Tag: drug war

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.

 

Endless War in Afghanistan and Colombia

Two front-page stories in the Washington Post today tell a depressing story:

President Trump’s most senior military and foreign policy advisers have proposed a major shift in strategy in Afghanistan that would effectively put the United States back on a war footing with the Taliban…more than 15 years after U.S. forces first arrived there.

Seventeen years and $10 billion after the U.S. government launched the counternarcotics and security package known as Plan Colombia, America’s closest drug-war ally is covered with more than 460,000 acres of coca. Colombian farmers have never grown so much, not even when Pablo Escobar ruled the drug trade. 

There are high school students about to register for the draft who have never known a United States not at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. And of course the policy of drug prohibition has now lasted more than a century, though the specific Colombian effort began only under President Clinton around 1998, getting underway in 2000.

I wrote an op-ed, “Let’s Quit the Drug War,” in the New York Times in 1988. Cato scholars and authors have been writing about the seemingly endless war(s) in the Middle East for years now. Maybe it’s time for policymakers to start considering whether endless war is a sign of policy failure.

And maybe one day, a generation from now, our textbooks will not tell our children, We have always been at war with Eastasia.

Drug War Skeptic Beto O’Rourke Announces Senate Bid

Since his election to Congress in 2012, Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) has been one of the federal legislature’s most outspoken critics of the failed drug war. Rep. O’Rourke is in the news again this week following his announcement that he plans to run against sitting Senator Ted Cruz in 2018.

In November of 2011, O’Rourke spoke at Cato’s “Ending the Global War on Drugs” conference regarding his experiences as an El Paso native and the costs of drug prohibition on both sides of the border.

Rep. O’Rourke also spoke with Cato regarding his support for immigration reform in March of last year.

Clarence Thomas Is Skeptical of Civil Asset Forfeiture

Justice Clarence Thomas yesterday signalled that the abusive practice of civil asset forfeiture is ripe for expanded constitutional scrutiny.

The case is Lisa Olivia Leonard v. Texas.  James Leonard (the petitioner’s son) was stopped by police for a traffic infraction in 2013 “along a known drug corridor.”  Police searched Mr. Leonard’s vehicle and discovered a safe containing $201,100 and the bill of sale for a home. Arguing that the money was either proceeds from a drug sale or going to be used in such a sale, the state initiated forfeiture proceedings and took the money.  The safe actually belonged to James’ mother Lisa, who brought suit to protect her property from the government seizure.

The Supreme Court denied certiorari for procedural reasons, but Justice Thomas had some harsh words for civil forfeiture anyway, and suggested that it’s time for the Supreme Court to take another look at the practice:

Civil proceedings often lack certain procedural protections that accompany criminal proceedings, such as the right to a jury trial and a heightened standard of proof.

Partially as a result of this distinct legal regime, civil forfeiture has in recent decades become widespread and highly profitable. And because the law enforcement entity responsible for seizing the property often keeps it, these entities have strong incentives to pursue forfeiture.

This system - where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use - has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses…

Justice Thomas also noted the disparate impact these types of abuses have on the poorest and most vulnerable communities:

These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings.  Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture. And they are more likely to suffer in their daily lives while they litigate for the return of a critical item of property, such as a car or a home.

The opinion goes on to explain that while the court has historically upheld the constitutionality of civil forfeiture, the modern practice of forfeiture has strayed far from its narrow historical use and purpose:

I am skeptical that this historical practice is capable of sustaining, as a constitutional matter, the contours of modern practice, for two reasons.

First, historical forfeiture laws were narrower in most respects than modern ones. Most obviously, they were limited to a few specific subject matters, such as customs and piracy. Proceeding in rem in those cases was often justified by necessity, because the party responsible for the crime was frequently located overseas and thus beyond the personal jurisdiction of the United States courts. These laws were also narrower with respect to the type of property they encompassed. For example, they typically covered only the instrumentalities of the crime (such as the vessel used to transport the goods), not the derivative proceeds of the crime (such as property purchased with money from the sale of the illegal goods).

Second, it is unclear whether courts historically permitted forfeiture actions to proceed civilly in all respects. Some of this Court’s early cases suggested that forfeiture actions were in the nature of criminal proceedings…

Lastly, while agreeing with the Court’s refusal to hear the case for procedural reasons, Justice Thomas nonetheless expressed his interest in taking another look at civil forfeiture:

Whether this Court’s treatment of the broad modern forfeiture practice can be justified by the narrow historical one is certainly worthy of consideration in greater detail.

In his opinion, Justice Thomas refers to the Institute for Justice’s Policing for Profit survey of forfeiture laws around the country, and also to Sarah Stillman’s expose Taken, documenting several instances of forfeiture abuse. Both of those sources are worth reading for a better idea of just how bad the incentives of civil forfeiture are and the abuses that have resulted.  

It’s heartening to have a Supreme Court Justice so squarely acknowledge and raise questions about a predatory government practice that has proceeded unchecked for so long.

One of the most common questions I receive when I talk about civil asset forfeiture is “why does the Supreme Court allow this?” My answer has always been “because these laws predate the country and the court has never seen fit to re-examine them.”  

This opinion is a clear signal that at least one member of the Supreme Court is ready to take a fresh and skeptical look.

