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War on Drugs

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Reefer Sanity. | Thought Followers.

“It took 13 years for the United States to come to its senses and end Prohibition, 13 years in which people kept drinking, otherwise law-abiding citizens became criminals and crime syndicates arose and flourished. It has been more than 40 years since Congress passed the current ban on marijuana, inflicting great harm on society just to prohibit a substance far less dangerous than alcohol. The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana.”

In a much-touted op-ed over the weekend, the NYT editorial board calls for the legalization of marijuana. “We recognize that this Congress is as unlikely to take action on marijuana as it has been on other big issues. But it is long past time to repeal this version of Prohibition.”

Well, I’m glad to see the NYT come down on this side of the ledger, and I appreciate them emphasizing the Prohibition angle. But their week-long Come-to-Jesus stance on this would be more impressive if they actually put action to words and stopped testing their employees for weed usage.

There’s also a strong and somewhat irritating element of Captain Obvious here. As Gawker‘s Hamilton Nolan well put it:

“This is something that has been clear to the majority of American high school students for the past forty years. The fact that it took our nation’s paper of record this long to catch up does not inspire confidence. The only reason the Times gets attention for expressing this opinion is because it is the Times. This is not thought leadership. It is thought following. The Times’ endorsement of legal weed is remarkable not because we look to the Times for new or thought-provoking opinions, but because the Times is such a self-conscious, careerist, and cautious institution that if they want to legalize drugs, you know that shit is really mainstream now…

I do not say this to scold the newspaper for its position. Drug legalization is an issue that can use all the support it can get. I say it to kindly suggest that the New York Times editorial board — and all of the ‘serious’ mainstream media ‘thought leaders’ that define the boundaries of discourse acceptable on Sunday talk shows — ease back a wee bit on the self-importance. You’re not defining the times. You’re behind the times.”

Aaaannnd speaking of those “serious” mainstream media thought leaders, several of them aren’t quite on board yet anyway: “MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said at the time he didn’t ‘get the legalization thing’ and offered a pithy defense of prohibition. ‘Pot just makes you dumb,’ he said. Former Newsweek/Daily Beast editor-in-chief Tina Brown said that ‘legal weed’ will make the United States ‘a fatter, dumber, sleepier nation even less able to compete with the Chinese.'”

Er…first off, Scarborough better hope, for his own sake, that we don’t exhaust our domestic reservoirs of dumb anytime soon, or he and his morning ilk are out of job. I was going to post a longer retort to this ridiculous pundit kvetching — which could only really come from deeply privileged people who’d never, ever have to worry about being arrested for weed — but Wonkette‘s Kaili Joy Gray has already done the heavy lifting:

“[E]ven if pot makes you fat and stupid, so does watching Fox ‘News’ and eating Big Macs, but last time I checked, none of these Very Serious People were on the Sunday shows pearl-clutching about that. Also…recall that Michael Phelps has been known to take hits from the bong, and he’s the fastest swimming motherf**ker on the planet, and he is not fat or dumb and can compete with the Chinese just fine, thanks, and he has eleventeen trillion gold medals to prove it, so, you know. There’s that.” What she said.

One Nation, Under Lock and Key.

“On Wednesday, the National Research Council published a 464-page report, two years in the making, that looks at the stunning four-decade rise of incarceration in the United States and concludes that all of its costs — for families, communities, state budgets and society — have simply not been worth the benefit in deterrence and crime reduction…It synthesizes years of evidence on crime trends, on causes driving the growth in prisons, and on the consequences of all this imprisonment. It argues that the U.S. should revise its current criminal justice policies — including sentencing laws and drug enforcement — to significantly cut prison rates and scale back what’s become the world’s most punitive culture.”

Upon the release of the abovementioned report, the WP’s Emily Badger gives a concise overview of our country’s unhealthy addiction to incarceration (white collar criminals notwithstanding, of course.) “The ‘war on drugs’…also ensured that drug crimes received more attention from police and harsher punishment in courtrooms…As a result, between 1980 and 2010, the incarceration rate for drug crimes increased tenfold.”

Not Too Distant Mirror.

“The ritual, by now, is well-established. President Barack Obama will travel to the lower house of the national legislature from the executive mansion, and…give a long speech extolling the nation’s virtues and present circumstances — the state of the union is invariably described as ‘strong’ — and laying out the regime’s priorities.”

