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The US Is Deporting Hundreds of Thousands for Drug Offenses, Many Minor [FEATURE]

(This article was written in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.)

The US government wants to throw Marsha Austin out of the country. The 67-year-old grandmother came from Jamaica to New York as a lawful resident in 1985, and has lived here ever since with her husband, seven children (two more are in Jamaica), grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. All are legal residents or US citizens.

Marsha Austin and her family in the Bronx (hrw.org)
By her own admission, she had problems with drugs. "I live in a drug-infested area," she said of her neighborhood in the Bronx, and she succumbed to the lure of crack cocaine in the wake of her mother's death. Jones racked up several minor convictions before getting popped for making a $5 purchase for an undercover officer in 1995.

That was "attempted criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree," to which she pleaded guilty on her public defender's advice. The attorney failed to tell her the conviction could lead to deportation.

Her convictions led to little or no jail time, but in 2010, as her husband's health faltered, she violated probation by drinking alcohol. She did 90 days in jail, but instead of walking out, she was seized by immigration authorities at the end of her sentence and spent the next 2 ½ years in immigration jail awaiting deportation.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) repeatedly opposed her release, claiming she was under mandatory detention for her drug offenses, but then released her unexpectedly in 2013. She's been in treatment since then and now proudly reports that she's been "clean as a whistle" for the past five years. Now, her husband's health is failing, as is the health of her daughter, who suffered a breakdown after her own daughter suffered a serious illness.

"My kids and my grandkids, that's what I'm living for now," she said.

But she remains in limbo. The US government still wants to send her back to Jamaica, arguing that she is subject to deportation for the "aggravated felony" of buying $5 worth of crack for a narc.

She's not alone. Beginning late in the George W. Bush years and continuing through the Obama administration, the US has been deporting and trying to deport immigrants for drug offenses at a record clip. According to a just released report from Human Rights Watch, more than 260,000 non-citizens -- legal residents and illegal immigrants alike -- were deported for drug offenses between 2007 and 2012. Shockingly, 34,000 people were deported for marijuana possession offenses alone.

The trend is upward. The number of people deported whose most serious offense was a drug crime was up 22% over that period, while the number of people deported whose most serious offense was a drug possession offense was up even more, at 43%.

Tens of thousands more have been or are being detained indefinitely in immigration jails fighting pending deportation orders. Such extended imprisonments wreak havoc on the families who husbands or fathers, wives or mothers, are caught up behind bars.

The sweeping action against non-citizens comes as part of the Obama administration's crackdown on "criminal aliens," but seems disproportionately harsh when applied to low-level drug offenders, especially people who have lived all or most of their lives here and have strong family and community roots in this country. It is also at odds with the trends toward drug decriminalization and even legalization now at play in the country.

The Human Rights Watch report, "A Price Too High: US Families Torn Apart by Deportations for Drug Offenses," documents how the US government is routinely breaking up families by initiating deportation proceedings for drug offenses, often ones decades old or so minor they resulted in little or no prison time. Researchers interviewed more than 130 affected immigrants, families, attorneys, and law enforcement officials, and incorporated new data obtained from ICE.

Here are some of the cases examined in the report:

"Raul Valdez, a permanent resident from Mexico who had grown up in the Chicago area from the age of one, was deported in 2014 because of a 2003 conviction for possession of cannabis with intent to deliver, for which he had been sentenced to 60 days in jail.

Ricardo Fuenzalida, a permanent resident from Chile now living in New Jersey, was held without bond for months fighting deportation in 2013 because of two marijuana possession convictions from 13 years earlier.

Jose Francisco Gonzalez, a permanent resident in Anaheim, California, was put into deportation proceedings and held without bond in 2014 because of a 2001 arrest for having two pot plants, despite having successfully completed a California diversion program that promised to erase his criminal record.

Abdulhakim Haji-Eda, a refugee from Ethiopia who came to the US at the age of 13, has been ordered deported as a drug trafficker for a teenage drug sale in Seattle. Now 26 years old, he has no other convictions, and is married to a US citizen with two US citizen children and another on the way.

"Antonio S.," who came to the US from Mexico when he was 12 and was eligible for a reprieve from deportation as a "DREAMer" under the executive program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was detained for over a year in Colorado and deported after a conviction for possession of marijuana, a municipal violation to which he pleaded guilty without an attorney.

"Alice M.," a 41-year-old graphic designer and Canadian citizen, [was barred] from living in the US with her US citizen fiancé because of a single 1992 conviction for cocaine possession she received in Canada in her last year of high school, a conviction that was pardoned long ago in Canada.

"Mr. V.," a refugee and permanent resident from Vietnam, was ordered deported in 2008 for a 1999 conviction for possession of crack cocaine. Although he has since been granted a full and unconditional pardon from the state of South Carolina, Mr. V. remains under a deportation order and only remains in the US because of restrictions on the repatriation of certain Vietnamese nationals."

"Even as many US states are legalizing and decriminalizing some drugs, or reducing sentences for drug offenses, federal immigration policy too often imposes exile for the same offenses," said Grace Meng, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. "Americans believe the punishment should fit the crime, but that is not what is happening to immigrants convicted of what are often relatively minor drug offenses."

The report notes that the Obama administration has been sensitive to the injustices of the war on drugs and urges it to be as sensitive to the harsh effects of its deportation policies related to drug offenses. But it is not just the federal government that can act to improve the situation. Here are the group's recommendations:

"To the United States Congress

Eliminate deportation based on convictions for simple possession of drugs.

Ensure that all non-citizens in deportation proceedings, including those with convictions for drug offenses, have access to an individualized hearing where the immigration judge can weigh evidence of rehabilitation, family ties, and other equities against a criminal conviction.

Ensure that refugees and asylum seekers with convictions for sale, distribution, or production of drugs are only considered to have been convicted of a "particularly serious crime" through case-by-case determination that takes into account the seriousness of the crime and whether the non-citizen is a threat to public safety.

Ensure that non-citizens who are barred from entering the US and/or gaining lawful resident status because of a criminal conviction, including for drug offenses, are eligible to apply for individualized consideration, i.e., a waiver of the bar, based on such factors as the above mentioned.

Eliminate mandatory detention and ensure all non-citizens are given an opportunity for an individualized bond hearing.

Redefine "conviction" in immigration law to exclude convictions that have been expunged, pardoned, vacated, or are otherwise not recognized by the jurisdiction in which the conviction occurred.

Decriminalize the personal use of drugs, as well as possession of drugs for personal use.

To the Department of Homeland Security

Provide clear guidance to immigration officials that a positive exercise of prosecutorial discretion may be appropriate even in cases involving non-citizens with criminal convictions, with particular consideration for lawful permanent residents and non-citizens whose most serious convictions are for nonviolent offenses, including drug convictions, that occurred five or more years ago.

Provide all non-citizens who have been in detention for six months or more with a bond hearing.

To State and Local Governments

Ensure drug courts and diversion programs do not require a guilty plea from defendants that would constitute a conviction that triggers deportation, mandatory detention, and other immigration consequences even upon successful completion of the program.

Remove barriers to post-conviction relief for non-citizens convicted of nonviolent drug offenses through legal error, including through guilty pleas obtained without adequate advice from defense counsel on the potential immigration consequences of the plea.

Decriminalize the personal use of drugs, as well as possession of drugs for personal use."

