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Concerns about the militarization of American policing have been on the increase for some time now, but have crystallized in the wake of the heavy-handed police response to the killing earlier this summer of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]For years, observers have noted the SWAT mission creep, where sending paramilitarized police units to deal with rare mass attacks and hostage-taking events has transmuted into the routine use of SWAT for things like serving drug search warrants. A recent ACLU report documented this trend, finding that 62% of all SWAT teams had been deployed for drug raids. And public anger over police killings -- especially of young men of color -- has been on the increase as well.
In the past decade, affairs have only accelerated as police departments around the land have availed themselves of Congress's largesse in letting them pick up surplus military equipment for free, bringing home Humvees and MRAPs, as well as all kinds of armaments and military get-up. Under the weight of all that gear, policemen who used to look like Officer Friendly have taken on the appearance of imperial storm troopers.
That has all taken place under the Pentagon's 1033 program, which allows the transfer of such equipment from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan state and local law enforcement agencies without charge. But, critics claim, while appropriate as war materiel, much of this equipment is not suited for civilian law enforcement purposes.
Law enforcement's resort to military equipment against largely peaceful civilian protestors in Ferguson, with armored vehicles moving in to confront teenagers wearing shorts and sniper rifles aimed from turrets at local residents put the issue front and center in the national consciousness.
There were congressional hearings on the topic last week, and today, a bipartisan pair of congressmen, Reps. Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Raul Labrador (R-ID), announced that they had filed a bill to rein in the Department of Defense program that transfers surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]"Militarizing America's main streets won't make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent," said Johnson in a statement announcing the bill. "Before another small town's police force gets a $750,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can't maintain or manage, it behooves us to press pause on Pentagon's 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized America."
The bill is HR 5478, the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act of 2014. It would:
- Prevent transfers of equipment inappropriate for local policing, such as high-caliber weapons, long-range acoustic devices, grenade launchers, armed drones, armored vehicles, and grenades or similar explosives.
- End incentives to use equipment in circumstances when the use is unnecessary. Under the 1033 program, local police are required to use the equipment within a year, incentivizing towns to use it in inappropriate circumstances.
- Require that recipients certify that they can account for all equipment. In 2012, the weapons portion of the 1033 program was temporarily suspended after DOD found that a local sheriff had gifted out army-surplus Humvees and other supplies. This bill would prohibit re-gifting and require recipients to account for all equipment received from DOD.
- Remove any reference to counterdrug operations from the program, thus ensuring that law enforcement is not incentivized to use the equipment to perform arrests of those suspected of being low-level, non-violent drug offenders.
"Our nation was founded on the principle of a clear line between the military and civilian policing," said Labrador. "The Pentagon's current surplus property program blurs that line by introducing a military model of overwhelming force in our cities and towns. Our bill would restore the focus of local law enforcement on protecting citizens and providing due process for the accused."
The bill also adds requirements to enforce tracking mechanisms that keep up with and control transfers of the equipment, implement policies ensuring that police agencies can't surplus the equipment for resale and define drones more clearly. It would also specify that the use of MRAPs, grenades, and drones is not appropriate for civilian law enforcement.
In addition to Johnson and Labrador, the bill's original cosponsors are Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI), John Conyers (D-MI), Tom McClintock (R-CA), and Jim Moran (D-VA).
The move is winning kudos from drug reform organizations.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]"Very occasionally and with proper oversight and training, the use of some military equipment is appropriate -- school shootings, terrorist situations and the like," said Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "But when it's routinely used against nonviolent drug offenders, it only serves to further strain police-community relations so vital to preventing and solving violent crime. This bill will correct some of the worst excesses of a potentially useful program hijacked by the war on drugs."
"In light of what we all saw in Ferguson, Missouri, the American people are clamoring for law enforcement to become less militarized. Grenades, drones, and tanks may belong on the battlefield; they certainly don't have a place on US streets," said Michael Collins, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance's Office of National Affairs. "Such militarization is inextricably linked to the drug war, where SWAT teams and no-knock raids have become a routine part of drug arrests, even in the case of nonviolent offenders."
The bill is a good first step in reining in law enforcement militarization, he said.
"This legislation is a thoughtful attempt at tackling a very worrying problem -- the militarization of law enforcement," Collins said. "The Pentagon program is highly problematic because preferential treatment is given to those police forces that use their equipment to fight the drug war. This bill would end that, and move us away from a heavy-handed approach to drug policy."
In a report released last night and in a New York City press conference this morning, a number of global leaders, including former heads of state, called for drug decriminalization and the regulation of psychoactive drug markets. Those same global leaders are meeting this afternoon with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and his deputy, Jan Eliasson.
[image:1 align:left]These world leaders are members of the Global Commission on Drugs and their new report is Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work. The commission's members include former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Virgin Airlines founder Richard Branson, and more.
The report's executive summary lists a number of policy prescriptions, some of them quite breathtakingly bold:
- Putting health and community safety first requires a fundamental reorientation of policy priorities and resources, from failed punitive enforcement to proven health and social interventions.
- Focus on reducing the power of criminal organizations as well as the violence and insecurity that result from their competition with both one another and the state.
- Take advantage of the opportunity presented by the upcoming UNGASS in 2016 to reform the global drug policy regime.
- Rely on alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-level participants in illicit drug markets such as farmers, couriers and others involved in the production, transport and sale of illicit drugs.
- Stop criminalizing people for drug use and possession -- and stop imposing "compulsory treatment" on people whose only offense is drug use or possession.
- Allow and encourage diverse experiments in legally regulating markets in currently illicit drugs, beginning with but not limited to cannabis, coca leaf and certain novel psychoactive substances.
- Ensure equitable access to essential medicines, in particular opiate-based medications for pain.
In other words, decriminalize drug possession, legalize and regulate drug markets, and end the failed decades-long embrace of prohibitionism. This is a policy advance from the Commission's initial 2011 report, which, while breaking new ground in advancing the debate of drug prohibition, did not go as far as calling for efforts to regulate and legalize drugs.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]"Ultimately, the global drug control regime must be reformed to permit legal regulation," said Cardoso. "Let's start by treating drug addiction as a health issue -- rather than as a crime -- and by reducing drug demand through proven educational initiatives. But let's also allow and encourage countries to carefully test models of responsible legal regulation as a means to undermine the power of organized crime, which thrives on illicit drug trafficking."
"Health-based approaches to drug policy routinely prove much less expensive and more effective than criminalization and incarceration," said former Mexican President Zedillo. "Decriminalization of drug consumption is certainly crucial but not sufficient. Significant legal and institutional reforms, both at the national and international levels, are needed to allow governments and societies to put in place policies to regulate the supply of drugs with rigorous medical criteria, if the engines of organized crime profiting from drug traffic are to be truly dismantled."