A day before the big show, Joshua Keating’s consistently funny If It Happened There column at Slate looked at the State of the Union. “Members of the opposition typically do not applaud, though they occasionally join in with approval of paeans to the nation’s powerful military, the leaders of which typically sit stone-faced in front of the gallery.”

Which, of course, is exactly what happened. There are innumerable things Congress could be doing right now to create jobs, spur opportunity, expand the frontiers of knowledge, and generally make life better for families in America. Some of them — raising the minimum wage, ensuring equal pay for women, investing in infrastructure and early childhood education, admitting climate change is happening and proceeding accordingly — were even mentioned in Obama’s remarks, not that we can expect much in Year Six of this presidency (and an election year to boot.)

But with all due respect to Sgt. Remsburg’s sacrifice, when the only thing all of our nation’s legislators can get effusive about is venerating Americans wounded in battle, the republic is in a bad way indeed. As James Fallows put it: “[W]hile that moment reflected limitless credit on Sgt. Remsburg…I don’t think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014…the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy.” That it should – The last refuge of scoundrels and all that.

“This Sunday, the eyes of millions of Americans will turn to a fetid marsh in the industrial hinterlands of New York City for the country’s most important sporting event — and some would say the key to understanding its proud but violent culture.”

ICYMI, If It Happened There has aptly covered the Superbowl also. “The ethics of such an event can be hard for outsiders to understand. Fans, who regularly watch players being carted off the field with crippling injuries, are unbothered by reports of the game’s lasting medical impact on its players. Nevertheless, fans and the national media can become extremely indignant if players are excessively boastful at the game’s conclusion.”

Speaking of the handegg finals — as usual, also not lacking for tawdry paeans to militarismcongrats to the Seahawks on a convincing Superbowl XLVIII win. As I said on Twitter, I had no real dog in this fight – I was just happy to see the two states with sane marijuana laws karmically rewarded for their forward thinking.

Got to Have Kaya Now.

“Support for legalization has jumped 10 percentage points since last November and the legal momentum shows no sign of abating. Last week, California’s second-highest elected official, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, said that pot should be legal in the Golden State, and advocates of legalization are poised to introduce a statewide referendum in 2014 to legalize the drug.”

As a follow-up to this post, Gallup finds that support for legalizing marijuana has shot up to 58%, following a similar pattern as gay marriage in recent years. Again, if they want to mitigate the usual midterm electorate problem, Dems should follow the Rove playbook on this, and get weed on the 2014 ballots ASAP.

Orange is the Same Old Black.

“Last month, President Obama quietly did something that should shake every American to the core. Seeking to enforce federal crack cocaine laws that have since been repealed, the Obama administration asked a federal appeals court to ensure that thousands of human beings, mostly poor and mostly black, remain locked in prison – even though everyone agrees that there is no justification for them to be there.”

Yet another for the Hope-and-Change file: Obama’s DOJ urges the Courts to keep prisoners convicted under outdated sentencing requirements in jail, because…because…well, it’s hard to fathom, really. “For several years, federal judges have done nothing to remedy this injustice; one famously concluded that the prisoners sentenced under the old law had simply ‘lost on a temporal roll of the cosmic dice”. So, there are American citizens serving tens of thousands of years in prison because, according to all three branches of government, it’s just their tough luck?”

If you’re keeping score at home, folks, Obama’s Department of Justice has basically said at this point that whistleblowers and non-violent drug offenders should get the book thrown at them, but economy-toppling banksters and torturers should walk free. Yessir, they’re really speaking truth-to-power over at DOJ these days. What a courageous bunch.

Cold Irons Bound.

“Our prison system is increasingly built and run by for-profit corporations, who have a financial interest in increasing the number of people in prison while decreasing the amount of money it costs to house them. Since 1980, the US prison population has grown by 790%. We have the largest prison population of any nation in the history of the world. One in three African-American men will go to jail at some point in his life.”

In The Guardian Jill Filipovic examines the national shame that is our private prison-industrial complex. “Imprisoning that many people, most of them for non-violent offenses, doesn’t come cheap, especially when you’re paying private contractors…who are doing quite well living off of American corporate welfare -– at the expense of the American taxpayer.” $50 billion a year — that funds a lot of stadium.