To be comprehensive and thorough, drug reform must encompass immigration law reform, too.

Historic Federal Bill to Legalize Medical Marijuana Rolled Out Today [FEATURE]

A bipartisan trio of senators today introduced historic legislation to legalize medical marijuana at the federal level. Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Rand Paul (R-KY) filed the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act, which would end the federal prohibition on medical marijuana and allow states to set their own policies.

Senatory Cory Booker (D-NJ) (Bbsrock/wikimedia.org)
"We need policies that empower states to legalize medical marijuana if they so choose-recognizing that there are Americans who can realize real medical benefits if this treatment option is brought out of the shadows," said Sen. Booker. "Doctors and patients deserve federal laws that are fair and compassionate, and states should be able to set their own medical marijuana policies without federal interference. I am thankful to Senators Gillibrand and Paul as well as the Drug Policy Alliance for their hard work on this common-sense bill to make medical marijuana accessible to the millions of Americans who could benefit from it." 

The bill would reclassify marijuana for medical use, allow veterans to have access to medical marijuana, overhaul banking laws to allow licensed medical marijuana businesses to use financial services, and open up more research possibilities for medical marijuana.

In addition to the Drug Policy Alliance, the senators also consulted with the Marijuana Policy Project, Americans for Safe Access, and other voices for patients in drafting the bill. Although nearly half the states have passed medical marijuana laws (and a dozen more have passed limited CBD cannabis oil laws), marijuana remains illegal under federal law. That means patients and providers in medical marijuana states are still at risk of federal prosecution and families and patients in non-medical marijuana states must relocate or travel long distances to get treatment, facing the risk of prosecution in non-medical marijuana states along the way.

"I am so happy to support this bill. As the mother of a child with a severe seizure disorder, anxiously waiting to get access to a medication that is already helping thousands of others is unbearable," said Kate Hintz, a New York resident who has advocated for CBD to treat her daughter and others to treat epilepsy and seizures. "After persistent advocacy in my home state of New York, we finally saw a medical marijuana law passed last summer.  Yet individual state's laws, including New York's, will not succeed until we lift the current federal restrictions surrounding this plant," she added.

"I applaud Sens. Gillibrand, Booker and Paul for taking this bold step forward and insisting the federal government take action.  Let's end the fear and stigma associated with marijuana, and instead allow this bill to provide research, medicine, and long needed relief to so many. It cannot come fast enough, especially for my daughter," Hintz concluded.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) (senate.gov)
"For far too long, the government has enforced unnecessary laws that have restricted the ability of the medical community to determine the medicinal value of marijuana and have prohibited Americans from receiving essential care that would alleviate their chronic pain and suffering. I am proud today to stand with Sens. Gillibrand and Booker to introduce a bill that will fundamentally change our nation's drug policies and have a positive impact on the lives of our Veterans and children," said Sen. Paul.

While the Obama administration has, in recent years, largely taken a laissez-faire approach to medical marijuana in states that have approved it, that approach is both uneven and dependent on the whim of the administration in power. Just last week, federal prosecutors in Washington state took a family of five medical marijuana patients--the Kettle Falls Five--to trial, threatening them with lengthy, mandatory minimum prison sentences for growing medical marijuana legally under state law (in a state where even recreational marijuana is legal!).

Fortunately for the Kettle Falls Five, a federal jury acquitted them of most charges, including the most serious ones. But under the current state of federal marijuana prohibition, such prosecutions could continue.

Similarly, the Obama administration's recent restraint on medical marijuana is derived from Justice Department guidance to federal prosecutors about which cases raise the level of federal concern high enough to warrant prosecution. That guidance was crafted by a deputy attorney general answerable to Attorney General Holder and the president. Absent protections provided by this bill or similar legislation, a new administration could easily return to the bad old days of DEA raids and patients and providers being hauled off to federal prison.  

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) (senate.gov)
"As the parents of severely ill children who could be helped by medical cannabis, we are dedicated to advancing safe, legal and viable access," said Maria De Gregorio, a parent leader of the Kentucky-based Parents Coalition for Rescheduling Medical Cannabis. "Rescheduling efforts must also guarantee access to whole plant extracts that have proven therapeutic benefits. We feel it is crucial to support state rights in all current and future medical marijuana programs. Thus, we strongly endorse this bill as it is written."
 
"Almost half the states have legalized marijuana for medical use; it's long past time to end the federal ban," said Michael Collins, Policy Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This bipartisan legislation allows states to set their own medical marijuana policies and ends the criminalization of patients, their families, and the caregivers and dispensary owners and employees who provide them their medicine."

"With studies showing that medical cannabis access decreases suicide and addiction rates, the CARERS Act is absolutely necessary to help fix a broken healthcare system for veterans, which deals with suicides and addiction at catastrophic rates," said TJ Thompson, a retired U.S. Navy Third Class Petty Officer. "Now, I'm considered a criminal because of the medication that helps me. I take it illegally to treat my PTSD."

"This comprehensive proposal would effectively end the war on medical marijuana and let states compassionately provide care for seriously ill people without the federal government standing in the way," said Tom Angell, director of Marijuana Majority. "The fact that two young Democrats with likely long political futures have teamed up with a probable 2016 Republican presidential candidate shows how medical marijuana is a nonpartisan, noncontroversial issue that draws support from across the spectrum. With polls showing an overwhelming majority of American voters backing marijuana reform, you’d think taking up this proposal would be a no-brainer for legislative leaders who want to show that Congress can still get things done." 

We shall see. The bill text is not yet available on the congressional website, and it has not yet been assigned to a committee. That's the next step in a long process. 

Washington, DC
United States

End the Drug War "For the Kids" Coalition Forms [FEATURE]

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.

The failures of the war on drugs transcend borders. (wikimedia.org)

"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).

Protesting for schools, not prisons in California (Ella Baker Center)
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.

Child refugee in a US border detention facility (presente.org)
"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."

Chronicle AM -- July 31, 2014

One study finds that Colorado is doing just fine with marijuana legalization, another finds that kids aren't smoking more pot in medical marijuana states, there's trouble in Albuquerque, Detroit police go on yet another well-publicized mass drug sweep, Marc Emery vows revenge, and more. Let's get to it:

Seattle PD has adjusted well to marijuana legalization. With one apparent exception. (Seattle PD)
Marijuana Policy

Brookings Institution Report Finds Colorado's Legalization is Succeeding. The Brookings Institution's Center for Effective Public Management today released a report on how well Colorado is managing marijuana legalization. The title of the report, "Colorado's Rollout of Legal Marijuana is Succeeding," pretty much spells it out. "The state has met challenging statutory and constitutional deadlines for the construction and launch of a legal, regulatory, and tax apparatus for its new policy," according to the report authored by John Hudak, a Brookings fellow in Governance Studies. "In doing so, it has made intelligent decisions about regulatory needs, the structure of distribution, prevention of illegal diversion, and other vital aspects of its new market. It has made those decisions in concert with a wide variety of stakeholders in the state." Click on the link to read the full report.

Georgia Libertarian Party Endorses Marijuana Legalization. The Libertarian Party of Georgia says "legalize it." In a Wednesday press release, the party came out four-square for legalization. "Georgia voters should be allowed to vote on the issue", said state party chair Doug Craig. "If the voters were allowed to vote we believe they would vote to legalize. Rights should never be determined by popular vote, but polling gives us a good indication on where the public stands on the issue. As Libertarians, we support giving the public the freedom to choose. Lawmakers should study the issue and allow public input into forming a better policy that stops treating otherwise law abiding citizens as criminals."

