Tag: drug legalization

Making Sense of Drug Violence in Mexico with Big Data, New Media, and Technology

Yesterday we hosted a very interesting event with Google Ideas about the use of new media and technology information in Mexico’s war on drugs. You can watch the whole thing in the video below.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest casualties from the bloodshed that besets Mexico is freedom of the press. Drug cartels have targeted traditional media outlets such as TV stations and newspapers for their coverage of the violence. Mexico is now the most dangerous country to be a journalist. However, a blackout of information about the extent of violence has been avoided because of activity on Facebook pages, blogs, Twitter accounts, and YouTube channels.

Our event highlighted the work of two Mexican researchers on this topic. Andrés Monroy-Hernández from Microsoft Research presented the findings of his paper “The New War Correspondents: The Rise of Civic Media Curation in Urban Warfare” which shows how Twitter has replaced traditional media in several Mexican cities as the primary source of information about drug violence. Also, we had Javier Osorio, a Ph.D. candidate from Notre Dame University, who has built original software that tracks the patterns of drug violence in Mexico using computerized textual annotation and geospatial analysis.

Our third panelist was Karla Zabludovsky, a reporter from the New York Times’ Mexico City Bureau, who talked about the increasing dangers faced by journalists in Mexico and the challenges that new media represent in covering the war on drugs in that country.

Even though Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s new president, has focused the narrative of his presidency on economic reform, the war on drugs continues to wreak havoc in Mexico. Just in the first two months of the year over 2,000 people have been killed by organized crime. 

At the Cato Institute we closely keep track of developments in Mexico and we have published plenty of material on the issue, including:

Watch the full event:

And for those who speak the language of Cervantes, here’s a ten minute interview that Karla Zabludovsky and I did on CNN en Español about the Cato event.

Book ‘Em, Danno

I hope you’ve got your NCAA bracket in by now. The NCAA estimates that 35 million Americans will do so. But keep in mind: As the Washington Post notes, you’re breaking the law:

Office pools, despite the warnings of law enforcement officials, are among the country’s most popular illegal activities. The FBI estimates that roughly $2.5 billion is gambled on the NCAA tournament, and only $80 million is bet legally through Nevada sports books. A good portion of the rest takes the form of $5 or $10 entry fees to participate in a bracket-pick NCAA tournament pool.

Is this the most popular illegal activity in America? Well, the Office of National Drug Control Policy says that 104 million Americans have used marijuana, 28.5 million in the past year.

Does it make sense to criminalize peaceful activity that tens of millions of Americans enjoy? Discuss.

Kathy Bates Takes on Drug Legalization

The new NBC drama “Harry’s Law” has a preposterous premise, but it does give Kathy Bates a chance to chew some scenery. In the pilot – to be repeated tonight at 8 p.m. – she’s defending a young black man facing jail time for drug possession. And she unleashes a tirade against the drug war and against an outmatched prosecutor. Conservative bloggers have complained because Bates’s character Harriet “Harry” Korn said that the idea of drug decriminalization ”was first raised by conservative Republicans … when the party had thinkers, before it was hijacked by the likes of Rush Limbaugh.” (Exchange begins at about 24:00 in the episode.)

Looking for video of her courtroom speech, I found this excellent discussion from Inimai Chettiar and Rebecca McCray of the ACLU. I yield the floor to them:

While the opening few minutes are a bit absurd (Harry’s first client is a third-time drug offender who literally lands on her after jumping off a building), the show’s pilot brings to light the serious problem of overincarceration in our country.

In her closing argument to a jury in defense of a young man charged with cocaine possession (minutes 27-31 of the episode), Harry delivers a touching and evidence-based appeal to the jury and argues that incarceration is not the appropriate way to deal with drug offenders. She points out:

“[S]tudy after study after study has shown that when you take kids like Malcolm [her young black client] and you stick them in jail, you increase the likelihood that they’ll remain addicts, or wind up homeless, or worst of all become more hardened and career criminals. When it comes to drug abuse, treatment is seven times more cost effective than incarceration. Seven times. It’s an indisputable fact.”

Since television statistics can often be far from the truth, we did a little research. It seems the show’s “seven times” statistic may be based on a 1994 reportcommissioned by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. Several recent studies also show that treatment is far more cost effective than incarceration for drug offenses. Drug offenses, especially possession, are often indicative of addiction. And addiction, more than being a criminal offense, is something that can be treated. Treatment rehabilitates drug offenders at a lower cost, allowing them to become productive members of society. Incarcerating someone is expensive. And as Harry so effectively points out, prison “neither treats nor trains nor rehabilitates” — it merely risks making someone more dangerous and likely to commit crimes in the future. Harry is right: these are the facts.