The Commission's report today is only the latest evidence of growing global momentum for fundamental drug policy reforms. After the Commission's 2011 report, sitting Latin American heads of state, including Presidents Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia, Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala, and José Mujica in Uruguay, as well as then-President Felipe Calderón in Mexico, for the first time made drug reform a major topic at the Summit of the Americas in April 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia.
That was followed 13 months later by an Organization of American States report, commissioned by the heads of state of the region, calling for consideration of drug legalization along with other possible scenarios as a potential policy alternative. And late last year, Uruguay broke new ground, becoming the first country in the world to legalize and regulate marijuana commerce.
All of this has created a big push for a new look at global drug prohibition during the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs set for 2016. The last UNGASS, in 1998, was dominated by rhetorical calls for a "drug-free world" and ended with unrealistic goals of suppressing illicit drug production (which, of course, have not been met), but the Commission and the global political leaders whose voices it echoes are working to use the next UNGASS to advance a frankly and radically reformist alternative.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]"We can't go on pretending the war on drugs is working," said Richard Branson. "We need our leaders to look at alternative, fact-based approaches. Much can be learned from successes and failures in regulating alcohol, tobacco or pharmaceutical drugs. The risks associated with drug use increase, sometimes dramatically, when they are produced, sold and consumed in an unregulated criminal environment. The most effective way to advance the goals of public health and safety is to get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation."
American drug reformers liked what they were hearing.
"When the Commission released its initial report just three years ago, few expected its recommendations to be embraced anytime soon by current presidents," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "But that's exactly what happened, with Colombian President Santos and Guatemala President Perez-Molina speaking out boldly, former Mexican President Calderon calling on the United Nations to reassess the prohibitionist approach to drugs, and Uruguayan President Mujica approving the first national law to legally regulate cannabis. Meanwhile, one Commission member, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, has opened up the drug policy debate in West Africa, recruiting some of the region's most distinguished figures," he noted.
"The import of the Commission's report lies in both the distinction of its members and the boldness of their recommendations," Nadelmann continued. "The former presidents and other Commission members pull no punches in insisting that national and global drug control policies reject the failed prohibitionist policies of the 20th century in favor of new policies grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights. There's no question now that the genie of reform has escaped the prohibitionist bottle. I'm grateful to the Commission for the pivotal role it has played in taking drug policy reform from the fringes of international politics to the mainstream."
"With polling having shown consistent majority voter support for legalizing marijuana in the US for several years now, it's been clear that this is a mainstream issue in this country," said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority. "Now this group of world leaders has not only put marijuana legalization on the table for serious consideration on the global stage, but has gone even further by suggesting that ending the prohibition of other drugs should be considered as a way to better protect public health and safety. The hope now is that these forward-thinking recommendations by so many respected former heads of state will encourage current officials to modernize their nations' policies."
The Global Commission on Drugs is showing the path forward to more enlightened drug policies. Now it's up to citizens to push for reform from the bottom up, and it's up to national and international leaders to start making those changes at the national and international level.
Labor Day has come and gone, and the 2014 election is now less than two months away. Marijuana legalization initiatives are on the ballot in two states -- Alaska and Oregon -- and the District of Columbia. For the marijuana reform movement, 2014 is a chance for a legalization trifecta on the way to an even bigger year in 2016, but there is also the risk that losing in one or more states this year could take the momentum out of a movement that has been on a seemingly unstoppable upward trend.
[image:1 align:right][Editor's Note: There are also local marijuana reform initiatives in several states, a Florida medical marijuana initiative, and a California sentencing reform initiative. The Chronicle will address those in later articles.]
The Alaska and Oregon initiatives are quite similar. Both envision systems of taxation, regulation, and legal sales, and both allow individuals to grow small amounts of marijuana for their own use. The DC initiative, on the other hand, does not allow for taxation, regulation, and legal sales. That is because of peculiarities in DC law, which do not allow initiatives to enter the domain of taxation. But like the Alaska and Oregon measures, the DC initiative also allows individuals to grow their own.
Alaska Measure 2
The Measure 2 initiative allows adults 21 and over to possess up to an ounce and up to six plants (three flowering). It also allows individual growers to possess the fruits of their harvest even in excess of one ounce, provided the marijuana stays on the premises where it was grown. The initiative also legalizes paraphernalia.
The initiative grants regulatory oversight to the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, but gives the legislature the authority to create a new entity, the Marijuana Control Board. In either case, the regulatory authority will have nine months to create regulations, with applications for marijuana businesses to open one year after the initiative becomes effective.
A $50 an ounce excise tax on sales or transfers from growers to retailers or processors would be imposed.
The initiative does not alter either existing DUI laws or the ability of employers to penalize employees for testing positive for marijuana.
The initiative would not interfere with existing medical marijuana laws.
Oregon Measure 91
The Measure 91 initiative allows adults 21 and over to possess up to eight ounces and four plants per household. Individuals can also possess up to 16 ounces of marijuana products or 72 ounces of liquid marijuana products. And individuals can also transfer up to an ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana products, or 72 ounces of liquid marijuana products to other adults for "non-commercial" purposes.
The initiative would designate the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to regulate marijuana commerce. The commission would license, audit, and inspect growers, suppliers, and retailers. The commission could set purchase amount limits, which are not specified in the initiative. The commission would have until January 4, 2016 to begin licensing growers, producers, and retailers.
Marijuana sales from producers to processors or retailers would be taxed at a rate of $35 per ounce, $10 per ounce of leaves, and $5 per immature plant. The commission can recommend to the legislature any changes in the tax structure, which would then have to act to enact them.
The initiative does not alter either existing DUI laws or the ability of employers to penalize employees for testing positive for marijuana.
The initiative would not interfere with existing medical marijuana laws.
DC Measure 71
The Measure 71 initiative would allow adults 21 and over to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and six plants, three of which can be mature. Households could grow up to 12 plants, six of which can be mature. Growers can possess the fruits of their harvests. Plants could only be grown indoors.
Adults could transfer up to an ounce to other adults without remuneration. There are no provisions for taxing and regulating marijuana sales because District law forbids initiatives from taking up tax and revenue matters. A bill is pending before the DC city council that would do precisely that.
The initiative also legalizes the sale and possession of pot paraphernalia. It does not change existing DUI law, nor does it "make unlawful" any conduct covered by the District's medical marijuana law.
None of these measures are long-shots at the ballot box, although none appear to be shoe-ins, either. None of the campaigns have made internal polling available, but an Oregon poll this summer had 51% in favor of a generic legalization question, with 41% opposed. A DC poll in January had 63% in favor of legalization.