Albuquerque Decriminalization Initiative Up in the Air After City Messes Up Signature Requirements. What a mess! The city of Albuquerque told initiative organizers they needed 11,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot, so to ensure that they had a comfortable cushion, organizers turned in 16,000 signatures. Then, two days after signatures were handed in, the city said it had made a mistake, and organizers needed 14,000 signatures to qualify. The measure could still qualify, but if it comes up with more than 11,000 valid signatures, but less than the 14,000 needed to make the ballot, look for legal action.

East Lansing, Michigan, Decriminalization Initiative Campaign Turns in Signatures. The Coalition for a Safer East Lansing turned in about 2,300 signatures for its decriminalization initiative Tuesday. If they end up with enough valid signatures to qualify, the measure will go on the ballot in November. Similar efforts are afoot in more than a dozen other Michigan towns and cities.

Medical Marijuana

National Bureau of Economic Research Report Finds Medical Marijuana Has Not Led to More Teen Use. The finding comes in the working paper Medical Marijuana Laws and Teen Marijuana Use. "Our results are not consistent with the hypothesis that the legalization of medical marijuana caused an increase in the use of marijuana among high school students. In fact, estimates from our preferred specification are small, consistently negative, and are never statistically distinguishable from zero," the authors said.

Drug Policy

Broad Coalition Forms to Highlight Plight of Drug War's Youngest Victims. More than 80 civil rights, immigration, criminal justice, racial justice, human rights, libertarian and religious organizations are joined by notable figures such as Michelle Alexander in calling for an end to the war on drugs in the name of protecting children both in Latin America and here in the United States. They have all signed on to a letter of support for new policies. The signatories -- which include the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Center for Constitutional Rights, Institute of the Black World, Presente.org, Students for Liberty, United We Dream, William C. Velasquez Institute, and the Working Families Organization -- are notable for their diversity in cause and focus, yet have come together around the issue of the drug war's impact on youth, at home and abroad. Click here for a full list of supporters.

Law Enforcement

Detroit Police in Yet Another Militarized Drug Blitz. In the latest in a series of mass raids under the rubric of "Operation Restore Order," heavily armored Detroit Police SWAT teams and other officers targeted the Ninth Precinct on the city's east side today. More than a hundred police were involved. The first house they hit had no drugs, the second contained some weapons and drug paraphernalia, the third resulted in the seizure of a couple dozen crack rocks.

One Seattle Police Officer Wrote 80% of Marijuana Tickets; Now, He's Off the Streets. One police officer who apparently doesn't think much of Washington's marijuana legalization law -- he wrote snide remarks on some of the tickets -- is responsible for a whopping 80% of all public pot smoking tickets written by the Seattle Police in the last six months. In one instance, Officer Randy Jokela used a coin toss to decide whom he would cite. He has been assigned to other duties while the department's Office of Professional Accountability investigates.

International

Marc Emery Vows Political Revenge on Canadian Conservatives. Out of prison in the US, but still stuck in an American deportation center awaiting his return to Canada, "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery is vowing political revenge on Canada's Conservatives. He has served nearly five years in federal prison for selling marijuana seeds after the Conservatives allowed him to be extradited from Canada. "My own government betrayed me and I'm going to wreak an appropriate amount of political revenge when I get home and campaign against the Conservative government," Emery said. "The whole thing is nonsense. I should never have been turned over to the US government," said the fervent Liberal supporter. Canadian elections are next year.

(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.)

There's More to Colorado Than Marijuana [FEATURE]

Colorado has certainly garnered a lot of attention since voters there decided to legalize marijuana in the 2012 election, but when it comes to drug reform, there's a lot more going on in the Rocky Mountain State than just buds, blunts, and bongs. In the past few years, Colorado has taken significant steps toward more enlightened drug policies, and with the powerful coalitions that have emerged to push the agenda, more is likely to come.

Passed last year while all the attention was on the legislature's race to get marijuana commerce regulations passed, the single most significant piece of broader drug reform legislation was Senate Bill 250, which aims to rein in and redirect corrections spending by reducing the number of drug offenders in prison.

The bill creates a separate sentencing system for drug offenders and allows people convicted of some felony drug charges to be sentenced to probation and community-based sentencing and see that felony charge changed to a misdemeanor conviction upon completion of probation. It allow provides that savings from the sentencing changes be plowed back into drug treatment.

The bill didn't come out of nowhere. It was the outgrowth of a 2008 law that created the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. That panel brought together in one effort the heads of all the relevant state agencies as they grappled with how to reduce recidivism and put a brake on prison spending. It also provided an opportunity for groups like the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC) to start confronting the commission with research-based evidence about what does and doesn't work.

"There is a lot of good evidence-based practice that shows what we did in the past didn't work, and a lot of it had to do with national attention," said Pam Clifton, communications coordinator for the CCJRC. "People were asking 'How come half your people are going back to prison?' Well, we didn't have funding for treatment in Colorado. If you didn't have any money, there wasn't any place for you to go. Another problem was helping people on the front end. How can we be more proactive with people on probation? The recession gave us a little bit of leverage."

But to get sentencing and drug reforms passed required not just a commission to come up with best policies and practices, but a political leadership that was willing to act. That came in 2008, when Colorado turned from red to blue, with a new Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, and Democrats in control of the legislature.

"When Bill Owens (R) was governor, he wasn't going to let anything happen," said Clifton. "But with the commission, a lot of conversations got started and we were able to educate about why change was needed, so when we had a change in leadership, there was a mandate from the commission to get good legislation passed. A lot of the recommendations the commission made went directly to the legislature, and when a bill showed up from the commission, it had a better opportunity to survive the process."

And while, as noted above, the legislature has passed other reforms, Senate Bill 250 was the biggie.

"That was the landmark legislation that really changes things," said Clifton. "This was the whole state -- prosecutors, defense counsel, the commission, us -- coming together and agreeing it was the right approach."

The bill only went into effect last October, so its results remain to be seen. But advocates are confident it has not only changed the conversation about drugs and sentencing, but that it will pay off in terms of fewer prisoners doing less time at less cost to the state -- and with less harm to the futures of drug offenders in the state.

Even the prisons are scenic in Colorado, although it is hoped that fewer prisoners will be forced to enjoy the view soon. (CDOC)
"It's too early to tell what impact Senate Bill 250 will have," said Art Way, Colorado manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. "It was definitely a step in the right direction, though. It shrank the number of felony degrees for drug charges from six to four, and now, many low-level drug felonies can wobble down to misdemeanors thanks to that bill. It's not true defelonization of use and possession, but it still gives defendants some opportunities to avoid the label of felons."

And the CCJRC deserves some major credit, he said.

"The CCJRC has been doing great work in the past decade revealing that we are on an unsustainable path," said Way. "The Department of Corrections budget was only increasing year after year, and they were able to make this a fiscal argument as well as a human argument. They've been at the forefront here."

Another front where Colorado is forging ahead is harm reduction. Needle exchange programs were legalized in 2010 and there are now six across the state, the state passed a 911 Good Samaritan law in 2012, and a law allowing friends and family members of injection drug users to carry and administer the overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) passed last year.

