Tag: drug war

More on the Constitution’s Lack of a Drug-War Exception

Challenges to Florida’s unconstitutional drug laws continue to gain momentum. Following a successful federal district court challenge to the constitutionality of state statutes lacking a mens rea requirement (mental culpability, rather than, for example, incidental possession), people convicted under them have come forward en masse to ask Florida courts to reexamine their convictions.

As described in the background to a previous brief in the case of Florida Dept. of Corrections v. Shelton, the district court held that these sorts of laws offend the constitutional guarantee of due process. Florida’s Supreme Court has now consolidated over 40 appeals resulting from that federal court decision (which itself is now on appeal). Cato has once again joined the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, Calvert Institute for Policy Research, Libertarian Law Council, and 38 law professors on a brief supporting the rights of persons convicted under the “strict liability” statutes.

We urge the Florida Supreme Court to follow the federal district court’s lead and strike down laws prohibiting the sale, possession, or delivery of illicit substances without requiring mental culpability. That court now has the opportunity to reverse these unwarranted convictions and purge a nationally singular stain on civil liberties.

The name of the case is Florida v. Adkins.

Thanks to legal associate Paul Jossey for his assistance with this brief and blogpost.

New Study on Mexico’s Drug Cartels and the Global War on Drugs

Yesterday, Juan Carlos Hidalgo pointed out that Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos became the latest world leader to recognize the need to rethink the prohibitionist policies that allow powerful drug traffickers to flourish. Santos called for a new approach to “take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking” and that governments around the world, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, need to debate legalizing select drugs, such as cocaine.

From Colombia to Mexico, the drug war rages on. Despite two decades of U.S.-aided efforts to eradicate drug-related violence in Colombia, the problem persists. Indeed, the trickle-down effects from Mexico southward now threaten to engulf Guatemala. Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador are all experiencing alarming homicide rates at least partially related to drug trafficking. To address these spikes in violence and stem the flow of drugs, the United States has spent billions of dollars in Mexico and throughout Latin America. Sadly, there is little evidence that this policy has been successful, and the evidence mounts that it has been an outright failure.

A new policy is needed to stem the violence and consequences of the Mexican drug cartels pervasive power. In a new study released today, Ted Galen Carpenter, senior fellow, argues that the only lasting, effective strategy for dealing with Mexico’s drug violence is to defund the Mexican drug cartels. “The United States could substantially defund these cartels,” says Carpenter, “through the full legalization (including manufacture and sale) of currently illegal drugs.”

The new study, “Undermining Mexico’s Dangerous Drug Cartels,” is available here.

There’s No Drug War Exception to the Constitution

Florida is so zealous in pursuing the war on drugs that its laws classify the possession, sale, and delivery of controlled substances as crimes not requiring the state to prove that the defendant knew he had possessed, sold, or delivered those substances.

In Florida Dept. of Corrections v. Shelton, state prosecutors convicted Mackie Shelton of transporting cocaine under one of these “strict liability” statutes, the trial judge having instructed the jury that the state only needed to prove that Shelton delivered a substance and that the substance was cocaine. Shelton successfully challenged the constitutionality of that state law in federal court, where the district judge overturned the conviction and noted that “Florida stands alone in its express elimination of mens rea as an element of a drug offense.”

Florida appealed that ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Cato has joined the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, Calvert Institute for Policy Research, and 38 law professors on an amicus brief supporting Shelton’s position.

The Supreme Court has recognized only limited exceptions to the general rule that criminal culpability requires mens rea (a guilty mind). These “strict liability” crimes fall under the rubric of “public welfare offenses” and are typically what most people would not consider “serious,” such as traffic violations and selling alcohol to minors. Policymakers justify dispensing with mens rea requirements in such contexts by citing the need to deter businesses from imposing costs on society at large, or the burden that having to prove mens rea in these sorts of cases would overwhelm courts, or that the penalties are relatively small and carry little social stigma.

Florida’s legislature, however, went well beyond the normal boundaries of public welfare offenses in imposing strict liability for drug crimes that can carry significant prison terms — and thus violated the due process of law and traditional notions of fundamental fairness. As an alternative argument purporting to save its drug laws, Florida points to the availability of affirmative defenses, that these defenses (e.g., “I didn’t know it was cocaine”) to a presumption of guilty intent take the statute out of the (constitutionally dubious) strict liability category.

But a state may not simply presume the mens rea element of a crime: In Patterson v. New York (1977), for example, the Supreme Court held that prosecutors cannot reallocate the burden of proof by forcing a defendant to prove an affirmative defense. In requiring defendants to prove that they are “blameless” in these sorts of drug crimes, Florida’s statutes fail constitutional muster.

We urge the Eleventh Circuit to affirm the district court’s ruling that the offending state law unconstitutional.

Government at War With Itself

An op-ed in the Washington Post discusses why federal farm subsidies don’t even make sense from an activist government point of view. Most farm subsidies go for animal-feed crops, which can be viewed as a subsidy for meat production. At the same time, the government propagandizes the public to follow healthy habits and eat lots of fruit and vegetables, but not so much meat.

At www.DownsizingGovernment.org, we’ve come across many federal policies that are contradictory. The government tells the public that X is good, but then it takes actions to do the opposite. Here are some examples:

  • Government health experts tell new moms to breastfeed, but the government spends billions of dollars a year on the WIC program, which subsidizes baby formula for moms.
  • The government imposes strict rules on property owners to protect wetlands, but the government’s Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation have destroyed vast amounts of wetlands.
  • The government enforces strict anti-pollution laws, but the Department of Energy and other federal agencies have been notorious polluters.
  • The Corps of Engineers has spent billions of dollars building levees to protect against flooding, but its own infrastructure has worsened the damage caused by hurricanes.
  • The government imposes tight rules to ensure proper funding and to prevent abuse in private pension plans, but its own “pension plan”—Social Security—is a Ponzi scheme.
  • The Constitution says that the federal government is created to “insure domestic tranquility,” but the government has spurred violence with alcohol prohibition and now the drug war.

My Cato colleagues are probably aware of many other contradictions, and it seems that the more the government intervenes in society, the more it will work against both the people and itself.

When the State Takes the Children

The New York Times has an article today about how city officials take children away from parents because of marijuana use.  Here is an excerpt:

Hundreds of New Yorkers who have been caught with small amounts of marijuana, or who have simply admitted to using it, have become ensnared in civil child neglect cases in recent years, though they did not face even the least of criminal charges, according to city records and defense lawyers. A small number of parents in these cases have even lost custody of their children.

The article explains that even if a child is not immediately removed a “neglect finding” can kill prospects for certain jobs involving kids, such as a daycare assistant, and will make it easier for judges to order a removal down the road.  Even though marijuana use is very common among whites, the neglect and removal cases are mostly brought against minorities.

When drug warriors are challenged about criminalizing marijuana use, they typically deflect the question by saying, “we’re not locking up nonviolent marijuana users.”  Well that’s only because our prisons are overflowing already and they can’t convince enough lawmakers to build enough prison space to escalate the war further.  Second, below the prison numbers a low scale war continues apace–tens of thousands of arrests and court appointments and, as this article shows, child removal proceedings.

New York should follow California’s approach to this issue–if the state can demonstrate actual harm to children from marijuana use, then a neglect case can be brought.  Reporters should ask Mayor Michael Bloomberg whether his past drug use makes him unfit to be a parent or grandparent or to be in an occupation affecting the well-being of kids.