Tag: drug war

From Hell to Heaven

Cory Maye was in his home one evening minding his own business when his front door came crashing down.  Frightened that criminals were going to harm him and his child, Maye quickly retrieved a gun.  When his bedroom door came crashing down next, Maye fired.  When the lights came on, it turned out that the intruders were police officers and that Maye had killed one of them.  The nightmare had only just begun for Maye.  Police and prosecutors twisted a case of self-defense into a “murder” charge and they sought the death penalty.  Cato fellow Radley Balko read about the case when he was researching a paper concerning the militarization of police tactics and no-knock raids.  Radley then wrote about the injustice of Maye’s situation and word spread via the internet.  A new legal team took up the case and appeals followed.  When a court ordered a new trial for Maye, prosecutors offered a deal–plead guilty to a lesser charge and Maye would be set free because he had already served years in a Mississippi prison.  Maye took the deal even though many thought he should not have any criminal conviction on his record for what happened that night.  Still, it is hard to blame a guy for wanting to get out of prison to see his children just as fast as he possibly could.  Maye was released a few days ago and here’s a snap of him playing around with his son. 

Congrats to Maye.  Congrats to Radley.  And congrats to Maye’s lawyers at Covington and Burling.

Previous coverage here and here.

10 Years of Drug Decriminalization in Portugal

Ten years ago this month, Portugal rejected the conventional approach to drug policy–more laws, stiffer prison sentences, more police–and went the other way by decriminalizing all drugs, even cocaine and heroin.  The drug warriors predicted a disaster.  They said drug use would spike and there would be a public health crisis.  That did not happen.  As Glenn Greenwald showed in a 2009 Cato report, Portugal is doing better than before and in many respects is doing better than other countries in the European Union that take the hard-line, criminal approach to drug use.  The buzzword in Washington these days is “evidence-based research.”  Well, there you have it.

More here and here.   Thanks to the Huffington Post for the pointer.

“Cory Maye Will Soon Be Free”

…that’s what former Cato policy analyst, Reason senior editor and now Huffington Post reporter Radley Balko reports:

I’m in Monticello, Mississippi, this morning, where Circuit Court Judge Prentiss Harrell has just signed a plea agreement between Cory Maye and the state. Maye has plead guilty to a reduced charged of manslaughter, and has been resentenced to 10 years in prison, time he has already served. He’ll be sent to Rankin County for processing. He should be released and home with his family in a matter of days.

Cory Maye’s is a story about a paramilitary-style drug raid gone grotesquely wrong, a cautionary tale about the human costs of the War on Drugs, and a lesson in how a dedicated investigative reporter can throw a wrench in the ever-grinding wheels of injustice. If you’re unfamiliar with the case, and Radley’s role in it, watch the terrific Reason.tv video, “Mississippi Drug War Blues” below, and read this blogpost I wrote a couple of years ago, when Radley’s work first started drawing attention to the case: “The Cato Policy Analyst Who (May Have) Saved a Man’s Life.” We can remove the “may have” now.

And here’s Radley’s update at the Huffington Post.

40 Years of Drug Prohibition

It was 40 years ago today that President Richard Nixon said the “drug menace” had reached the dimensions of a “national emergency.”  Nixon asked Congress to allocate $155 million to fight drug abuse and requested a new central office in the White House to coordinate governmental efforts on the problem.  Thus began the modern drug war.  It’s true that criminal laws were already in place in many jurisdictions, but it was Nixon’s call for a “new, all-out offensive” that really started to ramp things up.  Each year brought calls for more money–and that  meant more police, more raids, more wiretaps, more arrests, and more prisons.  And more foreign intervention.

The Associated Press ran a good article that examined the 40 year policy and the trillion dollars that went into the policy.   Here’s an excerpt:

Using Freedom of Information Act requests, archival records, federal budgets and dozens of interviews with leaders and analysts, the AP tracked where [all the] money went, and found that the United States repeatedly increased budgets for programs that did little to stop the flow of drugs. In 40 years, taxpayers spent more than:

— $20 billion to fight the drug gangs in their home countries. In Colombia, for example, the United States spent more than $6 billion, while coca cultivation increased and trafficking moved to Mexico — and the violence along with it.