Activists have also managed to push through laws exempting needle exchange participants from the state's drug paraphernalia laws, and in Denver, an ordinance last year allowed the first mobile needle exchange in the state.

"We've been really excited, not only about all these programs, but also about getting these policy wins," said Lisa Raville of the Denver-based Harm Reduction Action Center. "Every time we go to the capitol, we've been winning. The legislature is very excited about harm reduction."

After passing Senate Bill 250, this year was relatively quiet on the sentencing and drug reform front. There are a number of reasons for that, some of them having to do with gauging public (and legislative) attitudes in the wake of a well-publicized violent crime, the killing of state prison chief Tom Clements by a parolee.

"Our corrections director was murdered last spring, and that caused a lot of ripples and made people at the capitol freak out a bit, so we wanted to tread lightly," said Clifton. "And things are really tricky in Colorado now," she added. "Elections are coming up, and everyone's concerned about what color we're going to be come November. Our elected officials are all being very cautious right now."

Like the CCJC, the harm reductionists were quiet in the legislature this year. It was a time for solidifying gains and getting previous victories implemented, Raville said.

Harm reduction measures in place in Colorado include needle exchanges and overdose reversal drug access. (wikimedia.org)
"This is an election year, and we knew they would be playing defense at the capitol," she said. "We decided this year would be all about promoting harm reduction policies and procedures. When we got those laws passed, we assumed that the legislature and the courts would implement them, but they didn't, so we spent the first six months promoting implementation, working with the legislature, as well as working with doctors and pharmacies so they know about these new laws."

But that doesn't mean the Harm Reduction Action Center is giving up on the legislature.

"Depending on how the election goes, our goal next year is total syringe decriminalization," said Raville. "We have the exemption for needle exchange participants, but there are still folks who won't ever access a needle exchange program, and we want them exempt as well. Now, you can get eight to 15 days in jail for every syringe, clean or used."

Raville pointed to the success of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition in getting a similar measure passed last year in the last year in getting a similar measure passed in the Tar Heel State. That partial decriminalization bill allows people carrying needles to avoid arrest if they inform officers they are carrying them.

"Robert Childs and the NCHRC got that passed with the support of law enforcement, who didn't want to get pricked," she said. "That's inspired us to work closely with the Denver Police Department. We have two officers on our advisory board."

"We have an overdose issue here in Colorado," Raville noted. "ODs have tripled in the past 10 years, and we have a fatal overdose every day and a half in the state. Not many doctors are prescribing naloxone, but we've had 92 overdose reversals so far. And a couple of hospitals in Denver are discharging overdose patients with a prescription for naloxone. We're trying to make that the standard for hospitals across the state."

While it was relatively quiet this year in the legislature, activists had to play defense on one set of bills and managed to kill them. That was a pair of bills to amend the civil code for child neglect to explicitly include marijuana use as an indicator, even though the state has legalized both medical and recreational marijuana use and possession.

"Stopping that bill was our top concern this year," said Way. "We worried that amending the civil code the way those bills tried to do would simply help law enforcement during drug investigations by leveraging parental rights. This wasn't a public health approach; it was a law enforcement bill couched as a public health and child protection bill," he said.

"The bill's fiscal notes only involving increasing bed space for what they expected to an influx of people put in jail," he noted. "There was nothing about access to treatment or reunification with kids. It was a standard, punitive drug war approach to a public health issue, and we were able to kill it for the second year in a row."

The CCJRC, for its part, is continuing to push for reform. While it wasn't ready to share its strategic planning for the near future, Clifton did say that the group is working around implementation of the Affordable Care Act's provisions requiring insurance companies to cover drug treatment.

"We've convened a stakeholder group from around the state -- health care and criminal justice people -- to make sure they knew each other as a step toward successfully implementing the ACA, getting more people in treatment, and reducing the prison population. We're teaching people how to navigate the system and teaching the system how to help people navigate it," she said.

And while sentencing reform and harm reduction efforts in Colorado haven't, for the most part, been about marijuana, the whole opening on marijuana has given political and social space to drug reform efforts that go beyond pot.

"The conversation about marijuana has absolutely helped," said Raville. "We legalized it and the sky didn't fall. This has helped normalize pot and normalize drug use more broadly. And it's been a good opportunity to talk to people about how voting matters."

"Marijuana reform has helped legislators understand what we mean by a public health approach," said Way. "We hope to now be able to address drug policy on a broader level with the legislature."

But much of that will depend on what the makeup of the legislature looks like after November. Still, Colorado has shown what some persistence, some coalition-building, and some science, evidence, and compassion can accomplish.

CO
United States

Tennessee's Scary New Law Criminalizing Drug-Using Pregnant Women [FEATURE]

When -- despite the objections of medical groups, reproductive health advocates, and even the drug czar's office -- Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signed into law Senate Bill 1391 late last month, the Volunteer State became the first in the nation to pass a law criminalizing pregnancy outcomes. Other states, such as Alabama and South Carolina, have used fetal harm laws to charge drug-using pregnant women, but Tennessee is the first to explicitly criminalize drug use during pregnancy.

Passed in the midst of rising concern over prescription drug and heroin abuse and aimed, its proponents said, at protecting babies, the law allows women to be criminally charged with an "assaultive offense for the illegal use of a narcotic drug while pregnant, if her child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug or for criminal homicide if her child dies as a result of her illegal use of a narcotic drug taken while pregnant."

Felony assault can earn you up to 15 years in prison in Tennessee. And while some prosecutors have said they will only file misdemeanor charges, that's not written into the law.

Proponents cited recent reports that the number of babies being born addicted to drugs is on the rise. Such infants are diagnosed as having Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or withdrawal symptoms after being exposed to opiates in the womb.

"Over the past decade, we have seen a nearly ten-fold rise in the incidence of babies born with NAS in Tennessee," the state Department of Health reported. Infants with NAS stay in the hospital longer than other babies and they may have serious medical and social problems."

But the state Health Department notwithstanding, experts in the field say that NAS doesn't actually have long-term effects, it's not accurate to call newborn infants "addicted," and that misrepresenting matters by vilifying pregnant women isn't helpful. In fact, more than 40 of them said so in an open letter last month.

More generally, leading medical groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Public Health Association reject the prosecution and punishment of pregnant women who use drugs. The groups mentioned above and many others said so in this 2011 document.

A coalition of medical, public health, women's rights, and social justice groups worked to oppose the bill as it made its way through the legislature, and then to convince Gov. Haslam to kill it. A petition with over 11,000 signatures urging him to veto the bill went to his office late last month. More than two dozen organizations devoted to ensuring families have access to health care likewise urged a veto, as did the American Association of Pediatrics, the National Perinatal Association, and International Doctors for Healthier Drug Policy.

Even acting drug czar Michael Botticelli raised a warning flag.

"Under the Obama administration, we've really tried to reframe drug policy not as a crime but as a public health-related issue, and that our response on the national level is that we not criminalize addiction," he said during a visit to Nashville as the governor pondered. "We want to make sure our response and our national strategy is based on the fact that addiction is a disease. What's important is that we create environments where we're really diminishing the stigma and the barriers, particularly for pregnant women, who often have a lot of shame and guilt about their substance abuse disorders."

But none of that mattered. On April 29, Haslam signed the bill into law.