In one of the more poignant moments in her speech, Harry argues that “intrinsic to justice is humanity. Humanity couldn’t call for this young man to be locked up — it simply couldn’t.” It’s true. Not only is it inhumane to lock up people who are addicted to drugs, it’s unreasonable and fiscally irresponsible.

Taxpayers spend almost $70 billion a year on corrections and incarceration. There are 1.6 million Americans in prison — that is triple the amount of prisoners we had in 1987 — and 25 percent of those incarcerated are locked up for drug offenses. When those who are incarcerated are released, they earn approximately 40 percent less than they did before entering prison — that means their economic mobility is almost half of what it was before incarceration. In times of a global economic crisis, do we really want to spend this much money locking up small time offenders? And do we really want to lock up such a large chunk of our labor force and decrease their future earning potential when it could serve as a drag on our future economic recovery? And on top of all this, it’s proven ineffective to imprison people for drug offenses — incarceration doesn’t fix the problem of drug addiction.

It’s even more ineffective (and inhumane) to lock up our kids who are addicted to drugs — as Harry points out, doing so is akin to throwing them away — thereby increasing the likelihood they will have lives filled with inhumane prison conditions, mental health problems, lack of economic opportunity, and continued addiction. And by imprisoning our children for drug offenses, we risk creating a cycle that may prevent their kids from having brighter futures. One in every 28 children in this country has a parent behind bars, up from one in 125 just 25 years ago. We are sacrificing these children’s lives as well. Just as we increasingly can’t afford the cost of incarceration, we can’t afford to lose our kids and our country to the cycle of incarceration and poverty.

The show’s perspective isn’t necessarily profound, but it is pleasant to hear Harry’s words cut through the din of fear-driven plotlines that have for so long been a staple in popular television crime dramas.

Bonus libertarian point: The title “Harry’s Law” reminds me of “Harry’s War,” a 1981 movie about the depredations of the IRS.

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Hispanics And Proposition 19

Polls suggest that Hispanics in California are largely opposed to Proposition 19, which would legalize marijuana in that state. This is unfortunate since Hispanics have historically been disproportionate victims of drug prohibition.

Earlier this week, David Kopel wrote a historical analysis in Encyclopedia Britannica of the racist origins of marijuana prohibition, which targeted Mexicans in particular. Back in the 1930’s when the federal government started cracking down on marijuana consumption, officials openly worried about the effect of the drug on “degenerate Spanish-speaking residents … who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions.”

Some people might claim that even though racial profiling certainly was behind marijuana prohibition, its current enforcement affects all racial groups alike. However, a recent report from the Drug Policy Alliance shows that Hispanics are still overwhelmingly targeted by the police for marijuana offenses. The report states, “From 2006 through 2008, major cities in California arrested and prosecuted Latinos for marijuana possession at double to nearly triple the rate of whites,” even though surveys show that young Hispanics use marijuana at lower rates than young whites. Hispanics are still victims of racial profiling due to marijuana prohibition.

It is not surprising that a socially conservative electorate such as Hispanics would oppose marijuana legalization. Unfortunately, many misconceptions about  drug legalization still abound and are magnified by opponents of the measure. Thus, it is important that Hispanics keep in mind that:

  • Legalization doesn’t mean endorsing or consenting drug consumption.
  • There is an important difference between drug consumption and drug abuse, just as there is a big difference between alcohol consumption and alcoholism.
  • There is also a critical distinction between the negative consequences of drug abuse, such as family disintegration, health problems, loss of workers’ productivity, etc., and the negative consequences of prohibition, like crime, violence, corruption, and high mortality of users due to overdoses, etc. Many people, when arguing against legalization, bring up scenes of violence and crime, when actually these problems would greatly diminish once the illegal black market for drugs is legalized.

Hispanics should also take note of what Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos has said about Proposition 19. The war on drug has been wreaking havoc in Latin America, and it’s increasingly threatening the institutional stability of Mexico and Central America, where many Californian Hispanics come from. Santos has signaled that passing Proposition 19 would force his government to push for a “world-wide discussion” on drug policy. Marijuana legalization in California could thus trigger a global debate on ending the war on drugs, which has cost Latin America dearly for so many years.

Hispanics in California have many reasons to favor the end of marijuana prohibition. They would be doing themselves a big favor if they vote yes next Tuesday.