— $33 billion in marketing “Just Say No”-style messages to America’s youth and other prevention programs. High school students report the same rates of illegal drug use as they did in 1970, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug overdoses have “risen steadily” since the early 1970s to more than 20,000 last year.

— $49 billion for law enforcement along America’s borders to cut off the flow of illegal drugs. This year, 25 million Americans will snort, swallow, inject and smoke illicit drugs, about 10 million more than in 1970, with the bulk of those drugs imported from Mexico.

— $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, about 10 million of them for possession of marijuana. Studies show that jail time tends to increase drug abuse.

— $450 billion to lock those people up in federal prisons alone. Last year, half of all federal prisoners in the U.S. were serving sentences for drug offenses.

Read the whole thing.

I hosted a debate this week to mark this unfortunate policy milestone.  Cato senior fellow Jeff Miron squared off against Dr. Robert DuPont, who was one of the key policy staffers in the Nixon White House in 1971.  Dr. DuPont remains convinced that the present policy approach is essentially correct.   Watch the event and decide for yourself.

In my 2000 book, After Prohibition, Milton Friedman noted that America’s drug war policy had dozens of negative consequences.  One consequence that he believed received too little attention was the policy’s effect on other people around the world.  Friedman said the policy was responsible for the deaths of “hundreds of thousands of people at home and abroad by fighting a war that should never have been started.”   The violence in Mexico confirms Friedman’s analysis.  The Los Angeles Times recently reported that more than 34,000 people have been killed during the government’s crackdown over just the past four years.

Ending the drug war is one of the signature issues for the Cato Institute.  The other think tanks in Washington, DC–Brookings, AEI, and Heritage–support the drug war.  We believe the drug war will eventually be widely recognized as a tragic mistake in much the same way as we presently look back upon the days of alcohol prohibition.

For additional Cato work related to drug policy, go here.

The Supreme Court and the California Prison System

This morning the Supreme Court issued a remarkable ruling [pdf] concerning California’s prison system.   Because of years of pervasive overcrowding, there have been systemic violations of the Constitution’s ban on Cruel and Unusual Punishments.  To remedy those violations, the Court affirmed a lower court order to reduce the prison population.  I was not surprised to learn that Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the majority opinion in this case, Brown v. Plata. In a 2003 speech to the American Bar Association (reprinted in my book In the Name of Justice), Kennedy tried to raise more awareness about America’s prison system.  He made the point that every citizen ought to take an interest in the prison system–it is not just the realm of correctional personnel.  Here’s an excerpt from Kennedy’s speech:

The subject [of prisons] is the concern and responsibility of every member of [the legal] profession and of every citizen.  This is your justice system; these are your prisons. … [W]e should know what happens after the prisoner is taken away.  To be sure, the prisoner has violated the social contract; to be sure he must be punished to vindicate the law, to acknowledge the suffering of the victim, and to deter future crimes.  Still, the prisoner is a person; still, he or she is part of the family of humankind.

Were we to enter the hidden world of punishment, we should be startled by what we see. Consider its remarkable scale.  The nationwide inmate population today is about 2.1 million people.  In California … this state alone keeps over 160,000 persons behind bars.  In countries such as England, Italy, France, and Germany, the incarceration rate is about 1 in 1,000 persons.  In the United States it is about 1 in 143.