[image:2 align:left]Alaska is looking a little dicier, at least according to the most recent Public Policy Polling survey, which had the initiative trailing by five points after leading by three points (but still under 50%) in May. But, as we shall see below, there are questions about the reliability of the survey data there.
There are a number of factors other than public opinion that could influence whether these initiatives pass or fail. They include voter turnout in an off-year election, financial support for the campaigns, and the degree of organized opposition.
The Chronicle checked in with a number of national marijuana reform professionals and people involved with the initiatives to get a sense of the prospects, the challenges, and the implications of electoral success or defeat. There is a sense of cautious optimism, tempered with concerns that won't be allayed until the votes are counted.
"All three measures have a great chance of passing, and it'll really be a matter of how well these campaigns get their message out," said Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "There's also the question of what type of opposition there is, and how well it's funded. I'm familiar with the opposition in Alaska, and it's just more of the same old. They're trying to make marijuana sound as scary as possible, and it's up to those campaigns to make sure voters know it's not so scary."
It's about getting out the message and getting out the vote, Tvert said.
"Typically, the more turnout, the more support for making marijuana legal," said Tvert. "We would expect to see broader support during a presidential election year, but we'll find out if support is strong enough to pass these in an off-year. All these measures can pass, but these campaigns have to get their message out."
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has endorsed all three initiatives, not having found anything too objectionable in any of them.
"When you're in the marijuana legalization business, that's what you do," explained NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre. "All three entities involved requested our endorsement, and our board of directors voted unanimously to do so," he explained.
"Oregon and Alaska are very similar, and while DC is the least impactful in what it seeks to achieve, but they all basically move the meter," he said. "If one or all of them pass, they will be seen as a good thing; if we get a full sweep, that will only affirm that we are now in the legalization epoch."
But can marijuana legalization pull off that trifecta this year?
"Alaska looks like it's in the most trouble, but with the caveat that polling there is hard to nail down," St. Pierre said. "That makes it all the more important for reformers to embrace the effort there, send resources, and encourage others to do the same. We're raising money for all three states right now on our web site, and Alaska is getting the least amount of earmarked donations -- and those are coming in from Alaskans. It's the proverbial out of sight, out of mind state, but it's one where you can actually impact an election at relatively low cost."
Frank Berardi of the Alaska Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation had plenty to say about the polling.
"If you look at the polls, it's close, but in that 44% poll, the way they worded the question doesn't even reflect the language of the initiative, and since the question was inaccurate, a lot of people who would have been in support said no," he said. "Also, the age distribution was off -- it was mostly older people who were polled. And if you take the margin of error into consideration, it's a toss-up. It makes me wonder what the results would have been if the poll had been valid."
The coalition is working with the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska to pass Measure 2, but there is something of a division of labor between the two groups, Berardi explained.
"We're partnered with the campaign, but while they're focused on passing this is November, we're focusing on helping to implement the regulatory aspects of the bill," he said. "We've been polling our members about what they want, and we hope to work with the legislature on ensuring the people get what they want."
Still, the coalition isn't just waiting for Measure 2 to pass.
[image:3 align:right]"We're helping out on the campaign, we go to events, we've share a booth with the campaign, we're informing people about the measure and out goals," he said.
People are equally hard at work down in Oregon.
"We are fighting for every vote, and we don’t take any vote for granted, but we feel like we have a really strong case and a growing majority of Oregonians support us," said Peter Zuckerman, communications director for New Approach Oregon, the group behind Measure 91.
"The challenge is going to be turnout," he said. "We really need our voters to register and vote. The polls have us ahead, but we need voters, volunteers, donors -- all the help we can get."
The campaign is getting significant help. It has raised millions in campaign funds and has a $2.3 million TV ad reservation. And it has a well-honed message.
"In Oregon, somebody gets arrested or cited for marijuana once every 39 minutes," Zuckerman said. "Seven percent of all arrests are for marijuana. Treating it as a crime has failed. With a regulated market, police will not be distracted with small marijuana cases. Instead of people buying it on street corners, they can buy it in a regulated marketplace. It's a much better system."
The campaign is also picking up key endorsements. It's won the support of the state's largest and most influential newspaper, The Oregonian, the Democratic Party, and the well-heeled City Club of Portland. It's even won the support of the Oregon State Council of Retired Citizens. (Click here for the complete list of endorsements.)
"Every endorsement helps," said Zuckerman.
"Oregon is going to make it," NORML's St. Pierre predicted, citing polling so far, key endorsements like The Oregonian, and a changing political climate.
"Gov. Kitzhaber has made it clear that if he is reelected and the citizens task him with this, he will faithfully implement it," he said. "Oregon is a state that is environmentally conscious, and he was concerned about energy use. He wanted alternatives to indoor cultivation. But you can set up greenhouses -- safe, water-friendly, criminal-deterring greenhouses. And not only is Kitzhaber keen, Attorney General Ellen Rosenbaum is very supportive. She's probably one of the most progressive attorneys general in the country."
St. Pierre also argued that Oregon pot people are coming around to regulation.
"The industry itself, as in Colorado, seems to recognize that there is a better opportunity for both legitimacy and profits if they embrace legalization, as compared to some brethren in California and Washington who chose to oppose it," he said. "This is the state where voters have been asked the legalization question the most, and I think finally Oregon is going to break out."
A victory in Oregon would carry the most weight, the NORML head said.
"That would move the meter the most. It would be actual sales, taxation, and regulation, and it's not as out of sight as Alaska. And it would cinch up the Pacific Northwest."
And then there's DC.
"DC is kind of symbolic, it's not legalization in the purest sense of the word, but it goes as far as it can under DC law," said St. Pierre. "But it's building in the District, going from medical to decriminalization being almost universally supported, and now building to soft legalization. That will de-incentivize police, they won't have any reason to ask what's in your hand, what's in your pocket."
"I feel like we're in the lead, but I'm very nervous about a well-funded opposition mounting," said Adam Eidinger of the DC Cannabis Campaign, which is leading the charge in the nation's capital. "We have no great war chest and we could be caught flat-footed. I don't want to be overconfident; I would rather have a well-funded campaign to assure victory."
Eidinger said the DC campaign had $50,000 in pending pledged contributions, but less than $2,000 in the bank right now. He said he's had problems raising money not only from advocacy groups, but also from the industry, which also contributes to the advocacy groups.
"I don't think we were on the advocacy groups' schedule," he said, adding that some had also expressed skepticism about whether the measure would ever be implemented even if it won because of possible city council or congressional interference.
