we have two credible voices who will challenge right wing orthodoxy. Remember four years ago when Ron Paul repeatedly called out Rudy Giuliani’s bullshit?

We need to have this debate on drugs. President Obama is way too distracted with other things to spend political capital in this area. Hopefully he will address it in his second term, and that will be easier the more we hear from people like Paul and Johnson.

Drug war hysteria – The SWAT team

How ridiculous has the drug war become? Check out some of these stories about SWAT teams gone wild in Maryland.

In November 2007 Prince George’s police raided the wrong home of a couple in Accokeek. Though the couple presented the police with evidence that they were at the wrong address, the police still detained them at gunpoint, refusing even to let them go to the bathroom. The couple asked the police if they could bring their pet boxer in from the backyard. The police refused. Moments later, the police shot and killed the dog.

In June 2007 police in Annapolis deployed a flash grenade, broke open an apartment door, and kicked a man in the groin during a mistaken drug raid. When they later served the warrant on the correct address, they found no drugs.

Most victims of these mistaken raids experienced the same callousness and indifference from public officials that Calvo did. When police in Montgomery County conducted a mistaken 4 a.m. raid on a Kenyan immigrant and her teenage daughters in 2005, the county offered free movie passes as compensation. When police in Baltimore mistakenly raided the home of 33-year-old Andrew Leonard last May, the city refused to pay for Leonard’s door, which was destroyed during the break-in. When Leonard called the city’s bulk trash pick-up to come get the door, no one came. Days later, city code inspectors fined Leonard $50 for storing the broken door in his backyard.

This stuff didn’t get exposed until a SWAT team mistakenly raided the home of a mayor. What a joke. Decriminalize the stuff already.

Jim Webb acknowledges that marijuana legalization should be on the table

I argued yesterday that Jim Webb’s proposed commission on prison reform could be the first step to ending the drug war. Now Jim Webb has confirmed that he’s open to all possible outcomes regarding drug policies.

“I think everything should be on the table, and we specifically say that we want recommendations on how to deal with drug policy in our country. And we’ll get it to the people who have the credibility and the expertise and see what they come up with,” said Webb.

What about legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana?

Webb paused. “I think they should do a very careful examination of all aspects of drug policy. I’ve done a couple of very extensive hearings on this, so we’ll wait to see what they say about that,” he said.

So it’s on the table? Webb flashed a wry grin, laughing mischievously.

The last government study group to look at drug policy, the 1972 Shafer Commission, recommended that President Richard Nixon decriminalize marijuana. He didn’t.

Jim Webb is a serious guy with impeccable military credentials. He’s not someone who can be pushed around by the “law and order” crowd. Proponents of legalization or decriminalization want this to happen overnight, but they are not being realistic. A thorough study by experts will give politicians cover as they try to deal with this political minefield.

At the very least, advocates of reform should be pushing the feds to leave regulation of marijuana to the states. This will make it much easier to get sensible policies, as progressive states like California and Massachusetts lead the way.

The idiotic war on drugs

John Stossel has a great piece about the idiotic drug war. Medical marijuana has been legalized in California, but the feds under Bush raided his operation, which was legal under California law, and convicted him in federal court. He faces 100 years in prison. Fortunately, the judge has decided to delay sentencing in light of the recent announcement by the Obama administration that growers and users of marijuana will not be prosecuted unless they are also violating state law.

Webb pushes prison reform commission

Jim Webb and Arlen Specter “introduced bipartisan legislation to create a blue-ribbon commission charged with conducting an 18-month, top-to-bottom review of the nation’s entire criminal justice system and offering concrete recommendations for reform.”

“America’s criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace,” said Senator Webb. “With five percent of the world’s population, our country houses twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population. Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200% since 1980. And four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals. We should be devoting precious law enforcement capabilities toward making our communities safer. Our neighborhoods are at risk from gang violence, including transnational gang violence.

Webb continued: “There is great appreciation from most in this country that we are doing something drastically wrong. And, I am gratified that Senator Specter has joined me as the lead Republican cosponsor of this effort. We are committed to getting this legislation passed and enacted into law this year.”