"In reviewing this bill, I have had extensive conversations with experts including substance abuse, mental health, health and law enforcement officials," Haslam said in a statement. "The intent of this bill is to give law enforcement and district attorneys a tool to address illicit drug use among pregnant women through treatment programs."

"Today, the Tennessee governor has made it a crime to carry a pregnancy to term if you struggle with addiction or substance abuse," Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a statement in response to the signing. "This deeply misguided law will force those women who need health care the most into the shadows. Pregnant women with addictions need better access to health care, not jail time."

The statewide coalition Healthy and Free Tennessee also lambasted the new law.

"We are very sorry to see that Governor Haslam let an opportunity to do the right thing slip through his fingers," said Rebecca Terrell, the group's chairwoman."The experts could not have been clearer: this law is bad for babies and bad for Tennessee."

"This law says that women are to be held criminally accountable for the outcomes of their pregnancies," said Farah Diaz-Tello, a staff attorney with National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which was part of the coalition fighting the new law. "It essentially creates a system of separate and unequal rights. Drug ingestion is not a crime in Tennessee, just possession, and now, only pregnant women are criminalized for ingesting. They can be surveilled and punished by the state in ways different from other people. The law also treats fertilized eggs or fetuses as if they were people independent of the pregnant woman," she told the Chronicle.

Gov. Bill Haslam (tn.gov)
"It's the wrong response to the problem of addiction," said Diaz-Tello. "It's a health problem that is not responsive to threats and punishment. What kind of society do we want to be? Do we want to punish the people most in need of help and support? These are women largely living in poverty, women of color, who are already made vulnerable by our social policies, and now we hold them solely responsible without looking at society and what else is going on leading to pregnancy among addicted people and this horrible punitive response."

Even framing the issue as "pregnant women taking drugs" is somewhat misleading, said Diaz-Tello.

"We often make the mistake of thinking of people using drugs during pregnancy as pregnant women who became addicted to drugs when it should be the other way around," she said. "The reasons for addiction are complex and often gender-based. Women who have experienced violence and trauma are often self-medicating, and there is a lot of unresolved pain and trauma out there. And half the pregnancies in our country are unintended, which disproportionately affects women on the margins. It's not like someone wakes up pregnant one day and decides they want to do drugs."

The law will not operate in a vacuum. Tennessee is one of those states that has refused to expand Medicaid and has rejected the Affordable Care Act. It is more difficult for poor women there to get access to health care services, including drug treatment, but now it will be easier to prosecute them.

"This is definitely for the most part going to affect poor, marginalized, predominantly rural women," said Cherisse Scott, founder of SisterReach, a Memphis-based group working for reproductive justice for women and girls in the city and the Mid-South area. "That's because of the many barriers they face. Many rural areas just don't have the facilities to offer help to these women."

Scott also bemoaned the criminalization of pregnant women who use drugs under the law, a process of stigmatization and punishment only made more severe for women lacking resources.

"Low income women, women of color, already have issues navigating the court system, and many don't have any kind of support system," she said. "When their children are taken, they don't have the resources to get them back. And the other piece of this is that jails aren't hospitals or treatment centers. They don't offer women an opportunity to be properly rehabilitated from drug use."

And then there's the aftermath of a criminal conviction.

"If you look at this through the lens of racial and reproductive justice, how does a woman with this on her record bounce back, how does she get a job? With a criminal background, she will be further locked out," said Scott. "These are the kinds of barriers and issues that will ultimately hurt the mothers of Tennessee. We can't support legislation that uses criminalization as a means of rehabilitating people," she told the Chronicle.

"Our lawmakers had good intentions, but they didn't think it through," said Scott. "They seem to be very ready to separate mothers and children as a way of helping, and we don't see it like that, especially when there are rehab programs that keep mother and children together."

The new law is also generating alarm with advocates for people who use opioid maintenance therapy to deal with opiate addictions. Methadone and buprenorphine maintenance are the gold standard for treating pregnant women addicted to narcotics. While state health officials have said they interpret the law to mean that a pregnant woman on methadone maintenance would not be in violation of it, there is no language in it that explicitly says that.

"I asked the governor to veto the bill because that exclusion wasn't made," said Mark Parrino, president of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence. "The real question is whether some representative for the attorney general's office or a DA or child protection services interprets it that way. This is a potential problem. When you're talking about child protection, it's not unusual for a judge or child protection worker to say to a pregnant mom 'You can't be on methadone.' I hope this law will not be used as a method of forcing maintained patients out of care."

While babies born to opiate-addicted women can suffer from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or withdrawals, they can be treated for that, mainly by slowly tapering the dose of opiates. But, Parrino said, not all pregnant mothers on methadone maintenance have babies with the syndrome, and consequences for fetuses can be serious if mothers are forced off opiates during their pregnancies.

"What happens to a fetus if you force mom to end her medication?" he asked. "In the first trimester, a sudden decrease can be harmful to the fetus. There could be spontaneous abortion. It's in the literature. That's why laws like this raise concerns in people who have some knowledge about how pregnant women are treated."

Parrino, too, saw race a playing a role, but in an unexpected way.

"What I am seeing for the first time in 30 years is a real interest by elected officials, many US senators and governors and legislators, who can't wrap their heads around why white teens and 20-somethings from middle class families in the suburbs and rural areas are shooting heroin," Parrino observed. "Those elected officials are right to be worried. This legislation in Tennessee is a result of those dynamics."

While the law may have been passed with the best motives, "the problem is the criminalization aspect," said Parrino. "Even if it can be explained as having a reasonably good intention of getting pregnant women not to use drugs and go to treatment, you are unwittingly subverting that goal by saying that being in methadone maintenance might be seen as not complete treatment. That uncertainty is creating anxiety."

The new law is set to go into effect on July 1, but efforts are already underway to block it and, barring that, to mitigate its effects.

"We're still trying to figure out the best plan of action," Scott said. "We want to figure out the best way to support women who are going to be victims of this policy. At the grass roots level, that means education, awareness, getting the word out through rehab centers to let the women know this is coming. Then we have to figure out what is the legal strategy to try to change this law. We're working on it."

"We're thinking about a legal challenge, especially on constitutional grounds," said Diaz-Tello. "We have worked with public defenders in Tennessee and other states on challenging similar laws on constitutional grounds. There's also the possibility of an affirmative suit to get the law enjoined. It would be ideal to stop this law before anyone gets arrested under it."

Barring the successful blocking of the law, drug-addicted pregnant women in Tennessee will face the tender mercies of the criminal justice system. But not all of them, of course.

"Race and class plays a role as always," said Scott. "Poor mothers go to jail; mothers with access to more resources may not be penalized at all. Women who have access to health care and can afford private prenatal care and treatment will get treatment; women who have no alternative but public aid or a public health clinic will be disproportionately impacted as always. Nothing's changed as far as race and class."