"Nonprofits are getting a lot of money from the cannabis industry, but in our case, there is no clear business model for profiting from selling cannabis or having exclusive rights to growing it," Eidinger pointed out. "Even some dispensaries have painted this as a threat to their near monopoly. We do not have aligning interests. Monopolies and price supports don't benefit consumers or anyone except business entities and the government."
The campaign is getting some financial backing from the Drug Policy Alliance, but it needs more help, he said.
"You need to talk to your family and friends and get them to support the campaign with donations, with voter registrations, and as election day volunteers," Eidinger said. "We will be doing a postering blitz, we're planning some mailers, but with less so little money in the bank right now, we need a major influx of cash. We blew everything we could leverage just getting on the ballot."
Three initiatives, three chances to win marijuana legalization victories this year. But the stakes are high, and they go beyond 2014.
"This is the penultimate year, and if we have any losses, our opponents will immediately claim we're losing momentum, that whatever has happened has peaked, and that would be really regrettable," St. Pierre suggested.
"But 2016 is the ultimate year. If California moves forward -- it will likely be joined by Maine or Massachusetts, but California is so important, if it legalizes, America will legalize, and North America will move in the same direction, and so will the European Union," he said. "But if we lose this year, that makes the job in 2016 that much harder. If we lose in Alaska or Oregon, that will provide fodder for the opposition."
MPP's Tvert was a bit more sanguine.
"We're in a position where we will continue to move forward, and it's unlikely we will move backwards," Tvert said. "In Colorado in 2006, people told us we were crazy to run an initiative because we would lose and the state would never legalize marijuana, but public opinion is moving toward ending prohibition, and we expect to see that continue. And even if one or more don't pass this year, we will surely see several pass in the near future."
A pair of US senators from opposite sides of the political spectrum have teamed up in a bid to fix "the nation's broken criminal justice system." Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY) earlier this summer introduced the Record Expungement to Designed to Enhance Employment Act, generally referred to as the REDEEM Act.
[image:1 align:right caption:true]While observers say the bill is unlikely to pass this year, its introduction lays the groundwork for moving forward on it in the next Congress.
The act, Senate Bill 2567, its sponsors say, is designed to give people convicted of nonviolent offenses, including drug offenses, a second chance at succeeding. It also aims to divert many teenagers out of the adult criminal justice system.
Booker, a black northeastern liberal, and Paul, a libertarian-leaning southern conservative, may appear to be strange bedfellows, but both said fixing the criminal justice system was more important than partisan rivalries in statements made when the bill was introduced.
"I will work with anyone, from any party, to make a difference for the people of New Jersey, and this bipartisan legislation does just that," Sen. Booker said. "The REDEEM Act will ensure that our tax dollars are being used in smarter, more productive ways. It will also establish much-needed sensible reforms that keep kids out of the adult correctional system, protect their privacy so a youthful mistake can remain a youthful mistake, and help make it less likely that low-level adult offenders re-offend."
"The biggest impediment to civil rights and employment in our country is a criminal record," said Sen. Paul. "Our current system is broken and has trapped tens of thousands of young men and women in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. Many of these young people could escape this trap if criminal justice were reformed, if records were expunged after time served, and if nonviolent crimes did not become a permanent blot preventing employment."
Even though the United States contains only 5% of the world's population, it contains 25% of the world's prisoners. US prison populations have more than tripled since the Reagan administration in the 1980s, largely under the impetus of the war on drugs. American taxpayers have seen their bill for mass incarceration rise from $77 each per year in when Reagan took office in 1980 to more than $260 each per year in 2010.
The REDEEM Act would seek to reduce those costs by reforms that would divert juvenile offenders from adult courts, improve the conditions for juvenile offenders, allow some adult offenders a means to expunge their records, and allow adult drug offenders who have done their time to be eligible for benefits they are now barred from obtaining.
The act would:
- Incentivize states to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 18 years old: Currently 10 states have set the original jurisdiction of adult criminal courts below 18 years old. The REDEEM Act incentivizes states to change that by offering preference to Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant applications for those that have set 18 or older as the age of original jurisdiction for adult criminal courts.
- Allow for sealing and expungement of juvenile records: Provides for automatic expungement of records for kids who commit nonviolent crimes before they turn 15 and automatic sealing of records for those who commit non-violent crimes after they turn 15 years old.
- Restrict use of juvenile solitary confinement: Ends the practice of solitary confinement except in the most extreme circumstances in which it is necessary to protect a juvenile detainee or those around them.
- Offer adults a way to seal non-violent criminal records: Presents the first broad-based federal path to the sealing of criminal records for adults. Non-violent offenders will be able to petition a court and make their case. Furthermore, employers requesting FBI background checks will get only relevant and accurate information -- thereby protecting job applicants -- because of provisions to improve the background check system.
- Lift the ban on SNAP and TANF benefits for low-level drug offenders: The REDEEM Act restores access to benefits for those who have served their time for use and possession crimes, and for those who have paid their dues for distribution crimes provided their offense was rationally related to a substance abuse disorder and they have enrolled in a treatment program.
[image:2 align:left caption:true]While the bill was filed last month, it remains a work in progress. A number of advocacy groups, including the Sentencing Project, the Open Society Foundations, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition have been meeting with Booker and Paul staffers in an effort to make it even better. That work continues.
"A lot of the criminal justice and civil rights and faith groups and the Legal Action Center have been involved in trying to develop legislation like this and are supportive of at least parts of the REDEEM ACT," said Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel for the Sentencing Project. "Both senators have said they are willing and want to hear from advocates about how to make the bill better. We've been doing that," he noted.
"We'd like to see it strengthened in some areas in terms of the repeals of bans for people with felonies getting federal benefits, as well as Pell grants and housing benefits. We'd like to see the bill expanded to take away those bans on services as well because they are all counterproductive for a safer reentry when people are released from prison," Haile continued.
While the bill has been described as a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill, Haile said, it really addresses a few distinct areas around the repeal of bans on benefits, as well as the juvenile justice measures.
[image:3 align:right caption:true]"Repealing the SNAP and TANF bans for people with drug offenses is something we're really interested in," he said. "As it is, the bill will be especially beneficial for people with drug possession and use offenses. People with drug distribution offenses will have to show they have taken advantage of drug treatment and other things."
There is still time to make the bill stronger, Haile said, especially given partisan gridlock and upcoming midterm elections.
"Given that it's an election year and the lack of progress in Congress on just about everything, it's probably not going to pass before the election," he predicted. "But the bill sponsors are very committed to trying to advance it, if not during this session or during the lame duck, then they will reintroduce it next year."
In the meantime, the country and the economy will continue to suffer the effects of over-criminalization and over-incarceration, Booker said.