This article was found, by the way, in Slate‘s discussion of Sesame Street’s new incarceration kit, which helps explain to 3-8-year-olds that their parent has gone to jail. “That this even has to exist in the first place shows how much pointless damage our prison system does not just to people who are caught up in the overly punitive, often racially biased justice system, but also to their families.”

It’d be nice to say this fiasco is on the national agenda, but, Jim Webb’s efforts in 2009 and some green shoots earlier in the year notwithstanding, Congress and the Obama administration, for all their talk of belt-tightening, seem pretty content with this ridiculous status quo. (One key reason: felons can’t vote.) But, hey, you know who they still don’t put in jail these days? Wolves of Wall Street. So there’s that.

Twilight of the Drug War?

“Change is ‘snowballing in the right direction,’ said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. ‘I think you’re going to see a lot of action on the state level in the next several years and action will trickle up to the federal level…For a long time people would agree with us behind closed doors, but they would be afraid to say that in public,’ he said. Now, even in Washington, things are changing. ‘There was just a lot of cynicism and pessimism … I think that attitude is really going away.’

More fruits from Californication: With public support for legalizing marijuana over 50% for the first time, and a new documentary, The House I Live In, once again calling attention to the many cruel absurdities of the Drug War$1 trillion spent, 2.2 million in prison — signs suggest the ill-advised War on Drugs may finally be receding as a sacrosanct institution in Washington.

“For decades, the politics of the drug war were straightforward: Being tough could help at the polls and came with no political downside; being open to reform had few advantages, but would be used against a candidate on the campaign trail. That calculation is no longer so simple.”

The Shawshank Bowl.

“‘It’s startling to see a stadium will be named after them,’ Libal said. ‘It’s like calling something Blackwater Stadium. This is a company whose record is marred by human rights abuses, by lawsuits, by unnecessary deaths of people in their custody and a whole series of incidents that really draw into question their ability to successfully manage a prison facility.'”

Our culture veers even closer to self-parody upon the news that Florida Atlantic University will name its stadium after a private prison conglomerate. “GEO Group reported revenues in excess of $1.6 billion in 2011, income generated mostly from state and federal prisons and detention centers for illegal immigrants.”

What the?! Honestly, how shameful is it that we ostensible lovers of freedom — mainly on account of our ridiculous incarceration rates (for anything other than white-collar crimes) — not only have a private, for-profit prison industry flourishing in our country — one that routinely maintains substandard prisons and undercuts workers’ wages by outsourcing their captive labor force — but that we’re sufficiently unembarrassed about it to start naming stadiums after them? Pathetic.

Update: FAU students make their displeasure known.

It’s Time for the Brown Bag.


The Attorney-General’s kind remarks are noted and appreciated. I’ve spoken to Ed Burns and we are prepared to go to work on season six of The Wire if the Department of Justice is equally ready to reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanising drug prohibition.

I saw this a few weeks ago, and Follow me Here reminded me of it: As we pass the fortieth anniversary of the failed war on drugs, Wire creator David Simon makes a deal with Attorney General Eric Holder: End the drug war for a Wire season six. As if there weren’t already enough good reasons to do so, S6 would be the cherry on top.

Respect the Stripes? Not Hardly.


But publicly, let me state that The Wire owes no apologies — at least not for its depiction of those portions of Baltimore where we set our story, for its address of economic and political priorities and urban poverty, for its discussion of the drug war and the damage done from that misguided prohibition, or for its attention to the cover-your-ass institutional dynamic that leads, say, big-city police commissioners to perceive a fictional narrative, rather than actual, complex urban problems as a cause for righteous concern.

I’ve been meaning to blog this for a few days, via Genehack: After the show is harangued by Baltimore’s current police commissioner, the consistently take-no-guff David Simon sticks up for his creation, The Wire. “As citizens using a fictional narrative as a means of arguing different priorities or policies, those who created and worked on The Wire have dissented.

Tiiiiime is On Our Side.


[T]aken together, it seems clear that while older whites may have broken for Republicans, the rest of the population – i.e. the majority – either broke for the Democrats or only barely moved to the right. And since it’s the shrinking parts of the population – whites and old folks – who broke most for Republicans, it’d be right to conclude that 2010 was a temporary setback for Democrats that can be reversed once the Obama Administration gets its head out of its ass and starts helping people get jobs instead of helping Wall Street get richer.