TN
United States

Chronicle AM -- April 7, 2014

Talk about unintended consequences! Faced with a declining US market share, Mexican marijuana farmers are switching to opium poppies. Plus, AG Holder has some words about rescheduling, the Maryland decrim bill is back from the dead, it looks like 2016 for California legalization, and more. Let's get to it:

With declining US market share, Mexican marijuana farmers are switching to poppies. (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

Holder Says Obama Administration "Willing to Work" With Congress to Reschedule Marijuana. Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday that the Obama administration would be willing to work with Congress if lawmakers want to reschedule marijuana. Holder did not mention that the administration, and he personally, already have the statutory authority to reschedule marijuana, without needing further permission from Congress. Either way, recategorizing marijuana would not legalize the drug under federal law, but it could ease restrictions on research into marijuana's medical benefits and allow marijuana businesses to take the usual tax deductions, e.g. not pay taxes on money that has been paid out for things like rent or payroll. "We'd be more than glad to work with Congress if there is a desire to look at and reexamine how the drug is scheduled, as I said there is a great degree of expertise that exists in Congress," Holder said during a House Appropriations Committee hearing. "It is something that ultimately Congress would have to change, and I think that our administration would be glad to work with Congress if such a proposal were made." 

Okay, There Will Be No California Legalization Initiative This Year. Proponents of the last two California marijuana legalization initiatives still alive this year have thrown in the towel. Dave Hodges, proponent of the Marijuana Control, Legalization & Revenue Act (MCLR) announced today that it will not meet an April 18 signature-gathering deadline, while Berton Duzy, proponent for the revived California Cannabis Hemp Initiative (CCHI), which has received a signature-gathering extension, conceded that "We're not going to make 2014." In California, it's now all eyes on 2016.

Maryland Decriminalization Returns from the Dead, Passes House. Defying a powerful committee chairman who tried to derail a decriminalization bill by turning it into a study bill, House delegates Saturday passed House Bill 879 by a vote of 78-55. Final procedural votes on both measures are expected today, the last day of the session.

Delaware Governor "Willing to Discuss" Softer Marijuana Penalties. Gov. Jack Markell (D) is "willing to discuss" changes that would reduce penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana, according to a spokesman for the governor. "The governor has supported making marijuana available for medical purposes and DHSS expects to license a dispensary that can open in Delaware this year," Markell spokesman Jonathon Dworkin said in a statement. "The governor is willing to discuss changing the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana from jail sentences to just fines, but he would not support full legalization at this time without further studies and evidence of its consequences."

Thousands Rally at Annual Ann Arbor Hash Bash. An estimated 8,000 people gathered at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for the 42nd annual Hash Bash over the weekend. Police warned that people who toked up could get arrested, but that didn't seem to stop anybody. As The Detroit Free Press noted, "the event's usual plume of smoke hung over the crowd."

University of Colorado Will Close the Campus Again for 4/20. University of Colorado officials will close the Boulder campus on April 20 for the third straight year to prevent thousands of celebrants from marking the stoner holiday on campus. From noon to 6:00pm on April 20, CU faculty, students and staff will be required to show identification to enter campus. Officials brushed aside student complaints.

Medical Marijuana

Washington State Appeals Court Upholds Local Ban on Collective Gardens. The Washington Court of Appeals last week upheld the city of Kent's ban on medical marijuana collective gardens, ruling that the ordinance is not preempted by state law. The case is Cannabis Action Coalition et al. v. City of Kent et al.

Hemp

Nebraska Governor Signs Hemp Research Bill. Gov. Dave Heineman (R) last week signed into law Legislative Bill 100, which allows University of Nebraska campuses to grow hemp for research purposes. This is the first such bill to pass since Congress authorized search research when it accepted a hemp amendment to the omnibus agriculture bill this fiscal year.

Drug Testing

Michigan Suspicion-Based Welfare Drug Testing Bill Polls Well. Suspicion-based drug testing for welfare recipients has broad support across Michigan, a new poll shows. The poll, conducted by Marketing Resource Group, finds that 77% of respondents support legislation that would require the Department of Human Services to test welfare recipients suspected of using drugs, then send recipients with positive tests to rehab. House Bill 4118 has already passed the House and Senate, but was amended in the latter chamber, so it still needs another House floor vote.

Law Enforcement

California Bill Would Create Zero-Tolerance DUID Law. A bill that would make the presence of any detectable amount of any controlled substance, including prescription drugs, evidence of drugged driving has been filed in the Assembly. Assembly Bill 2500, sponsored by Assemblyman Jim Frazier (D-Solano) is before the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

Colorado Bill Would Make Mere Drug Possession Evidence of Child Endangerment. Under a bill introduced by state Sens. Andy Kerr (D-Lakewood) and Linda Newell (D-Littleton), the mere possession or use of illicit substances would be grounds for a claim of child endangerment. Senate Bill 178 was filed April Fools' Day, but it's no joke.

International

With Declining US Market Share, Mexican Farmers Switch from Marijuana to Opium. With the wholesale price of marijuana falling -- driven in part by decriminalization or legalization in sections of the United States -- Mexican drug farmers are turning away from cannabis and filling their fields with opium poppies, according to this lengthy article from The Washington Post. That means more, cheaper heroin for the US market. Pot farming "isn't worth it anymore," one farmer complained. "I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization." David Shirk, a Mexico researcher at the University of California at San Diego, told The Post, "When you have a product losing value, you diversify, and that's true of any farmer… The wave of opium poppies we're seeing is at least partially driven by changes we're making in marijuana drug policy."

Filipino Drug Warrior Mayor Issues Shoot-to-Kill Order for Cocaine Sellers. Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, a man never known for letting human rights get in the way of his war on drugs, has issued a shoot-to-kill order against anyone selling cocaine from eight bricks of the drug still missing after police seized 64 of the one-pound packages. "Once they go out and use or sell them, they will become drug lords. I have a shoot-to-kill order, especially if they resist arrest -- if they do that, we can enforce the shoot-to-kill," Duterte said.

Jamaican Marijuana Growers Association Is Launched. A group of influential Jamaicans gathered Saturday to formally launch an association of supposed future marijuana cultivators as momentum builds toward loosening laws prohibiting pot on the Caribbean island. Some 300 people assembled at a conference center in downtown Kingston to officially launch the Ganja Future Growers and Producers Association. Among other things, the group will lobby for creation of a regulated cannabis industry on the tropical island famed for its marijuana cultivation. The government has been making some promising noises about medical marijuana and decriminalization, but there is nothing definite so far.

"The New Jim Crow" Author Michelle Alexander Talks Race and Drug War [FEATURE]

On Thursday, Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling and galvanizing The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness sat down with poet/activist Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance to discuss the book's impact and where we go from here.

Michelle Alexander (wikimedia.org)
The New Jim Crow has been a phenomenon. Spending nearly 80 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, it brought to the forefront a national conversation about why the United States had become the world's largest incarcerator, with 2.2 million in prison or jail and 7.7 million under control of the criminal justice system, and African American boys and men -- and now women -- making up a disproportionate number of those imprisoned. Alexander identified failed drug war policies as the primary driver of those numbers, and called for a greater challenge to them by key civil rights leaders.

It's now been nearly four years since The New Jim Crow first appeared. Some things have changed -- federal sentencing reforms, marijuana legalization in two states -- but many others haven't. Alexander and Bandele discuss what has changed, what hasn't, and what needs to, raising serious questions about the path we've been down and providing suggestions about new directions.

Audio of the conversation is online here, and a transcript follows here:

Asha Bandele: The US has 5% of the world's population, but has 25% of the world's incarcerated population, and the biggest policy cause is the failed drug war. How has the landscape changed in the last four years since The New Jim Crow came out?