"Our country's misguided criminal justice policies have placed an economic drag on communities in both of our states, and on our nation's global competitiveness -- all while making us less, not more, safe," he proclaimed.
Canada's "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery has finally returned home after spending just over 4 ½ years in US federal prison for selling marijuana seeds over the Internet. From his base in Vancouver, BC, Emery parlayed his pot seed profits into a pro-marijuana legalization political juggernaut.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]Not only did the gregarious former libertarian bookseller relentlessly hassle Canadian and American drug warriors -- including the dour then-drug czar, John Walters -- he published Cannabis Culture magazine, created the BC Marijuana Party and helped turn parts of downtown Vancouver's Hasting Street into a Western Hemisphere Amsterdam, complete with a vaporizer lounge and several other cannabis-related enterprises.
Emery also put a bunch of his money -- several hundred thousand dollars -- into financing marijuana reform efforts on the US side of the border. It's hard to say what, exactly, got him in the sights of US law enforcement, but when he was arrested by Canadian police at the behest of US authorities, the DEA was quick to gloat that it had struck a blow against the forces of legalization.
The US eventually got its pound of flesh from Emery, forcing him into a plea bargain -- to protect his coworkers -- that saw him sentenced to five years in federal prison for his seed selling. Emery did his time, was released from prison earlier this summer, then sent to a private deportation detention facility in the US before going home to Canada less than two weeks ago.
But if US and Canadian authorities thought they had silenced one of the biggest thorns in their side, they should have known better. Nearly five years in prison hasn't exactly mellowed Emery; instead, he is more committed than ever to drug war justice, and he's raring to go.
The Chronicle spoke with him via phone at his home in Vancouver Monday. The topics ranged from prison life to marijuana legalization in the US to Canadian election politics and beyond.
"If you go to jail for the right reasons you can continue to be an inspiration," Emery said. "I got a lot of affirmation, thousands of letters, people helped to cover my bills, and that's a testament to my influence. My experience was very positive. I network well and try to live in the present moment, just dealing with what's going on."
Still, Emery needed about $180,000 to get through those 4 ½ years behind bars, including more than $18,000 in email costs -- it isn't cheap for federal prisoners to send emails -- but for Emery, keeping his voice heard in the outside world was a necessity. He reports having received between $70,000 and $80,000 in donations while in the slammer.
"That still left Jodie doing the near impossible," he said. She traveled from Canada to the southern US 81 times to visit her husband, visiting him on 164 days and spending a like amount of time in transit. If it weren't for Jodie Emery, prison would have been a much lonelier place, as it is for most inmates.
[image:2 align:right]"In my prison, there were 1,700 prisoners, but on an average weekend, only 25 were getting a visit," Emery noted, adding that most inmates were either black or brown. "And other than Jodie, only seven people came to visit me."
While Emery waited in prison, the world continued to turn, and he has emerged into a different place. Now, two US states and Uruguay have legalized marijuana outright, and two more states and the District of Columbia are likely to do so this fall. For the Prince of Pot, it's all good.
"I like that Washington and Colorado went for two different models, although I think the Colorado model is better and has been more quickly executed," he said. "In both places, prices haven't really dropped, but they will once other states come on board. It has been really encouraging to see that people would travel to another state to buy it legally."
That's a good thing for the cannabis culture, he said.
"We are a proud culture. Legalization means a lot of things, and one of them is the end of stigmatization. We've been picked on and scapegoated as if we were taking part in some evil practice, but that is largely over in Denver," Emery argued. "They're integrating it into the mainstream economy; we're going to see a lot of interesting things."
Unsurprisingly, the small-L libertarian and marijuana seed entrepreneur is not overly concerned that legalization will lead to the commercialization or corporatization of the herb.
"We need big money in order to have an effective lobby," he said. "When there's something that tens of millions of Americans want, the money will come, and the money is welcome. It's going to put into new products, new technologies, and we have to welcome that. Capitalism is way to make things happen legally, and we need to get those people on board."
But Emery wants people to be able to grow their own, too.
"It's not legal unless we can grow it in our backyards or fields," he said, "and as long as we can grow it, it's basically legal."
[image:3 align:left caption:true]That's life in these United States, but Emery, of course, doesn't live in the United States -- in fact, he is now permanently barred from entering the country -- he lives in Canada, and things haven't gone nearly as swimmingly there when it comes to freeing the weed.
A decade ago, Canada was the hope of the global cannabis culture. It appeared poised to make the move toward legalization, but first the ruling Liberals were unwilling to even push through their decriminalization scheme, and then they were defeated by the Conservatives, who went in the other direction on marijuana policy, for instance, by adopting mandatory minimum sentences for growing more than small amounts of pot.
Stephen Harper's Conservatives remain in power today, and Emery has sworn political vengeance on them. He has also aligned himself with the Liberals, whose leader, Justin Trudeau, is now an advocate of legalization. That's in line with Canadian public opinion, which consistently shows strong support for marijuana law reform, including a poll this week that showed two-thirds support for reform, with 35% saying legalize it and 31% saying decriminalize it.
The Liberals are going to try to take back the federal government in elections in October 2015, and Emery is happy to help savage the Conservatives whether it makes Liberals squeamish or not. His return just two weeks ago has already ignited a firestorm of media coverage, with his pot politics naturally front and center.
"We've now hijacked the whole conversation about the election; we are dominating the conversation," he gloated. "It's the number one election topic and has been since the second I arrived back in the country. There have been more than 150 articles about me in the last two weeks. It's a big deal, and I'm delighted it's a big deal. I have critics using up column inches to say disparaging things about me, and that's great, too. There's a real dialog going on, and we have the opportunity to change the feelings of our opponents and get them to understand the benefits to their communities in legalizing marijuana."
But can the Liberals win? Yes, says Emery.
"Election day -- October 19, 2015 -- will be legalization day in Canada. If Trudeau becomes prime minister, there is no going back," he prophesied. "And I am confident the Liberals will win. Normally, the anti-Harper vote is divided among the Greens, the NDP, the Bloc Quebecois, and the Liberals, but this time, with Trudeau being so charismatic, I am urging everyone to just this once vote for the Liberals. And the feedback I am getting is that this is going to happen, a Liberal majority is going to happen, and you should be in on it."
When it comes to marijuana reform, in Emery's eyes, Canadian politicians should take a lesson from their counterparts south of the border.
"My opinion of Americans has only improved," he said. "You did a great job in Colorado and Washington, and even your legislators are underrated. At least one from every state has gone to Colorado to check it out. It's wonderful! Up here, if it weren't for Justin Trudeau, we wouldn't hear anything."
