Tag Archives: drug war

Smoking and Drinking

Have you ever wondered about the disparity in the way the law treats alcohol, tobacco and marijuana?

As any police officer will attest, a nasty drunk is far more dangerous than someone zoned out on “weed.” As the scientific literature will confirm, tobacco is many times more harmful than marijuana. Not only has the belief that marijuana is a “gateway drug” proved bogus, but for adults, it is less harmful than either smoking or excessive ingestion of alcohol. (No one has ever died of a marijuana overdose, although if your preferred method of indulging is brownies, I suppose the resulting obesity might get you.)

People with addictive personalities will abuse whatever is at hand–alcohol, drugs, even glue. Should we outlaw glue?

The history of America’s war on drugs is too labyrinthian and too racist to recount here, and there are plenty of books and articles on the subject if you are interested in the whole sordid story. Suffice it to say that our mindless war on weed has made the once-profitable cultivation of hemp illegal, prevented study of marijuana’s medicinal value, and not-so-incidentally ruined countless lives (mostly African-American; black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though both groups use the drug at roughly the same rate.).

But attitudes are finally changing.

In 1969, according to the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of Americans thought the drug should be illegal; by 2015, that number had fallen to 44 percent.

After Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana, policymakers began to seriously consider a number of issues–especially pot’s potential to generate tax revenue.

Legalization raises a number of questions with policy implications. For example, how can it be taxed? In 2015, Colorado raised $135 million in taxes and fees from legal sales. Another important question: Will states that stop arresting people for selling or having marijuana save money on policing and reduce their incarceration rates? Some 620,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2014, according to the FBI; young minority men were disproportionately targeted. Will more children take to smoking weed? As laws relax and the stigma associated with marijuana recedes, people may use more.

A study from Australia suggests some answers to those questions. The authors looked at what consequences we might expect if marijuana were regulated like alcohol and sold to people above the age of 21. They extrapolated their analysis to include the United States, a country with similar cultural behaviors and economies. Here are some of their findings:

  • The U.S. could raise between $4 billion and $12 billion annually by taxing legal marijuana. These numbers are based on a tax levy of about 25 percent, which is what the state of Colorado charges.
  • When people have more access to marijuana (through legal and illegal means) more people use it.
  • Currently, 17 percent of Australians say they do not use cannabis for fear of legal repercussions; 90 percent of those say that access is not the reason.

Access is evidently not a problem for people in either country; several years ago, an American study found that teenagers in Maryland could obtain illegal marijuana (and other drugs) much more easily than they could obtain legal but regulated alcohol. Legalization and regulation similar to that currently in place for liquor stores would probably reduce today’s easy availability.

The authors determined that a tax rate of 25% wasn’t high enough to incentivize a black market. One of the (many) negative consequences of drug prohibition is the fact that it makes an illegal market profitable.

In the U.S., tobacco and alcohol interests have powerful lobbies, so those substances are legal even though they do far more harm than marijuana.

Just to be clear, I don’t advocate prohibition for any of these; we’ve seen how well that works. Substance abuse is a public health problem; it shouldn’t be a matter for the criminal justice system.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we based public policy on evidence and analysis, rather than moralism and money?

Why Prisons Should Never Be Privatized

There are some things that government–not the private sector–simply must do.

As I have written many times before, whether it makes sense to “contract out” the provision of government services is not an either-or question. The decision will depend upon a number of considerations: is this a core government responsibility? is it important to maintain institutional competence? does the government agency have the ability to adequately monitor contractors?

And especially–what are the negative consequences we might anticipate from a decision to grant governmental authority to private, for-profit enterprises?

The Justice Policy Institute has just released a report confirming a major concern voiced by critics of private prisons: the likelihood that those who profit from incarceration will lobby for harsher criminal justice penalties and seek to derail needed justice system reforms.

According to the report,  private prison companies actively engage in lobbying intended to protect and grow their profits, by working for harsh policies and longer sentences.

The authors report that while the total number of people in prison increased less than 16 percent, the number of people held in private federal and state facilities increased by 120 and 33 percent, respectively. As ThinkProgress reports,

Government spending on corrections has soared since 1997 by 72 percent, up to $74 billion in 2007. And the private prison industry has raked in tremendous profits. Last year the two largest private prison companies — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group — made over $2.9 billion in revenue.

JPI claims the private industry hasn’t merely responded to the nation’s incarceration woes, it has actively sought to create the market conditions (ie. more prisoners) necessary to expand its business.

According to JPI, the private prison industry uses three strategies to influence public policy: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and networking. The three main companies have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates and over $6 million to state politicians. They have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct lobbying efforts. CCA has spent over $900,000 on federal lobbying and GEO spent anywhere from $120,000 to $199,992 in Florida alone during a short three-month span this year. Meanwhile, “the relationship between government officials and private prison companies has been part of the fabric of the industry from the start,” notes the report. The cofounder of CCA himself used to be the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party.