Michelle Alexander: The landscape absolutely has changed in profound ways. When writing this book, I was feeling incredibly frustrated by the failure of many civil rights organizations and leaders to make the war on drugs a critical priority in their organization and also by the failure of many of my progressive friends and allies to awaken to the magnitude of the harm caused by the war on drugs and mass incarceration. At the same time, not so long ago, I didn't understand the horror of the drug war myself, I failed to connect the dots and understand the ways these systems of racial and social control are born and reborn.

But over last few years, I couldn't be more pleased with reception. Many people warned me that civil rights organizations could be defensive or angered by criticisms in the book, but they've done nothing but respond with enthusiasm and some real self-reflection.

There is absolutely an awakening taking place. It's important to understand that this didn't start with my book -- Angela Davis coined the term "prison industrial complex" years ago; Mumia Abu-Jamal was writing from prison about mass incarceration and our racialized prison state. Many, many advocates have been doing this work and connecting the dots for far longer than I have. I wanted to lend more credibility and support for the work that so many have been doing for some, but that has been marginalized.

I am optimistic, but at the same time, I see real reasons for concern. There are important victories in legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington, in Holder speaking out against mandatory minimums and felon disenfranchisement, in politicians across the country raising concerns about the size of the prison state for the first time in 40 years, but much of the dialog is still driven by fiscal concerns rather than genuine concern for the people and communities most impacted, the families destroyed. We haven't yet really had the kind of conversation we must have as a nation if we are going to do more than tinker with the machine and break our habit of creating mass incarceration in America.

Asha Bandele: Obama has his My Brother's Keeper initiative directed at black boys falling behind. A lot of this is driven by having families and communities disrupted by the drug war. Obama nodded at the structural racism that dismembers communities, but he said it was a moral failing. He's addressed race the least of any modern American president. Your thoughts?

Michelle Alexander: I'm glad that Obama is shining a spotlight on the real crisis facing black communities today, in particular black boys and young men, and he's right to draw attention to it and elevate it, but I worry that the initiative is based more in rhetoric than in a meaningful commitment to addressing the structures and institutions that have created these conditions in our communities. There is a commitment to studying the problem and identifying programs that work to keep black kids in school and out of jail, and there is an aspect that seeks to engage foundations and corporations, but there is nothing in the initiative that offers any kind of policy change from the government or any government funding of any kind to support these desperately needed programs.

There is an implicit assumption that we just need to find what works to lift people up by their bootstraps, without acknowledging that we're waging a war on these communities we claim to be so concerned about. The initiative itself reflects this common narrative that suggests the reasons why there are so many poor people of color trapped at the bottom -- bad schools, poverty, broken homes. And if we encourage people to stay in school and get and stay married, then the whole problem of mass incarceration will no longer be of any real concern.

But I've come to believe we have it backwards. These communities are poor and have failing schools and broken homes not because of their personal failings, but because we've declared war on them, spent billions building prisons while allowing schools to fail, targeted children in these communities, stopping, searching, frisking them -- and the first arrest is typically for some nonviolent minor drug offense, which occurs with equal frequency in middle class white neighborhoods but typically goes ignored. We saddle them with criminal records, jail them, then release them to a parallel universe where they are discriminated against for the rest of their lives, locked into permanent second-class status.

We've done this in the communities most in need our support and economic investment. Rather than providing meaningful support to these families and communities where the jobs have gone overseas and they are struggling to move from an industrial-based economy to a global one, we have declared war on them. We have stood back and said "What is wrong with them?" The more pressing question is "What is wrong with us?"

Asha Bandele: During the Great Depression, FDR had the New Deal, but now it seem like there is no social commitment at the highest levels of government. And we see things like Eric Holder and Rand Paul standing together to end mandatory minimums. Is this an unholy alliance?

Michelle Alexander: We have to be very clear that so much of the progress being made on drug policy reflects the fact that we are at a time when politicians are highly motivated to downsize prisons because we can't afford the massive prison state without raising taxes on the predominantly white middle class. This is the first time in 40 years we've been willing to have a serious conversation about prison downsizing.

But I'm deeply concerned about us doing the right things for the wrong reasons. This movement to end mass incarceration and the war on drugs is about breaking the habit of forming caste-like systems and creating a new ethic of care and concern for each of us, this idea that each of us has basic human rights. That is the ultimate goal of this movement. The real issue that lies at the core of every caste system ever created is the devaluing of human beings.

If we're going to do this just to save some cash, we haven't woken up to the magnitude of the harm. If we are not willing to have a searching conversation about how we got to this place, how we are able to lock up millions of people, we will find ourselves either still having a slightly downsized mass incarceration system or some new system of racial control because we will have not learned the core lesson our racial history is trying to teach us. We have to learn to care for them, the Other, the ghetto dwellers we demonize.

Temporary, fleeting political alliances with politicians who may have no real interest in communities of color is problematic. We need to stay focused on doing the right things for the right reasons, and not count as victories battles won when the real lessons have not been learned.

Asha Bandele: Portugal decriminalized all drugs and drug use has remained flat, overdoses been cut by a third, HIV cut by two-thirds. What can we learn from taking a public health approach and its fundamental rejection of stigma?

Michelle Alexander: Portugal is an excellent example of how it is possible to reduce addiction and abuse and drug related crime in a non-punitive manner without filling prisons and jails. Supposedly, we criminalize drugs because we are so concerned about the harm they cause people, but we wind up inflicting far more pain and suffering than the substances themselves. What are we doing really when we criminalize drugs is not criminalizing substances, but people.

I support a wholesale shift to a public health model for dealing with drug addiction and abuse. How would we treat people abusing if we really cared about them? Would we put them in a cage, saddle them with criminal records that will force them into legal discrimination the rest of their lives? I support the decriminalization of all drugs for personal use. If you possess a substance, we should help you get education and support, not demonize, shame, and punish you for the rest of your life.

I'm thrilled that Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana and DC has decriminalized it -- these are critically important steps in shifting from a purely punitive approach. But there are warning flags. I flick on the news, and I see images of people using marijuana and trying to run legitimate businesses, and they're almost all white. When we thought of them as black or brown, we had a purely punitive approach. Also, it seems like its exclusively white men being interviewed as wanting to start marijuana businesses and make a lot of money selling marijuana.

I have to say the image doesn't sit right. Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for doing the same thing. As we talk about legalization, we have to also be willing to talk about reparations for the war on drugs, as in how do we repair the harm caused.

With regard to Iraq, Colin Powell said "If you break it, you own it," but we haven't learned that basic lesson from our own racial history. We set the slaves free with nothing, and after Reconstruction, a new caste system arose, Jim Crow. A movement arose and we stopped Jim Crow, but we got no reparations after the waging of a brutal war on poor communities of color that decimated families and fanned the violence it was supposed to address.

Do we simply say "We're done now, let's move on" and white men can make money? This time, we have to get it right; we have to tell the whole truth, we have to repair the harm done. It's not enough to just stop. Enormous harm had been done; we have to repair those communities.

Chronicle AM -- January 21, 2014

The war on weed may be beginning to wheeze toward its end, a researcher reports, and legislators continue to introduce bills to help it on its way. Meanwhile, harm reduction down South gets some attention, a bad bill targets medical marijuana-using parents in Michigan, and Bermuda gets a decrim bill, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Intensity of Marijuana Enforcement Declining, Keith Humphreys Says. Academic marijuana policy watcher and addiction specialist Keith Humphreys reports that even though marijuana use is up -- measured by total days of use nationwide -- the intensity of enforcement -- measured by overall arrests divided by total days of use -- is down by as much as 40%. Humphries attributes it to decriminalization and medical marijuana, but also notes that such policy changes often merely formalize what is already occurring on the ground.