Oh yes, it is: Delving into the exit poll numbers for California, Robert Cruickshank points out how the GOP have staked their territory on ground that is fast eroding. “[T]here’s really no evidence that the 2010 election portends long-term doom for Democrats. Instead it is Republicans who are in trouble. They won by appealing to a shrinking group of people who are determined to hog democracy and prosperity for themselves at the exclusion of the young and the nonwhite.” In other words, demography is destiny, and, when it comes to the GOP, to paraphrase the Peppers, even a tidal wave can’t save them all from Californication.

Speaking of Golden State politics: Unfortunately, Prop 19, which decriminalized marijuana usage, also went down to defeat. (A victim of the older midterm electorate, it still pulled more votes than any Republican in the state.) That being said, the die has been cast now — it’s only a matter of time. “‘There’s a fair amount of latent support for legalization in California,’ said Anna Greenberg…’It is our view, looking at this research, that if indeed legalization goes on ballot in 2012 in California, that it is poised to win.

A Seed of Sanity in California.

Our nearly century-long experiment in banning marijuana has failed as abysmally as Prohibition did, and California may now be pioneering a saner approach.” In very related news, the NYT’s Nick Kristof makes a case for Prop 19. “One advantage of our federal system is that when we have a failed policy, we can grope for improvements by experimenting at the state level. I hope California will lead the way on Tuesday by legalizing marijuana.” (Note also the example of Portugal, as studied by Glenn Greenwald.)

Still Mad as Hell (with Truths to Tell.)

“It’s one thing to recognize capitalism for the powerful economic tool it is and to acknowledge that, for better or for worse, we’re stuck with it and, hey, thank God we have it. There’s not a lot else that can produce mass wealth with the dexterity that capitalism can. But to mistake it for a social framework is an incredible intellectual corruption and it’s one that the West has accepted as a given since 1980–since Reagan…People paid a much higher tax rate when Eisenhower was president, a much higher tax rate for the benefit of society, and all of us had more of a sense that we were included.”

By way of DYFL, Vice Magazine publishes an extended interview with David Simon on The Wire Treme, writing, political economy, health care reform, and other important matters. “Of course it’s socialism. These ignorant motherf**kers. What do they think group insurance is, other than socialism? Just the idea of buying group insurance! If socialism is a taint that you cannot abide by, then, goddamn it, you shouldn’t be in any group insurance policy.

The Penal Option.

“‘There are only two possibilities here,’ Mr. Webb said in introducing his bill, noting that America imprisons so many more people than other countries. ‘Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.‘”

In his latest column, the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof makes the case anew for comprehensive criminal justice reform. “[O]ver all, in a time of limited resources, we’re overinvesting in prisons and underinvesting in schools. Indeed, education spending may reduce the need for incarceration…Above all, it’s time for a rethink of our drug policy.” (Via Sententiae.)

The Lessons of Balmer.

“Having fought the war on drugs, we know that ending the drug war is the right thing to do — for all of us, especially taxpayers.” In the WP, two longtime Baltimore cops once again lay out the case for drug decriminalization. “Legalization would not create a drug free-for-all. In fact, regulation reins in the mess we already have. If prohibition decreased drug use and drug arrests acted as a deterrent, America would not lead the world in illegal drug use and incarceration for drug crimes.” See also: Prohibition.

Prisoners of our Own Device.

‘The commission could be the most ambitious attempt to re-examine and reform the criminal justice system since the 1960s,’ said Mark Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that supports reducing incarceration rates. ‘It is a huge undertaking,’ he said.” As he promised a few months ago, Sen. Jim Webb begins the push for a bipartisan commission on prison reform. (Webb’s effort drew particular kudos from Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald this morning.)

Speaking of which, count me among the many (like Greenwald) who found Obama’s glib answer on drug decriminalization during the online town hall the other day to be too smug and snickering by half. People are spending their lives in prison for basically harmless behavior that he — and countless other tsk-tsking political elites — engaged in. That’s not really something to chuckle about.

That being said, it’s obvious that, with everything else going on, Obama has nowhere near the political capital he would need to deal with this sort of thing right now, even if he does possess the inclination. But, Webb’s proposed commission might be exactly the sort of body that could grant Obama the cover he needs to get serious about drug and prison reform. In fact, other than punting on a popular issue like social security, which prison reform emphatically isn’t, that’s pretty much the sole purpose of a bipartisan commission.

