Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

America’s Longest War

In the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance, has a brisk, powerfully written piece calling for the legalization of drugs. Unfortunately, it’s subscriber-only, but here’s one of the more provocative passages:

Looking to the United States as a role model for drug control is like looking to apartheid-era South Africa for how to deal with race. The United States ranks first in the world in per-capita incarceration–with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The number of people locked up for U.S. drug-law violations has increased from roughly 50,000 in 1980 to almost 500,000 today…. In 2005, the ayatollah in charge of Iran’s Ministry of Justice issued a fatwa declaring methadone maintainance and syringe-exchange programs compatible with sharia law. One only wishes his American counterpart were comparably enlightened.

A few weeks ago, the Washington Post’s Outlook section featured an indictment of drug prohibition written by Misha Glenny: “The Lost War.” Glenny concludes with the following:

In Washington, the war on drugs has been a third-rail issue since its inauguration. It’s obvious why – telling people that their kids can do drugs is the kiss of death at the ballot box. But that was before 9/11. Now the drug war is undermining Western security throughout the world. In one particularly revealing conversation, a senior official at the British Foreign Office told me, “I often think we will look back at the War on Drugs in a hundred years’ time and tell the tale of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ This is so stupid.”

How right he is.

For some of Cato’s 30 years of work on this issue, start here.

Bonus Friday Fun Link: go to page 4 of this document [.pdf] to read about how Richard Nixon’s Archie-Bunker-style social theories led him to ramp up the war on marijuana.

Richard Jewell, RIP

There were scores of federal agents working at the 1996 Summer Olympics, but it was a private security guard named Richard Jewell who spotted the suspicious backpack loaded with explosives and sounded the alarm–sparing countless lives and injuries.  For his good deed, Jewell found himself in the crosshairs of a desperate FBI investigation.  Federal agents leaked his name to media outlets and Jewell was smeared as a killer who only wanted to pose as a hero.  The feds had to back up when the actual evidence pointed to someone else, but a lot of damage had already been done.  The life that Jewell had been hoping for was gone.  People treated him as if he had the plague.  Sadly, Jewell died yesterday.  He was only 44. 

The Jewell case serves as a reminder that the government has the power to inflict serious damage on the lives of people–even when there is no conviction in court, and even where there is no indictment.

Note that Cato will be hosting this forum about the Duke University students who got smeared in another investigation that went awry.

Note also the dismissal of charges against Frank Quattrone.  The indictment was a page one story, but the dismissal is found in section D, page 2.

Gonzales and the Constitution

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales presumably resigned because he had lost support in Congress, especially over issues relating to the firing of U.S. attorneys. But Tim Lynch, director of Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice, has long insisted that the real problem with Gonzales was not incompetence, faulty memory, or his confusing explanations of how the U.S. attorneys came to be dismissed. Rather, he wrote in May:

In area after area – from habeas corpus to separation of powers to executive responsibility – he has sought to strip out the limits that the Constitution places on presidential power. His fiasco regarding the firing of federal prosecutors is a petty offense when compared to the legal advice that he has conveyed to the President. The real scandal is his disregard for constitutional principles.

That’s why you have to appreciate Gonzales’s decision to resign effective September 17, Constitution Day. Maybe he wants to send a subtle signal that the end of his tenure could be an occasion to recover our commitment to constitutional limits on federal power and on presidential power.

Constitution Day is also, of course, famous as the day that the Cato Supreme Court Review is released at an all-day symposium on the Supreme Court’s most recent term.

They’re Laughing in Texas

I realize the death penalty should be a serious topic, with thoughtful people trying to balance the value of deterrence against the risk of wrongful execution. But incredulous laughter was my first reaction when I read the report in the EU Observer that European politicians are hectoring Texas to suspend the death penalty. I’m not sure it would be possible to make the death penalty even more popular than it already is in the Longhorn Lone Star State, but I strongly suspect that Euro-nagging could overcome the laws of mathematics and push support for executions to more than 100 percent:

The European Union has strongly criticised death penalties carried out in Texas, calling on its authorities to halt the 400th execution in the US state. In a statement released on Tuesday (21 August), the Portuguese EU presidency said the bloc viewed with “great regret” the upcoming executions and urged Texas Governor Rick Perry to halt them and consider a moratorium on the death penalty. …” Commenting on the EU’s appeal to call off his death sentence, Governor Perry replied that it would be a “just and appropriate” punishment for the murderer. “Texans long ago decided the death penalty is a just and appropriate punishment for the most horrible crimes committed against our citizens,” his spokesman told the BBC. “Two hundred and thirty years ago, our forefathers fought a war to throw off the yoke of a European monarch and gain the freedom of self-determination,” he pointed out, adding “While we respect our friends in Europe, Texans are doing just fine governing Texas.”

UPDATE: A reader reminds me, “Texas is the Lone Star State, not the Longhorn State (except to certain partisans of the University of Texas).” I guess I watch too much college football.

Good News from Iran

A variety of news outlets are reporting that Wilson Center scholar Haleh Esfandiari has been released from Evin prison “on bail,” and Reuters is reporting that Esfandiari’s lawyer, Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, is stating that Esfandiari is now “legally allowed to leave the country.” Encouraging news.

Meanwhile, our thoughts and prayers are still with Kian Tajbakhsh, Ali Shakeri, Parnaz Azima, and their friends and families.