One of the primary reasons governments exist is to provide for the public safety. Decisions about the most effective ways to accomplish that should be made on the basis of evidence, by disinterested policymakers carefully considering what the research tells us about the efficacy of various approaches.

The private prison industry is spending millions of dollars opposing efforts to reform the nation’s drug laws–reforms based upon years of research demonstrating that the Drug War has been a costly failure, and that imprisoning thousands of low-level offenders has been counter-productive.

Americans spend millions of dollars on the criminal justice system. Those dollars are supposed to make us safer–not make private interests richer.

That War on Drugs…

When I was still practicing law, I had several friends who were criminal defense lawyers. I still remember a conversation with one of them about the clients he represented in the so-called “drug war.”

Since research confirms that similar percentages of whites and blacks abuse drugs, I wanted to know why  virtually all of the defendants I saw in drug court were black. He told me that earlier in his career, he had represented fairly equal numbers of whites and blacks, but that the young white men disproportionately came from well-connected families–people who “knew people” and could make things uncomfortable for the police and prosecutors. Over the years, forays into comfortable suburban enclaves had diminished, and law enforcement concentrated its efforts in the more “urban” areas from which his then-current clients were drawn.

So I was not at all surprised, to read this recent statement by Former U.S. Marshal and DEA Agent Matthew Fogg.

“We were jumping on guys in the middle of the night, all of that. Swooping down on folks all across the country, using these sorts of attack tactics that we went out on, that you would use in Vietnam, or some kind of war-torn zone. All of the stuff that we were doing, just calling it the war on drugs. And there wasn’t very many black guys in my position.

So when I would go into the war room, where we were setting up all of our drug and gun and addiction task force determining what cities we were going to hit, I would notice that most of the time it always appeared to be urban areas.

That’s when I asked the question, well, don’t they sell drugs out in Potomac and Springfield, and places like that? Maybe you all think they don’t, but statistics show they use more drugs out in those areas than anywhere. The special agent in charge, he says ‘You know, if we go out there and start messing with those folks, they know judges, they know lawyers, they know politicians. You start locking their kids up; somebody’s going to jerk our chain.’ He said, ‘they’re going to call us on it, and before you know it, they’re going to shut us down, and there goes your overtime.’”

When people talk about “systemic” racism, this is the sort of thing they mean. I seriously doubt that these officers were personally racist; they were just responding to the reality that going after more privileged folks is a more complicated proposition.

Of course, when the media covers the “drug war,” and the video shows mostly black faces, it confirms viewers’ impression that drugs are an “urban” problem. It reinforces the stereotypes.

And the band plays on….

 

Pot and That Kettle of Booze…

Are you one of those soft-headed “libruls” who want to decriminalize pot? If so, add this to your list of arguments.

A new study compared all kinds of substances, and found that pot is more than 100 times safer than alcohol.(They didn’t take the “munchies” and consequential obesity into account, however…)  Researchers found that booze is actually the deadliest substance of all, and–based upon their findings– recommended that US law enforcement focus a lot less on pot-related crimes.

According to the Washington Post

Those are the top-line findings of recent research published in the journal Scientific Reports, a subsidiary of Nature. Researchers sought to quantify the risk of death associated with the use of a variety of commonly used substances. They found that at the level of individual use, alcohol was the deadliest substance, followed by heroin and cocaine.

So, put that in your pipe and smoke it. (Okay, a little inappropriate humor there….)

For the past thirty years, at least, criminal justice scholars have documented the flaws in American drug policy. The drug war has been a costly, monumental failure–in addition to its clear failure to reduce hard drug use, it has decimated communities of color, ruined countless lives, distorted foreign policy…and the beat goes on.

Drug use is not the same thing as drug abuse. And drug abuse should be addressed as the  public health issue it is, not through the criminal justice system. (You’d think we might have learned a thing or two about overreaction during Prohibition…)

When ideology and “morality” trump evidence and common sense, you get profoundly stupid policies. We do “profoundly stupid” a lot.

Just Like Milton Friedman Predicted..

Libertarian economist Milton Friedman was a noted critic of America’s Drug War, pointing out all of the reasons why prohibition doesn’t work. One such reason: When a substance is illegal, the price will rise to accommodate the risk; the higher price and promise of greater profit encourages more lawbreakers.

Too bad Friedman didn’t live long enough to see his argument confirmed.

In a recent Washington Post story about drugs and Mexico, I came across the following interesting tidbit:

 Farmers in the storied “Golden Triangle” region of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, which has produced the country’s most notorious gangsters and biggest marijuana harvests, say they are no longer planting the crop. Its wholesale price has collapsed in the past five years, from $100 per kilogram to less than $25.

“It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Silla, 50, a lifelong cannabis farmer who said he couldn’t remember the last time his family and others in their tiny hamlet gave up growing mota. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”

 ‘Nuff said.