Well, and now, Marc Emery. Again.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is widely expected to cruise to an easy victory in the Democratic primary on September 9, despite festering influence-peddling scandals, despite his embrace of corporate benefactors, and despite his lackluster support for the ever-popular medical marijuana. He faces only one traditional challenger, Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]But he also faces the insurgent candidacy of comedian, satirist, political gadfly, and perennial candidate Randy Credico, who bills himself as "the most progressive candidate since FDR" and who is running on an anti-corporate and pro-drug reform platform. That's nothing new for Credico, who has long been active in the Rockefeller drug law repeal movement, the prison reform movement, and other progressive social movements.
"Cuomo's father built 37 prisons, Teachout's father [a judge] sends people to prison, my father went to prison -- I know what it does to families," Credico said, beginning to sketch out not only the policy differences but the life experiences that sets him apart from the other contenders.
Credico's father did 10 years in Ohio for a nonviolent offense, the candidate explained.
Credico lays out his platform on the home page of his campaign web site, and it is the stuff of a populist backlash to both overweening corporate control and the state's alive-and-kicking prison/law enforcement industrial complex.
Keeping to the FDR comparison, he calls for "A New Deal for New York" to "Tax Wall Street, Not Main Street," bring "Benefits for the average person," "Clean up City Hall and policing," and "Build infrastructure to create jobs." The platform calls for taxes on the sales of stocks, bonds, and derivatives, income-based real estate taxes, and a more progressive income tax, as well as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, lowering subway fares and other transit tolls, and providing Medicare for all.
But his drug policy platform is also something to behold, and goes well beyond the baby steps taken by even the most progressive mainstream politicians. His criminal justice planks include:
- legalize marijuana;
- close Attica prison;
- ban racial profiling and end stop and frisk;
- end the Rockefeller drug laws; and
- direct election of all criminal judges.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]"I'm for decriminalizing all drugs and legalizing marijuana," Credico told the Chronicle Monday. "I'm not sure if the state is ready for legalizing cocaine and heroin, but I can't believe methadone is better than heroin. We ought to be transforming Rikers Island from a penal colony to a center for job training, education, and treatment. When Attica exploded, there were only 10,000 people in the state prison system; now there are 10,000 on Rikers alone."
[Editor's Note: The 1971 Attica state prison riot left 43 people dead, including 10 guards, and was a spark for the prisoners' rights movement of the 1970s.]
Although the draconian Rockefeller drug laws have been reformed in recent years and the prison population has declined somewhat -- from an all-time high of 95,000 at the end of 2006 to just over 81,000 at the end of June -- there are still more than 10,000 people serving prison time for drug offenses, or, as Credico notes, more than there were people in prison for anything 40 years ago.
"This is happening under the purview of Democrats," he said. "Attorney General Eric Schneiderman walked with us against the Rockefeller laws, but he's been captured by the powers that be and has ignored any calls for further reform, not just of the drug laws, but also of odious prison conditions."
Once upon a time, political candidates had to deny ever having smoked marijuana. Then, one famously denied ever having inhaled. Now, they admit to having used, but brush it off as a youthful indiscretion from their wild school days. Not Credico.
"I've admitted being a pot smoker," he said. "Not every day, but it's been good for me. I smoked and I inhaled, and I believe marijuana is better for you than e-cigs. People should have access to it. It's better than drinking or doing blow," he added.
But Credico even argues that he should have the right to do blow, if that's what he wants to do.
"I can eat Ritalin, I can gobble down all those pharmaceuticals, but if somebody shows up with some pure Bolivian, I want to try that. That's against the law? Who is responsible for that, and who is enforcing it? Nobody gives a shit if I smoke a joint or do a line," he declared.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]Of course, that could be because Credico is a middle-aged white guy. But New York City, Credico's home, is infamous for its arrests of tens of thousands of young black and brown city residents each year on marijuana charges, and Credico, of course, is aware of that.
"All the kids I see getting arrested are black. It's against the law to smoke pot -- if you're black," he scoffed.
"They arrest 50,000 kids for smoking pot, but I smoked it at the state capitol, and they wouldn't arrest me," he said. "We have 55,000 homeless people in this city, 20,000 homeless kids. Just think what we could do if marijuana was legal and taxed and we used it to rebuild the infrastructure and create low cost housing. Instead, he keep arresting brown and black kids."
Credico's campaign is low-budget, but he's using tactics honed by years of activism to get his message out. He travels to events throughout the city and state and works crowds -- many of whom already know him from his years of activism around prison issues.
"I'm focusing on the projects; that's where I'm getting my support," he said. "People are tired of the marijuana arrests, the abuse by police. We need a state law banning racial profiling. We're supposed to be the guiding light of the nation, and we don't have a racial profiling law."
Credico is using social media to the best advantage he can. He's produced an award-winning documentary, Sixty Spins Around the Sun, to explain how he's gotten to the point where he's spending his 60th year trying to unseat a powerful incumbent governor, and he's got a Facebook campaign page.
Over the weekend, he penned a piece for the Huffington Post, "Is New York Ready for a Governor Who's Ready to Inhale?", but when it comes to mainstream media attention, he feels like the Rodney Dangerfield of New York politics.
"I don't get no respect," he intoned. "I'm running against two people from the ruling class."
But at least he was on his way to do an interview with NY 1, one of the city's 24-hour cable news channels. And the campaign continues.
(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)
special to the Chronicle by investigative reporter Clarence Walker, firstname.lastname@example.org
On June 25, the US Supreme Court handed down a resounding landmark ruling in two separate high profile criminal cases, requiring police to first get a warrant to search a person's cell phone. The ruling is a major victory for the privacy rights of millions of cell phone users, with the Supreme Court working to update Fourth Amendment search and seizure law to keep pace with technological advances.
[image:1 align:left]According to a January Pew survey, 90% of American adults have cell phones and 58% have smart phones.
Cell phones are "such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion. "Cell phones and smart phones with extensive memory can store millions of pages of personal texts, hundreds of photos and videos, which can form a revealing biography of a person's life, and that the Fourth Amendment must protect personal, private possessions. A cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the exhaustive search of a house."
In its unanimous decision, the court rejected the Obama administration's argument that "cell phones are no different from anything else a person may be carrying when arrested, and that cell phones are now critical to tools in the commission of a crime."
The decision came in two separate cases, US v. David Riley, a California man serving 15 years on charges of attempted murder and a gun charge, and US v. Brima Wurie, a Boston area man sentenced to federal pen for 22 1/2 years on drug related charges. The court consolidated the two cases in reaching its opinion.
The question now becomes whether the decision will be applied retroactively to thousands of similar prosecutions where defendants were convicted as result of warrantless evidence used against them that were taken from their cell phones or mobile devices. If retroactivity is granted, thousands of inmates could either go free, be granted a new trial, or face resentencing.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]Writing a commentary in the Washington Post, lawyer Orin Kerr, who serves as a professor at George Washington Law School, explained why the decision in the Wurie and Riley cases may not be made retroactive.
