Tag: drug war

Historic Moment for Drug Policy Reform Movement

The momentum for drug policy reform continues to gather strength and is now undeniable.  Voters in two states–Colorado and Washington–have now approved marijuana legalization under state law.  This represents a historic moment in the drug reform movement.  Rejecting the hard-line ‘lock’em up’ mentality that has dominated U.S. drug policy, two states have now broken rank and will now try a new approach.

Legalization means adult marijuana users should not be treated like criminals.  Legalization means police should spend their time more wisely–focusing on violent offenders, not people who choose to grow and use marijuana.  Federal law remains in effect, but the Obama administration should allow the states to chart another path.  One of the benefits of our federal system is that states can experiment with different policies so we can learn what works well and what does not. 

It should also be noted that voters in Massachusetts overwhelmingly approved an initiative that would legalize medical marijuana, which continues the liberalization trend in that area.  Several cities in Michigan–most notably Detroit–voted to decriminalize marijuana for adults.

From the west coast to the east coast, the political climate for drug policy reform is getting better and better.

For related Cato work, go here and here.

You’re Eight Times More Likely to be Killed by a Police Officer than a Terrorist

It got a lot of attention this morning when I tweeted, “You’re Eight Times More Likely to be Killed by a Police Officer than a Terrorist.” It’s been quickly retweeted dozens of times, indicating that the idea is interesting to many people. So let’s discuss it in more than 140 characters.

In case it needs saying: Police officers are unlike terrorists in almost all respects. Crucially, the goal of the former, in their vastest majority, is to have a stable, peaceful, safe, law-abiding society, which is a goal we all share. The goal of the latter is … well, it’s complicated. I’ve cited my favorite expert on that, Audrey Kurth Cronin, here and here and here. Needless to say, the goal of terrorists is not that peaceful, safe, stable society.

I picked up the statistic from a blog post called: “Fear of Terror Makes People Stupid,” which in turn cites the National Safety Council for this and lots of other numbers reflecting likelihoods of dying from various causes. So dispute the number(s) with them, if you care to.

I take it as a given that your mileage may vary. If you dwell in the suburbs or a rural area, and especially if you’re wealthy, white, and well-spoken, your likelihood of death from these two sources probably converges somewhat (at very close to zero).

The point of the quote is to focus people on sources of mortality society-wide, because this focus can guide public policy efforts at reducing death. (Thus, the number is not a product of the base rate fallacy.) In my opinion, too many people are still transfixed by terrorism despite the collapse of Al Qaeda over the last decade and the quite manageable—indeed, the quite well-managed—danger that terrorism presents our society today.

If you want to indulge your fears and prioritize terrorism, you’ll have plenty of help, and neither this blog post nor any other appeal to reason or statistics is likely to convince you. Among the John Mueller articles I would recommend, though, is “Witches, Communists, and Terrorists: Evaluating the Risks and Tallying the Costs” (with Mark Stewart).

If one wants to be clinical about what things reduce death to Americans, one should ask why police officers are such a significant source of danger. I have some ideas.

Cato’s work on the War on Drugs shows how it produces danger to the public and law enforcement both, not to mention loss of privacy and civil liberties, disrespect for law enforcement, disregard of the rule of law, and so on. Is the sum total of mortality and morbidity reduced or increased by the War on Drugs? I don’t know to say. But the War on Drugs certainly increases the danger to innocent people (including law enforcement personnel), where drug legalization would allow harm to naturally concentrate on the people who choose unwisely to use drugs.

The militarization of law enforcement probably contributes to the danger. Cato’s Botched Paramilitary Police Raids map illustrates the problem of over-aggressive policing. Cato alum Radley Balko now documents these issues at the Huffington Post. Try out his “Cop or Soldier?” quiz.

There are some bad apples in the police officer barrel. Given the power that law enforcement personnel have—up to and including the power to kill—I’m not satisfied that standards of professionalism are up to snuff. You can follow the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project on Twitter at @NPMRP.

If the provocative statistic cited above got your attention, that’s good. If it adds a little more to your efforts at producing a safe, stable, peaceful, and free society, all the better.

Fourth Amendment Gone to the Dogs—and to Lasers?!

For all their use by law enforcement across the country, drug-sniffing dogs haven’t gotten a lot of consideration in the Supreme Court. In a pair of cases next fall, though, the Court seems likely to give them some attention. Florida v. Harris is one of the cases it has taken. Harris will examine “[w]hether an alert by a well-trained narcotics detection dog certified to detect illegal contraband is insufficient to establish probable cause for the search of a vehicle.”

This week, we filed an amicus brief in the other drug-sniffing dog case, coming out of the same state. Florida v. Jardines asks whether the Fourth Amendment would be implicated if the government brought a drug-sniffing dog to the front door of your home seeking the scent of illegality.

What the Court has done with drug-sniffing dogs so far is not very good. We homed in on the major precedent, Caballes, to illustrate the weakness of the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test that originated in United States v. Katz (1967).

In Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005), this Court did not apply Katz analysis. It did not examine (or even assume) whether Roy Caballes had exhibited a subjective expectation of privacy, the first step in the Katz test. Thus, the Court could not take the second step, examining its objective reasonableness.