Update: In very related news, NY Gov. David Paterson announces a deal has been struck to soften NY’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws and get rid of many mandatory minimums. “‘Since 1973, New York has had the harshest drug laws in the country, and they have simply not worked,’ Paterson said Friday in a radio interview.

Clinton: Mea Culpa, Mexico.

“‘I feel very strongly we have a co-responsibility,’ Clinton told reporters accompanying her to Mexico City a day after the Obama administration said it would send more money, technology and manpower to secure the Southwestern frontier and help Mexico battle the cartels.” During a visit to our ailing neighbor, Secretary of State Clinton admits American culpability in the exacerbating of Mexico’s drug war. “‘Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,’ she said. ‘Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians… Clearly, what we have been doing has not worked and it is unfair for our incapacity… to be creating a situation where people are holding the Mexican government and people responsible,’ she said.’That’s not right.’

Well, cheers to Sec. Clinton for being honest about some of the causes of Mexico’s escalating drug violence. Still, in pledging tighter borders, more troops, yadda yadda yadda, she and the administration are still dancing around one of the more obvious solutions to the problem.

“The Audacity of Dope.”

“Marijuana is California’s largest cash crop. It’s valued at $14 billion annually, or nearly twice the value of the state’s grape and vegetable crops combined, according to government statistics…But the state doesn’t receive any revenue from its cash cow. Instead, it spends billions of dollars enforcing laws pegged at shutting down the industry and inhibiting marijuana’s adherents.” Also in Slate: In the wake of California’s money troubles, Daniel Gross makes the economic case for marijuana decriminalization.

“So what are the numbers? A national legalization effort would save nearly $13 billion annually in enforcement costs and bring in $7 billion in yearly tax revenues, according to a study by Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron…That doesn’t include any indirect revenues as, for example, rural farming communities grow or marijuana tourism, which has been lucrative for the Netherlands, takes off.

The obvious economic benefits aside, it’s well nigh time to establish a sane drug policy in this country. And weed in particular is an easy call. We haven’t had a drug-free American president since 1992 (at best), and yet we still pretend that a goofball like Michael Phelps ripping bong hits is some sort of egregious sin? Time to grow up, people.

Webb takes on Incarceration Nation.

I think you can be a law-and-order leader and still understand that the criminal justice system as we understand it today is broken, unfair, locking up the wrong people in many cases and not locking up the right person in many cases.” In an auspicious sign for 2009, Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) announces he’ll be taking at stab at criminal justice and prison reform in the coming year. “Webb aims much of his criticism at enforcement efforts that he says too often target low-level drug offenders and parole violators, rather than those who perpetrate violence, such as gang members. He also blames policies that strip felons of citizenship rights and can hinder their chances of finding a job after release.

It sounds like he’s on the right track, and bully to Sen. Webb for even taking this issue — normally not one that brings in the votes — on. (Let’s hope Webb knows his Wire.)

Of course, a lot of headway could be made if we just started taking a saner approach to drugs in this country, i.e. unclogging the justice system of non-violent drug offenders and doing away with mandatory minimums. From there, I hope Sen. Webb sets his sights on the shameful and grotesque private, for-profit prison industry that has sprouted here in America. I for one believe running an unsafe, substandard prison and getting rich by outsourcing your supply of “captive” laborers to corporations that don’t want to pay market wages is much more immoral and criminal behavior than getting high in some fashion and being unlucky (and/or black) enough to get caught. And I don’t think I’m in the minority in this assessment anymore.

The Clintons’ Colombian Connection.

“The meeting was an error in judgment that will not be repeated, and I am sorry for it.” Clinton consigliere and inveterate torturer of reason Mark Penn gets into trouble for playing both sides of a Colombian trade deal, is forced to apologize, and subsequently gets sacked by the nation in question. If only Sen. Clinton had followed Colombia’s example months ago, she might still have a shot at the presidency right now.

In related news, Al Giordano of Rural Votes explains why Colombian president Alvaro Uribe is rooting against Obama, and why that speaks strongly in the Illinois Senator’s favor. “The Uribe regime, after all, continues a chummy friendship with Bill Clinton, granting him the government’s ‘Colombia Is Passion’ Award last June. That, during the same 2007 spring when former vice president Al Gore cancelled his appearance at a Miami environmental conference because he did not want to share a podium with Uribe, the hemisphere’s poster boy for state-sponsored terrorism, narco-trafficking, and assassinations of opposition political, labor and social movement leaders.

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