Texas Legislature Will Be Faced With Marijuana Reform Bills Again This Year. Two Democratic Texas legislators say they will reintroduce marijuana decriminalization and medical marijuana bills that have gone nowhere in past sessions. Rep. Harold Dutton Jr. (D-Houston) will try for a fourth time to get a bill to decriminalize the possession of under two ounces passed, while Rep. Eliot Naishtat (D-Austin) will try for the seventh time to get his medical marijuana bill to a House floor vote.

Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed in Oklahoma. State Sen. Constance Johnson (D-Oklahoma City) has pre-filed a marijuana legalization bill, Senate Bill 2116. The bill would legalize possession of up to an ounce and allow for the regulation and taxation of marijuana commerce. The legislative session begins February 3. Here's what she's up against: Mark Woodward, with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, said, "I've seen it wreck more lives than any other drug."

Medical Marijuana

Michigan Bill Targets Patients Who Are Parents. Republican state Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Rapids) has introduced a bill designed to make it easier for the state to remove children from the homes of parents who are medical marijuana patients. Senate Bill 736 would allow judges to inspect parents' medical records to see if medical marijuana use is "appropriate" and, if the judge decides it is not, to order the parent to stop using marijuana or designate him or her an unfit parent. Jones said he introduced the bill after hearing complaints from judges. "They want it clarified that they do have the power, as judges, to consider whether or not there's medical marijuana in the home and that there will be access to children and problems," he said.

Meetings on Hawaii Medical Marijuana Law Coming to Hilo, Pahoa. The Drug Policy Action Group and the Medical Cannabis Coalition of Hawaii are holding meetings later this month in Hilo and Pahoa to provide information and get public input on what's right and what's wrong with the state's medical marijuana law, as well as discussing broader marijuana policy reform. Click on the link for details.

Harm Reduction

North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition OD Prevention Program Gets Noticed. The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) was crucial in getting comprehensive drug overdose prevention laws passed in Raleigh last year, and now they are getting both results and national notice. Click on the title link to read more and see video from CNN and Fox News Charlotte about the laws and the successful use of naloxone to reverse an overdose.

International

Bermuda Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Filed. A senator from the opposition People's National Party (PNP) has filed a marijuana decriminalization bill in Bermuda. The bill would remove all criminal penalties and sanctions for possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana or hashish. At a Tuesday press conference, bill sponsor Sen. Marc Daniels said, "There appears to be a tidal wave of change taking place with our neighbors to our West and South regarding cannabis and cannabis usage. Some US States are making cannabis legal for both medicinal purposes as well as recreational use. The question is whether Bermuda wants to wait until all of our neighbors make changes, or will we be bold enough to chart a new destiny and seek new ways of generating revenue; perhaps with an influx of tourists and/or from local taxes and license fees. The possibilities are endless if we only dare to be different and seize the moment as opposed to playing catch up.'

Obama Marijuana Remarks Spur Finnish Debate. President Obama's weekend remarks on marijuana are spurring debate on marijuana law reform in Finland. "The USA is the number one country in the war on drugs, so if it begins legalizing the use of marijuana, it will surely have a major effect on Europe," sociologist Jussi Perala said. "Making marijuana legal in Finland is utopic, but at some stage something should happen about it. In Finland, harsh punishment can be meted out merely for the intention to use drugs," he said.

Chronicle AM -- December 2, 2013

The Denver city council votes today on where you can smoke pot, a Tennessee bill equates meth-making with child abuse, there's dissent on drug policy at the UN, India fights a drug menace, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Denver City Council to Vote Today to Ban Marijuana Smoking on Private Property if Visible to the Public. The Denver city council is expected to give final approval today to an ordinance that would ban marijuana smoking on one's own property if it is visible to the public. The measure won an initial 5-7 vote last week. The measure is opposed by the ACLU of Colorado, Sensible Colorado, and even the Denver Post, which editorialized against it today.

Medical Marijuana

Medical Marijuana Returning to Iowa Legislature; Event in Des Moines Tonight. State Sen. Joe Bolckom (D-Iowa City), who has introduced medical marijuana bills in four previous sessions, will try again next year. He said he will introduce legislation modeled on the New Mexico program. Bolckom and Dr. Steven Jenison, who helped create the New Mexico bill, will be speaking about the New Mexico program at the Des Moines Public Library at 6:00pm tonight.

Methamphetamine

Under Proposed Tennessee Bill, Meth Making = Child Abuse. A bill filed last week, Senate Bill 1438, would allow meth-making parents to be charged with child abuse or neglect, even if the child has not suffered any child abuse or neglect. Current state law allows such charges to filed against meth-making parents if there is physical injury as a result of exposure to meth, but that's not good enough for state Sen. Doug Overbey and state Rep. Dale Carr, the bill's sponsors.

Prescription Drugs

Rhode Island Task Force to Study Electronic Prescription Monitoring. A legislatively-mandated commission meets for the first time today to consider whether the state should track certain medications in a bid to prevent prescription drug abuse. The commission is led by Rep. William O'Brien (D-North Providence), and includes state health officials, physicians, and a community health expert -- but apparently no pain patients. About half the states have moved to enact some form of electronic prescription monitoring in recent years.

International

Leaked Document Reveals Splits Ahead of UN Drug Session. A draft of a UN document setting out the organization's long-term strategy for fighting drugs has been leaked to British media and reveals an accelerating erosion of the decades-long, but increasingly shaky, drug prohibition consensus. In the leaked draft, both Latin American and European nations demanded that the UN's drug policy open itself up to new directions. This is all run-up to the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs.

Another Dark Web Drug Marketplace Shuts Down. The Black Market Reloaded web site, which offered illicit drugs and other items for sale, has closed, a victim of its own success. The site operator said it had grown too big to be able to guarantee anonymity for its customers. The move comes after a competitor, Silk Road, was shut down by US officials, and another competitor, Sheep Marketplace, closed claiming someone had stolen more than $2 million worth of bit coins, a virtual currency. Silk Road 2.0 is reportedly up and running, however.

In Wake of Mass Bootleg Alcohol Deaths, Indian State Wants More Alcohol Prohibition. Responding to a 2009 mass bootleg alcohol ("hooch") poisoning that left at least 156 people dead, the Gujarat high court Sunday called for tougher enforcement of alcohol prohibition. While the high court appreciated the state government's move to impose the death penalty for "hooch tragedies," it also called for stricter enforcement of prohibition to fight "the menace of illegal transportation, manufacturing and possession of liquor."

Jamaica's First Medical Marijuana Company Set to Open. Jamaican scientist Dr. Henry Lowe is expected to open the island nation's first medical marijuana company this week. Lowe said he plans to develop marijuana extracts to treat psychosis and severe pain, and, possibly, "mid-life crisis in men."

Iranians in 550 Armed Clashes with Drug Smugglers in Past Three Months. Iranian officials said Monday that there had been more than 550 armed clashes with drug traffickers in the past three months. Iran borders Afghanistan, the world's largest opium producer by far, and is both a transit country and a final destination for tons of Afghan opium each year. It has destroyed more than 60 tons of illicit drugs a year in recent years. It also hangs hundreds of drug traffickers each year.

Drug War Issues

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