Tag: drug legalization

Sessions Re-Escalates the Drug War

And so it begins:

In a move expected to swell federal prisons, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scuttling an Obama administration policy to avoid charging nonviolent, less-serious drug offenders with long, mandatory-minimum sentences.

Mr. Sessions’s new guidelines revive a policy created under President George W. Bush that tasked federal prosecutors with charging “the most serious readily provable offense.”

Drug War critics have feared this moment ever since President Trump nominated Sessions; now it is a reality.  The effects will be no different than after past escalations: more crime and corruption, with little or no impact on drug use.

 

Common Myths About Marijuana Legalization

This coming Tuesday, nine states will consider ballot initiatives that legalize marijuana for medical or recreational purposes under state law. Twenty-five states have already legalized marijuana for medical use, and four have legalized fully, and polls suggest many or most of the new initiatives will pass. Opponents nevertheless make strong claims about adverse consequences from existing and proposed legalizations. We argue, based on the evidence, that such claims are exaggerated, misleading, or outright false.

Legalizing marijuana dramatically increases use: Several countries (Portugal, the Netherlands, Australia, and part of the U.K.) have liberalized their marijuana laws with little or no impact on marijuana use. Research on U.S. medical marijuana laws suggests that adult marijuana use has increased only modestly. Preliminary data in Colorado and Washington, the two first states to legalize recreational marijuana, display similar trends in use before and after legalization.

Legalizing marijuana increases other substance use: Whether legalization affects other substance use depends on whether new consumers progress to drugs such as cocaine or heroin (the gateway effect) and whether existing consumers substitute marijuana for other substances.  No scientifically convincing evidence supports the gateway hypothesis for marijuana.  In fact, some research suggests that users substitute from alcohol toward marijuana after liberalization. Rates of cocaine use appear unchanged in the wake of recreational marijuana laws. Research on medical marijuana laws shows little impact on alcohol or cocaine use.

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Every 25 Seconds: Human Rights Watch and the ACLU Document More Harms from Drug Prohibition

A new report from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch details many of the harms associated with the criminalization of drug possession. The most striking finding from the report is that police in the United States arrest more people for marijuana offenses than for all violent crimes combined. The title of the report, “Every 25 Seconds,” refers to how often police arrest someone for drug possession in this country.

The full report can be found here, but other key findings include:

  • More than one out of every nine state-level arrests are for drug possession, amounting to 1.25 million arrests per year.
  • Nearly half of those arrests for marijuana possession.
  • While drug usage rates are roughly the same across racial lines, black adults are more than two-and-a-half times as likely as white adults to be arrested for possession.
  • More than 99% of drug possession convictions were the result of guilty pleas, rather than trial verdicts. The authors of the report describe this as “rendering the right to a jury trial effectively meaningless.”
  • The average bail amount for drug possession defendants was $24,000, meaning that poor defendants typically remained incarcerated while awaiting trial and had a strong incentive to plead guilty even if they believed they were innocent.
  • Defendants often did not understand the multitude of collateral consequences of a drug conviction.

When it comes to actual policy recommendations, the report urges legislators, judges, prosecutors, and police officers to de-emphasize the policing and prosecution of drug possession crimes, effectively calling for decriminalization of drug possession across the board.

While the authors stop short of recommending full legalization, even the decriminalization recommendation would be a positive step. We know this because in 2000, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. Despite predictions from critics that decriminalizing drug use would lead to massive spikes in addiction and prove a disaster, a 2009 Cato study by Glenn Greenwald put that speculation to rest. Decriminalization in Portugal has been a success, and there is no substantial movement today to return the country to prohibition.

Similarly, state experiments with legalized recreational marijuana in the U.S. are proceeding well. And the tide in favor of ending marijuana prohibition continues to grow. Next month, five more states (Arizona, California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts) will vote on whether to legalize marijuana. Those states would join Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington state, and Washington D.C. as jurisdictions that have renounced prohibition for marijuana.

Last month, a U.S. federal judge declared that the “principle casualty” of the war on drugs has been the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU/HRW report sheds new light on the truth of that declaration. It’s well past time to admit the failure of the drug war, allow the police to focus on actual crimes, ease the mounting tensions in over-policed communities, and restore our individual liberty.

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.