“There have been many commissions in recent years, but the problems which we are now confronting warrant a fresh look,” Senator Specter said. “This commission has the potential to really make some very significant advances in public security and protection from the violent criminals. I look forward to working with Senator Webb and my colleagues in the Senate on this important legislation.”

The high-level commission created by the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 legislation will be comprised of experts in fields including criminal justice, law enforcement, public heath, national security, prison administration, social services, prisoner reentry, and victims’ rights. It will be led by a chairperson to be appointed by the President. The Majority and Minority Leaders in the House and Senate, and the Democratic and Republican Governors Associations will appoint the remaining members of the commission.

Commissioners will be tasked with proposing tangible, wide-ranging reforms designed to responsibly reduce the overall incarceration rate; improve federal and local responses to international and domestic gang violence; restructure our approach to drug criminalization; improve the treatment of mental illness; improve prison administration; and establish a system for reintegrating ex-offenders.

One of the key terms above refers to the need to “restructure our approach to drug criminalization.” This is critical if we’re ever going to reform the Drug War, and perhaps a commission on prison reform is the best way to attack the billions wasted on prohibition. We should be focusing on violent criminals, not drug offenders.

Ron Paul debates Stephen Baldwin on Legalizing Marijuana

Ron Paul vs. Stephen Baldwin is like Mike Tyson vs. a five-year-old. No contest.

Paul’s most powerful argument relates to the costs of prohibition, particularly crime from drug cartels and the cost of locking up non-violent offenders.

Ending the Rockefeller Drug Laws

New York State might finally repeal the idiotic Rockefeller drug laws.

The Rockefeller drug laws is the term used to denote the statutes dealing with the sale and possession of “narcotic” drugs in the New York State Penal Law. The laws are named after Nelson Rockefeller, who was the state’s governor at the time the laws were adopted. Rockefeller, a staunch supporter of the bill containing the laws, signed it on May 8, 1973.

Under the Rockefeller drug laws, the penalty for selling two ounces (approximately 56 grams) or more of heroin, morphine, “raw or prepared opium,” cocaine, or cannabis, including marijuana (these latter two being included in the statute even though they are not “narcotics” from a chemical standpoint), or possessing four ounces (approximately 113 grams) or more of the same substances, was made the same as that for second-degree murder: a minimum of 15 years to life in prison, and a maximum of 25 years to life in prison. The original legislation also mandated the same penalty for committing a violent crime while under the influence of the same drugs, but this provision was subsequently omitted from the bill and was not part of the legislation Rockefeller ultimately signed. The section of the laws applying to marijuana was repealed in 1979, under the Democratic Governor Hugh Carey.

The New York Times has an editorial arguing for the repeal of the laws.

After 35 years of filling the state’s prisons with drug offenders who needed treatment and disproportionately punishing poor and minority offenders, New York is on the verge of dismantling its infamous Rockefeller drug laws. To get there, Gov. David Paterson and some prosecutors will have to drop their objections to a reasonable provision on second-time offenders.

The Assembly voted last week to restore judicial discretion and end mandatory sentencing for many nonviolent low-level drug crimes. The bill, which has been introduced in the State Senate as well, would limit the longstanding and widely discredited system under which prosecutors decide who goes to jail and for how long.

Once the measure becomes law, courts would be able to sentence many addicts to treatment instead of cramming them into prisons where addiction generally goes untreated.

Republican senators who represent prison districts have long obstructed reforms like these. The latest attempt seems likely to succeed now that Democrats control the governor’s mansion and both houses of the Legislature — if Assembly lawmakers can broker a deal with the governor and some prosecutors in the state.

The last paragraph struck me. It’s stunning that Republican politicians blocked reform of these laws just to keep prison populations high to protect prison jobs in their districts. Disgusting.

All around the country, our prisons are bursting and states are going broke. We need to stop locking up non-violent offenders and focus on violent criminals.

Obama will halt medical marijuana raids

Eric Holder made it pretty clear the other day that the Obama administration will respect state laws and stop arresting sick people who are using medical marijuana.

Holder joked, “What the president said during the campaign, you will be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we will be doing here in law enforcement.” After a bit of laughter, he repeated, “What he said during the campaign is now American policy.”

Just like we’re seeing with the budget, President Obama meant what he said in the campaign.