Americans Want Police to Prioritize Fighting Violent, Property Crime, but Few Prioritize Drug War

Although Americans are divided in their perceptions of how police do their jobs, majorities across demographic and partisan groups agree on what law enforcement’s top priorities ought to be.

A newly released Cato Institute/YouGov survey of 2,000 Americans finds that when people are asked to select their top three priorities for the police they choose the following:

  1. Investigating violent crime like murder, assaults, and domestic violence (78%)
  2. Protecting individuals from violent crime (64%)
  3. Investigating property crime and robbery (58%)

Notably, only 30% think police should make enforcing drug laws a top three priority. Some may find these results surprising, given that police made more arrests for drug abuse violations (1.6 million) than they did for violent crimes (498,666) in 2014. The estimated number of violent crimes committed that year was 1.2 million.

Find the full public opinion report here.

Nineteen percent (19%) say police should make enforcing traffic laws a top priority. In other words, Americans de-prioritize the task leading to the most common interaction individuals have with the police—receiving a traffic ticket.[1]

Another 18% think police should prioritize going beyond traditional law enforcement responsibilities by “providing guidance and social services to troubled young adults.” And another 12% say police enforcing public nuisance laws is most important. 

Black, white, and Hispanic Americans, Democrats and Republicans prioritize the same top three tasks for law enforcement. However, groups differ in their intensity of support. African Americans and Hispanics (45%) and Democrats (51%) are less likely than white Americans (63%) and Republicans (63%) to prioritize the police investigating property crime and robbery. (Although this difference largely dissipates among individuals above the median income.) African Americans, Latinos, and Democrats (27%) are about twice as likely as whites (15%) and three times as likely as Republicans (9%) to say the police should prioritize “providing guidance and social services to troubled young adults.”

No racial group is more likely to prioritize the police enforcing drug laws—30% of whites, Hispanics, and blacks each say it should be a top priority. Even partisans generally de-prioritize fighting the drug war. Thirty-five percent (35%) of Republicans and 27% of Democrats say it should be a top three priority.

Despite these modest differences, Americans across partisanship and demographics agree that the police should prioritize fighting violent and property crime and protecting people from being victims of violence. 

For public opinion analysis sign up here to receive Cato’s upcoming digest of Public Opinion Insights and public opinion studies.

The Cato Institute/YouGov national survey of 2,000 adults was conducted June 6–22, 2016 using a sample drawn from YouGov’s online panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. YouGov uses a method called sample matching, and restrictions are put in place to ensure that only the people selected and contacted by YouGov are allowed to participate. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is +/-3.19 percentage points. The full report can be found here, topline results can be found here, and full methodological details can be found here.


[1] Christine Eith and Matthew R. Durose, Contacts between Police and the Public, 2008, edited by Bureau of Justice Statistics (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 2011), https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpp08.pdf.

Drug Prohibition Was a Loser Last Night

Marijuana legalization keeps rolling. The legalization of recreational marijuana was on the ballot in five states yesterday. The people of California, Massachusetts, and Nevada voted to legalize.  As of this writing, legalization maintains a slim, too-close-to-call lead in Maine as well. Legalization failed in Arizona by a small margin.

Beyond legalizing marijuana in America’s most populous state, the vote in California also means the entire West Coast has now rejected marijuana prohibition. The vote in Massachusetts makes it the first state east of the Rocky Mountains to do the same.

In addition, medical marijuana was legalized in Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota, while restrictions on medical marijuana were relaxed in Montana.  In Oklahoma, which prides itself on being “the reddest state in the nation” (Donald Trump won every single county last night), voters passed an amendment to state law that recategorizes a variety of drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.

All of these developments speak to a growing (and increasingly bipartisan) acknowledgment that Americans are tired of the failed drug war, and especially the government’s crusade against marijuana. More people are arrested for marijuana offenses than for all violent crimes combined in this country, and voters increasingly think it’s time to put a stop to it.

As my colleague Jeff Miron points out, marijuana prohibition is predicated on myths. The allegations that marijuana legalization leads to huge increases in use; causes increases in crime, traffic fatalities, and addiction; and leads to abuse of other, harder drugs simply do not comport with the data we’ve seen from legalization policies in the U.S. and around the world.

Despite this building momentum for reform, last night also injected a bit of uncertainty into the prohibition discussion. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. The Supreme Court has already ruled that federal marijuana prohibition is constitutional, state-level legalization notwithstanding (although Congress has put temporary limits on federal funding for that purpose). As a result, the progress we’ve seen thus far has depended on President Obama’s commitment to respect the will of the states when it comes to marijuana enforcement. Essentially, President Obama has refused to enforce federal marijuana laws when those laws conflict with legalization bills passed by state voters.

President-elect Trump is not required to continue that commitment. He, along with his pick for Attorney General, could decide to begin enforcing federal marijuana laws in states that have voted to legalize (provided Congress provides funding), in which case the successful experiments in legalization would end virtually overnight. The more states legalize marijuana, however, the less likely it seems that the federal government will try to force the cat back into the bag.  

President-elect Trump should let the state experiments play out, and respect the will of the American voters who increasingly reject the failed policy of prohibition.

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.

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