"The culprit is the continued expansion of the good faith exception in Davis v. US, where the Supreme Court ruled that the exclusionary rule is not available if a search was authorized by binding appellant precedent at the time the search occurred," he argued. "Lower courts have interpreted Davis to apply broadly even when no binding appellate precedent authorized the search. Therefore, under these cases, relatively few defendants will get the benefits of the Riley-Wurie rule."
In an interview with the Chronicle, San Diego appellate attorney Charles Sevilla largely agreed.
"The court seldom states whether its rulings are retroactive," he told the Chronicle. "And even if the reversals in Wurie's and Riley's cell phone convictions were applied retroactively to cases not yet final on appeal, the defendants must face a 'good faith' argument to request a new trial. A 'good faith' argument can be made, for example, when a police officer, relying on a warrant, finds incriminating evidence during a search, but the search warrant is later found to be invalid. The 'good faith' doctrine allows the use of that evidence if it were unlawfully obtained because the officer was acting in 'good faith,'" he explained.
"Evidence should be suppressed only if it can be said that the law enforcement officer had knowledge a search was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment," Sevilla added, citing Herring v. US. "If the police, during prior cell phone searches, acted on case law allowing warrantless searches, then an officer's 'good faith' conduct will doom a suppression motion," Seville argued.
Of course, police usually deny knowingly conducting unlawful searches.
Sevilla also cited Davis v. US as another obstacle to retroactivity in cell phone search cases. In that case, Illinois police arrested Willie Gene Davis for providing a false name, then searched his car and found an illegal weapon. An appeals court refused to throw out the warrantless search of Davis's car because the police only searched the immediate area.
Meanwhile Brima Wurie is scheduled to be resentenced on the drug charge that took his case to the Supreme Court. Because of the court's ruling in his case, the drugs and weapon found in his home after police searched Wurie's cell phone will not be considered, but he's still facing serious time.
"As a repeat offender, Mr. Wurie will still face 20 years from the feds on the original drug case," Wurie's appellate public defender, Ian Gold, told the Chronicle. "So the reversal of Wurie's conviction is largely symbolic without much benefit."
The Supreme Court minced no words in separating such devices from other property a person might have on them when detained by police.
"Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse," Chief Justice Roberts wrote. "The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure."
The ruling will certainly apply to searches of tablets, laptop computers, and may even apply to digital information held by third parties like phone companies.
"The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hands does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought," Roberts wrote. "Our answers to the question of what police must do before searching a (cell phone seized incident to an arrest) is accordingly simple -- get a warrant."
"I believe the court got it right," said Lewis Rice, a retired DEA Special Agent in Charge of the agency's New York Office. "The court must balance our right of privacy against law enforcement's ability to aggressively investigate criminal organizations."
[image:3 align:left caption:true]Rice points out the vital fact that although law enforcement generally needs a warrant, the Supreme Court ruling does allow a warrantless search of a mobile device depending on the immediate situation.
"The court left open the option for law enforcement, under exigent circumstances, to search a cell phone without a warrant," he told the Chronicle.
Still, the decision in Wurie and Riley is already having an impact.
In Michigan, Kent County Circuit Court Judge Mark Trusock tossed felony drug charges against 29-year-old Matthew Macnaughton on July 16 after Macnaughton's attorney successfully brought up the Wurie and Riley decision.
Grand Rapids police had stopped Macnaughton for running a red light, and the officer decided to arrest him for driving without a license. While Macnaughton sat in the rear seat of the patrol car, the officer examined Macnaughton's smart phone just when a text message from a person came across the screen asking to buy drugs.
"What kind of phone is this?" the cop asked. "You must be a drug dealer."
Macnaughton's attorney, Chris Wirth, argued that per the Supreme Court decision, digital contents of a cell phone cannot be searched in the course of a routine arrest, and that there were no circumstances requiring immediate action. Prosecutor argued that Macnaughton's case didn't apply to the Wurie-Riley decision because Macnaughton's arrest ocurred in February -- prior to the high court handing down the cell phone decision -- but that didn't stop Judge Trusock from tossing the case.
Still, while Macnaughton may have beaten the drug rap, the state still got its pound of flesh. The prosecutor's office seized his 2005 Lincoln Aviator and over $3,000 dollars the police took off him during the arrest.
The DEA appears resigned to live with the Supreme Court ruling, a Justice Department spokeswoman's remarks seem to indicate.
"The Department will work with its law enforcement agencies to ensure full compliance with this Supreme Court decision," spokeswoman Ellen Canales told the Chronicle. "We will make use of whatever technology is available to preserve evidence on cell phones while seeking a warrant, and we will assist our agents in determining when exigent circumstances or another applicable exception to the warrant requirement will permit them to search the phone immediately without a warrant."
But while the DEA is looking forward, defendants and defense attorneys are looking back -- and wondering whether they decision won't bring some relief.
[image:4 align:right caption:true]State and federal courts expect to review tons of motions for new trials from numerous lawyers representing defendants already convicted on crimes related to warrantless cell phone evidence, now that the Supreme Court has ruled the practice violates search and seizure law.
"There probably will be a good deal of litigation over whether this decision can be applied retroactively," San Francisco attorney Dennis Riordan told the Los Angeles Times.
Privacy advocates and civil libertarians are also hoping the Supreme Court ruling in Wurie and Riley will have a role in deciding controversial cases making their way through the lower courts, whether it's cell phone location data tracking or the Obama administration's NSA spy surveillance program.
"When it comes to the Fourth Amendment, we want courts to ensure this important legal protection survives the rapid technological changes of the 21st Century," Hanni Fakoury, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the Chronicle.
The cell phone rulings in the Wurie and Riley cases are only the latest landmark decisions to strike a balance between privacy protections and the evolving role. In Kyllo v. US, the high court ruled that police must obtain a warrant before using thermal imaging devices on homes, while in US v. Jones, the high court overturned the life-without-parole drug conspiracy conviction against Antoine Jones, in which FBI agents and Maryland narcotics officers placed a GPS tracking device on his vehicle for nearly a month without obtaining a search warrant.
Still, while Jones won the case, he didn't win his freedom. After three federal prosecution, including two hung juries and one with the conviction overturned, Jones chose to agree to a plea deal with federal prosecutors rather than face another chance at life in prison with yet another trial.
In a letter from prison, where he is working on a book about his experiences, Jones had something to say about the cell phone decisions.