They’re just getting started

Now that the stimulus package has been approved, Fortune offers an inside look at Barack Obama’s economic team.

At this White House there’s no time to settle in. Even as their wall art sat in bubble wrap, Obama’s economic team was pushing through Congress the most expensive emergency spending package in the nation’s history. And they were helping Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner craft his own sweeping plan to rescue the nation’s banking and housing sectors, phase two of a $700 billion effort launched by his predecessor, Hank Paulson.

That’s just the start. The team is fast at work on health-care reform, energy independence, vast changes in banking regulations, and the possibility of a “grand bargain” to curb entitlement costs that envisions historic sacrifices on both sides of the aisle: Republicans supporting tax increases and Democrats conceding to benefits cuts. “This is not a small-ball President,” says Summers, Obama’s top economic advisor and chair of the National Economic Council. “He wants to take on the large issues.”

There is a breadth and breathlessness to these under-takings, a frenzy of policymaking that will shape the contours of America’s economic future. Top Obama advisors who talked (often as they walked) with Fortune in early February put a premium on speed – speed to catch the right moment to turn around a deepening recession, speed to take advantage of this moment of crisis to put in place a Democratic vision of government’s role, speed to pass major legislation while the President is riding high in the polls. Obama’s White House has been endlessly compared to Lincoln’s team of rivals, or J.F.K.’s best and brightest. But we might also toss in the image of Sandra Bullock trying to control a runaway busload of passengers before the bomb goes off. (That scene was of course from the movie – “Speed.”)

It’s becoming clear that the upcoming budget will drive home Obama’s desire to pursue a very ambitios agenda.

The President’s first budget, expected to be unveiled by budget director Peter Orszag within weeks, will chart much of the administration’s ambitious course beyond stimulus and TARP – and it will be a document that Obama’s own shop, not Congress, produces. “In his budget the President is going to lay down markers around his seriousness on all the major issues,” notes Summers.

It’s likely that the decisions and debates on these issues – ranging from health-care reform to what government programs should be cut to ease the deficit – will keep on coming at Congress at mind-numbing speed. The President wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m anxious to see which cuts they will be proposing. Our current budget is littered with programs that waste money, from farm subsidies, unnecessary weapons systems and much of the war on drugs. It’s also littered with tax loopholes bought by lobbyists, along with ridiculous restrictions preventing the government from negotiating bulk prices for drugs purchased by Medicare. If Obama can offer some serious cuts here, he’ll gain considerable credibility in his attempt to reorder the priorities of the nation.

Reforming the marijuana laws

Things are starting to change. In Massachusetts, the voters overwellmingly approved a ballot initiative decriminalizing marijuana.

Defying the scare tactics of state and local officials, voters in Massachusetts and Michigan gave current marijuana policies a resounding vote of no confidence Tuesday. Massachusetts voters approved the first marijuana decriminalization initiative ever passed by voters, Michigan voters enacted the nation’s 13th medical marijuana law, and local reform measures appeared to be passing in several communities.

“Tonight’s results represent a sea change,” said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which sponsored the Massachusetts and Michigan campaigns. “Voters have spectacularly rejected eight years of the most intense government war on marijuana since the days of ‘Reefer Madness.’”

In Michigan, White House drug czar John Walters personally campaigned against Proposal 1, calling it an “abomination.” In Massachusetts, all 11 district attorneys warned of huge increases in teen marijuana use and other dire consequences should Question 2 pass, even though studies in the 11 states with similar laws, as well as Australia and Europe, have found no such increases due to decriminalization. Under Question 2, criminal penalties for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana will be replaced by a civil fine of $100, much like a traffic ticket.

This makes sense and I expect it to gain traction around the country. Marijuana cases are clogging the courts, so more jurisdictions will begin to consider these reforms.

Medical marijuana has made even more progress, and Barack Obama has pledge to stop the disgraceful practices of the Bush adminitration to use federal laws to prosecute users of medical marijuana.

We should expect significant changes in the Drug War as well. Obama will not apoint a drug czar who views medical marijuana as an “abomination” and he has been very critical of locking up non-violent drug offenders.

It’s encouraging, however, to see these changes coming from the bottom up.

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