The numbers are only the beginning of the story.  Do not assume that the government has the facilities to house the prisoners that are sentenced.  California is housing far beyond the design capacity of its prisons–double. That is, it has designed a system for 80,000 but has stuffed 160,000 into the buildings.  The sheer number of inmates has overwhelmed the facilities and staff. Kennedy’s opinion details the abysmal conditions, but I will mention a few:

  • In one prison, 54 men share one toilet
  • medical staff sometimes use closets and storage rooms for ill patients-rooms without adequate ventalition.
  • exam tables are not disinfected after use by prisoners with communicable diseases
  • men held for hours and hours in telephone booth sized cages with no toilet
  • California’s prison system averages one suicide a week (80% higher than the national average)
  • Men with medical problems go untreated and die.  These are not cancer patients.  These are preventable deaths.  For example, a man with stomach pain goes five weeks without medical treatment and dies.

A corrections official from Texas toured California’s facilities and he testified that he has been in the field 35 years and was just appalled.  He’d “seen nothing like it.”

Four conservative justices–Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito–dissented from the ruling.  Scalia said the outcome was “absurd” – “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nation’s history.”  Justice Alito said the Constitution “imposes an important–but limited–restraint on state authority in [the prison] field.  The Eighth Amendment prohibits prison officials from depriving inmates of ‘the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.’”  The conservatives concede, as they must, that the California prison system is really bad, but they argue that it is not yet so awful so as to warrant judicial intervention and a population reduction order.  Kennedy and the liberals in the majority (Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan) make a persuasive case that California’s elected officials have had ample opportunity to address the systemic problems, but have let them fester year after year.

For related Cato work, go here and here.

Gerson Gets It Wrong Again

Michael Gerson’s predictable, reflexive attack on Rep. Ron Paul in his May 10 op-ed in the WaPo for Paul’s sensible stand in favor of ending the futile crusade called the War on Drugs, makes a curious argument.  He asserts that there is a “de facto decriminalization of drugs” in Washington, D.C.  Curious, because there are few places in the nation where the drug war is waged more vigorously.  Doesn’t seem to be working, does it?

Yet Gerson would expand the effort.  Never mind that the social pathologies in the District for which Gerson’s compassionate conservative heart bleeds are mainly a result of making drugs illegal:  Turf wars with innocents caught in the crossfire; children quitting school to sell drugs because of the artificially high prices prohibition creates; disrespect for the law due to a massive criminal subculture.

Gerson, one of the chief architects of the disastrous Bush II administration, should step away from his obsessive disdain for libertarianism and consider the nationwide decriminalization of drugs undertaken in Portugal in 2001.  Drugs use is down, particularly among young people, and drug-related crimes have dropped precipitously.  There is a reason hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have taken to the streets to call for the end to the war on drugs there that is tearing apart the fabric of Mexican society.  On top of the social aspects of the drug war dystopia, Cato senior fellow and Harvard economist Jeffery Miron estimates that ending the drug war in the U.S. would save $41.3 billion annually.  As usual, Ron Paul has it right.

Obama’s Trip to Latin America

As Ted Carpenter notes below, President Obama is departing on an important trip to Latin America. The countries that he will visit exemplify the macroeconomic stability and advancement of democratic institutions now found in much of the region.

Brazil, by far the largest Latin American economy, has enjoyed almost a decade of sound growth and poverty reduction. Chile is the most developed country in the region thanks to decades of economic liberalization, a process that has also made it Latin America’s most mature democracy. And El Salvador is undergoing a delicate period in its transition to becoming a full-fledged democracy with its first left-of-center president since the end of the civil war in 1992.

In an era when most Latin American nations are moving in the right direction—albeit at different speeds, with some setbacks, and with notable exceptions—the United States can serve as a catalyst of change by contributing to more economic integration and the consolidation of the rule of law in the region.

Unfortunately, despite President Obama’s assurances that he’s interested in strengthening economic ties with Latin America, his administration is still delaying the ratification of two important free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. President Obama also continues to support a failed war on drugs that significantly exacerbates violence and institutional frailty in the region, particularly in Mexico and Central America.

It’s good that President Obama’s trip will highlight significant progress in Latin America, but his administration’s policy actions still don’t match the U.S. goals of encouraging economic growth and sound institutional development in the region.