"The courts are constantly sending a message to police that they're not willing to give them that much power and control. This is a good thing because the police need to be governed by the courts, and the courts should maintain the power to determine when a search warrant is necessary," he wrote. "The police are being either lazy, or they try to circumvent the law when courts rules in favor of protecting constitutional rights."
It is ironic indeed that, as the US government grapples with the NSA and Edward Snowden spying scandals, it took the case of two convicted felons to get the Supreme Court to protect the privacy of millions of Americans who use cell phones containing reams of data about their private lives. The irony is only deepened when we consider that Brima Wurie and David Riley won't benefit much from this historic ruling.
In a move precipitated by the child immigration border crisis, but informed by the ongoing damage done to children on both sides of the border by law enforcement-heavy, militarized anti-drug policies, a broad coalition of more than 80 civil rights, immigration, criminal justice, racial justice, human rights, libertarian and religious organizations came together late last week to call for an end to the war on drugs in the name of protecting the kids.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]
"The quality of a society can and should be measured by how its most vulnerable are treated, beginning with our children," said Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance, the organization that coordinated the letter. "Children have every right to expect that we will care for, love and nurture them into maturity. The drug war is among the policies that disrupts our responsibility to that calling."
The groups, as well as prominent individuals such as The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, signed on to a letter of support for new policies aimed at ending the war on drugs.
"In recent weeks," the letter says, "the plight of the 52,000 unaccompanied children apprehended at the US border since last October, many of whom are fleeing drug war violence in Central America, has permeated our national consciousness. The devastating consequences of the drug war have not only been felt in Latin America, they are also having ravaging effects here at home. All too often, children are on the frontlines of this misguided war that knows no borders or color lines."
Organizations signing the letter include a broad range of groups representing different issues and interests, but all are united in seeing the war on drugs as an obstacle to improvement. They include the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Center for Constitutional Rights, the Institute of the Black World, Presente.org, Students for Liberty, United We Dream, the William C. Velasquez Institute, and the Working Families Organization. For a complete list of signatories, click here. [Disclosure: StoptheDrugwar.org, the organization publishing this article, is a signatory.]
In the past few months, more than 50,000 minors fleeing record levels of violence in the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have arrived at the US border seeking either to start a new life or to reconnect with family members already in the country. The causes of the violence in Central America are complex and historically-rooted, but one of them is clearly the US war on drugs, heavy-handedly exported to countries throughout the Western Hemisphere in the past several decades.
Those northern Central American countries -- the so-called Northern Triangle -- have been especially hard hit by drug prohibition-related violence since about 2008, when, after the US helped Mexico bulk up its war on the drug cartels via the $2.4 billion Plan Merida assistance package (President Obama wants another $115 million for it next year), the cartels began expanding their operations into the weaker Central American states. Already high crime levels went through the roof.
Honduras's second largest city, San Pedro Sula, now has the dubious distinction of boasting the world's highest murder rate, while the three national capitals, Guatemala City, San Salvador, and Tegucigalpa, are all in the top 10 deadliest cities worldwide. Many of the victims are minors, who are often targeted because of their membership in drug trade-affiliated street gangs (or because they refuse to join the gangs).
[image:2 align:right caption:true]The impact of the war on drugs on kids in the United States is less dramatic, but no less deleterious. Hundreds of thousands of American children have one or both parents behind bars for drug offenses, suffering not only the stigma and emotional trauma of being a prisoner's child, but also the collateral consequences of impoverishment and familial and community instability. Millions more face the prospect of navigating the mean streets of American cities where, despite some recent retreat from the drug war's most serious excesses, the war on drugs continues to make some neighborhoods extremely dangerous places.
"In the face of this spiraling tragedy that continues to disproportionately consume the lives and futures of black and brown children," the letter concludes, "it is imperative to end the nefarious militarization and mass incarceration occurring in the name of the war on drugs. So often, repressive drug policies are touted as measures to protect the welfare of our children, but in reality, they do little more than serve as one great big Child Endangerment Act. On behalf of the children, it is time to rethink the war on drugs."
Although the signatory groups represent diverse interests and constituencies, coming together around the common issue of protecting children could lay the groundwork for a more enduring coalition, said Jeronimo Saldana, a legislative and organizing coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.
"The idea was to get folks together to make a statement. Now, we have to figure out how to move forward. The letter was the first step," he said.
"The groups have been very positive," Saldana continued. "They're glad someone was speaking up and putting it all together. What's going on in Central American and Mexico is tied into what's happening in our own cities and communities. This crosses partisan lines; it's really obvious that the failed policies of the war on drugs affects people of all walks of life, and the images of the kids really brings it home. We hope to build on this to get some traction. We want folks to continue to make these connections."
Different signatories do have different missions, but a pair of California groups that signed the letter provide examples of how the drug war unites them.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]"We have a history of working on behalf of youth involved in the criminal justice system and their families," said Azadeh Zohrabi, national campaigner for the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. "We see desperate families trying to stay connected, strong, and healthy, but mass incarceration is really making that difficult. We work both with families whos kids are involved in the justice system and with families with one or both parents in prison or who have lost custody of their kids because of their involvement in the criminal justice system," she explained.
"We are working to combat this, and we think the war on drugs overall has had disastrous consequences for families, both here and abroad," Zohrabi continued. "The trillions poured into policing and militarization has just produced more misery. It's time for drugs to be dealt with as a public health issue, not a crime."
"We signed on because the letter is very clear in addressing an important component of the discussion that hasn't really been out there," said Arturo Carmona, executive director of the Latino social justice group Presente.org. "This crisis on the border is not the result of deferring actions against immigrant child arrivals, as many right-wing Republicans have been saying, but is the result of one of the most deadly peaks in crime and violence in the Northern Triangle in recent memory," he argued.
"The violence there is one of the main push factors, and when we talk about this in the US, it's critical that we acknowledge these push factors, many of which are connected to the war on drugs," Carmona continued. "You'll notice that the kids aren't coming from Nicaragua, where we haven't been supporting the war on drugs, but from countries that we've assisted and advised on the drug war, where we've provided weaponry. This is very well-documented."
While Presente.org is very concerned with the immigration issue, said Carmona, there is no escaping the role of the war on drugs in making things worse -- not only in Central America and at the border, but inside the US as well.
"We're very concerned about the chickens coming home to roost for our failed war on drugs policy," he said. "The American public needs to be made very aware of this, and we are starting to see a greater understanding that this is a failed policy -- not only in the way we criminalize our young Latino and African-American kids here in the US, but also in the way this policy affects other countries in our neighborhood. As Nicaragua shows, our lack of involvement there has seen a lower crime rate. Our military involvement through the drug war is an abysmal failure, as the record deaths not only in Central America, but also in Mexico, shows."