Nine Key Ballot Initiatives to Watch

While everyone is focused on the battle to see which party will control the House and/or Senate, there are several issues that voters will directly decide that deserve close attention. Here are nine initiatives that I’ll be watching next Tuesday.

1. Imposing an income tax in the state of Washington - This is the one I’ll be following very closely. I have a hard time thinking that voters would be dumb enough to impose an income tax, but the Pacific Northwest is a bit crazy on these issues. Oregon voters, for instance, approved higher tax rates earlier this year.

2. Stopping eminent domain abuse in Nevada - This initiative is very simple. It stops the state from seizing private property if the intent is to transfer it to a private party (thus shutting the door that was opened by the Supreme Court’s reprehensible Kelo decision).

3. Marijuana legalization in California - Proponents of a more sensible approach to victimless crimes will closely watch this initiative to see whether Golden State voters will say yes to pot legalization, subject to local regulation. (David Boaz and Juan Carlos Hidalgo already have commented on the implications of this vote)

4. Strengthen rights of gun owners in Kansas - If approved, this initiative would remove any ambiguity about whether individuals have the right to keep and bear arms.

5. Protecting health care freedom in Arizona - For all intents and purposes, this is a referendum on Obamacare. I’m hoping that it will pass overwhelmingly, thus giving a boost to the repeal campaign. There’s apparently a similar initiative in Oklahoma, but it hasn’t gotten as much attention.

6. Reducing benefits for bureaucrats in San Francisco - If one of the craziest, left-wing cities in America decides to require bureaucrats to make meaningful contributions to support their bloated pension and health benefits, that’s a sign that the gravy train may be in jeopardy for bureaucrats all across the nation.

7. Making it easier to increase government spending in California - The big spenders want to get rid of the two-thirds requirement in the state legislature to approve a budget. This would pave the way for even bigger government in a state that already is close to bankruptcy.

8. Reducing the sales tax in Massachusetts - The entire political establishment is fighting this proposal to roll back the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 3 percent, and pro-spending lobbies are pouring big money into a campaign against the initiative, so you know it must be a good idea.

9. Controlling benefits for bureaucrats in Louisiana - The initiative would require a two-thirds vote to approve any expansion of taxpayer-financed benefits for government employees.

Spain’s Former Drug Czarina Endorses Legalization

Quoting great classical liberal minds such as Milton Friedman, Gary Becker and Mario Vargas Llosa, Spain’s former drug Czarina Araceli Manjón-Cabeza endorsed drug legalization today in a compelling op-ed [in Spanish] published in El País, Spain’s leading newspaper. Just a week earlier, Felipe González, Spain’s former Primer Minister, also came out in support of drug legalization.

Manjón-Cabeza takes particular aim at the UN International Narcotics Control Board for its criticisms of the different decriminalization and harm-reduction policies implemented in recent years in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, and Spain, among other countries. She calls the INCB’s views “inadmissible.”

She concluded by calling prohibition a “savage and inefficient instrument that is not the ‘solution’ but instead a big part of the problem.” Manjón-Cabeza says that insisting on prohibitionist policies amounts to “insanity.” Finally, some common sense talk from a former drug czar.

New Colombian President Backs Debate on Drug Legalization

Colombia’s new president Juan Manuel Santos came out last week in support of a debate on drug legalization, endorsing the call made a few weeks ago by his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderón.

Santos even said that if Californian voters passed a ballot initiative this November to legalize marijuana, he would team up with the presidents of Mexico and Peru “to work out how we are going to react and what is going to happen after this referendum.”

This seems to confirm the reports of the Mexican newspaper El Universal which claimed that Calderón’s turn around in his willingness to discuss drug legalization came after meeting with then president-elect Santos, who told him that Mexico should lead a debate on drug legalization. A week ago, Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla said she was open for a debate on legalizing marijuana [in Spanish], even though she personally was against it.

Santos’ statement came the same week that leading Latin American experts met in Rio de Janeiro for the 2nd Latin American Conference on Drug Policy that I spoke at. Among the speakers were government officials from several Latin American countries, representatives from international agencies such as the Pan-American Organization and the UN, and experts from academia and NGOs. Even though not all speakers favored drug legalization or decriminalization, most did. The experience of Portugal on the issue (thoroughly documented in a paper by Glen Greenwald published last year by Cato) was widely cited during the conference. One panelist, a Brazilian congressman from the incumbent Workers Party, said that Brazil needed to adopt the same model as Portugal.

Attitudes on drug policy are changing in Latin America. The question remains: Is anyone in Washington paying attention?