Instead, the Caballes Court skipped forward to a corollary of the Katz test that the Court had drawn in United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109 (1984): “Official conduct that does not ‘compromise any legitimate interest in privacy’ is not a search subject to the Fourth Amendment.” Caballes, 543 U.S. at 408 (quoting Jacobsen, 466 U.S. at 123).

This is a logical extension of the Katz test, and one that helps reveal its weakness in maintaining the Fourth Amendment’s protections consistently over time. Now, instead of examining whether searches and seizures are reasonable, courts applying the Jacobsen/Caballes corollary can uphold any activity of government agents sufficiently tailored to discovering only crime.

What kinds of activities might those include? We talked about lasers.

A DHS program that might be directed not only at persons, but also at their houses and effects, is called the “Remote Vapor Inspection System” (or RVIS). RVIS “generates laser beams at various frequencies” to be aimed at a “target vapor.” Beams “reflected and scattered back to the sensor head” reveal “spectral ‘signatures’” that can be compared with the signatures of sought-after gasses and particulates. [citations omitted] Using RVIS, government agents might remotely examine the molecular content of the air in houses and cars, quietly and routinely explore the gasses exiting houses through chimneys and air ducts, and perhaps even silently inspect any person’s exhaled breath. If RVIS technology is programmed to indicate only on substances that indicate wrongdoing, the Jacobsen/Caballes corollary extinguishes the idea that its pervasive, frequent, and secret use would be a search.

If a dog sniff only reveals illegal activity, compromising no privacy interest, it’s not a search. So using lasers to check your breath for illegal substances is not a search either. We hope, obviously, that the Court will do away with this rule, which is so attenuated from both the language and the purpose of the Fourth Amendment.

Instead of determining whether a person has “reasonable expectations of privacy”—we called that doctrine a “jumble of puzzles”—courts should examine whether a “search” has occurred by seeing if police accessed something that was hidden from view.

When a person has used physics and law to conceal something from others, the Fourth Amendment and the Court should back those privacy-protective arrangements, breaching them only when there is probable cause and a warrant (or some exception to the warrant requirement).

To hold otherwise would be to allow the government to invade privacy not just using drug-sniffing dogs but using ever more sophisticated technology.

Obama Is But a Small Cog in Drug War Machine

President Obama recently gave an interview to Rolling Stone and tried to defend his drug war policies–especially his escalation of the federal war against medical marijuana providers in California.  Obama now says anyone who thought he was hoping he’d change course from the Bush-Ashcroft policies somehow got the wrong impression from his 2008 campaign.  And, besides, he said you can’t blame the president for laws passed by the Congress.  Obama would have us believe that he’s just a small cog in the drug war machine.

A few questions for the president:

1.  Have you thought about your pardon power?

2.  Have you thought about rescheduling marijuana?

3.  Have you thought about prioritizing federal law enforcement resources?

4.  Have you thought about urging the Congress to, you know,  change  the drug laws?

5.  Have you thought about removing yourself from the presidential race?  There’s still time.

For related Cato scholarship, go here.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Federal Appellate Judge Andre Davis has penned an op-ed about mandatory minimum sentences.  Here’s an excerpt:

As a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, I learn of many personal narratives. Tony Gregg’s bears retelling.

Mr. Gregg was a user, a seller, a “snitch” for the FBI. His early life was marked by abuse and instability, suicide attempts, jails and prison stays. As a drug user, Mr. Gregg resorted to selling crack cocaine — not kilos, but several grams at a time out of a hotel room in a run-down section of Richmond, Va.

Not unexpectedly, he was arrested and convicted. A district judge sentenced Mr. Gregg to the mandatory term of life imprisonment, required by statute, at the discretion of the prosecutor, for a third conviction of a felony drug offense.

When Mr. Gregg’s case came before me and my colleagues on appeal, there was nothing we could do but uphold the sentence of life in prison. The appellate court, like the disapproving trial court, found its hands were tied.

I do not believe Mr. Gregg deserves life in prison — the kind of sentence often imposed on convicted murderers — but I am handicapped by mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, set by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

And Mr. Gregg’s is far from the only story that underscores the kind of handcuffing by mandatory minimums that U.S. judges habitually face.

After 25 years of watching countless Tony Greggs serve out impossibly long sentences for transgressions that would be better served by drug treatment and social safety nets, I say with certainty that mandatory minimums are unfair and unjust. They cost taxpayers too much money and make very little sense.

For more information, vist the FAMM web site.

 

Drug War Update

When a war is not going well, one response is to escalate.  There has been a lot of escalation in the drug war.  Here are two recent examples:

1.  Federal agent loses his job for questioning the wisdom of the drug war.  Some government officials do not like the fact that the group “Law Enforcement Against Prohibition” (LEAP) has a growing membership.

2.  Police agents tell judge in a warrant application that DVDs that educate citizens about their constitutional rights make certain organizations  suspicious.   Really.  Since the film in question, “10 Rules for Dealing with the Police” premiered at Cato, maybe undercover officers are now attending our events.  Neill Franklin, executive director of LEAP, spoke at Cato about the 10 Rules educational DVD and he says that film ought to be used in police training–to show agents how to respect the constitutional rights of people in the community.

Ethan Nadelmann recently spoke at Cato on the prospects for drug policy reform.  And the NYT had a good piece on the militarization of police tactics yesterday.

For more Cato work on drug policy, go here.