Pot, Prisons and the Elephant in the Room

Reuters columnist Bernard Debussman has a good column examining the elephant in the room in the debate on the war on drugs:

In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200 percent.” The elephant has ambled out of the bedroom and has become the object of a lively debate on the pros and cons of legalising drugs.

He examines theories as to why the momentum towards marijuana legalization is picking up steam. He also explains why legalization is making sense to so many people right now: [More...]

Contrary to widespread perceptions, marijuana accounts, by many estimates, for considerably more than half the illegal drugs smuggled from Mexico to the United States.

The argument for legalizing marijuana, and eventually other drugs, is straightforward: it would transform a law-and-order problem into a problem of public health. A side effect of particular importance at a time of deep economic crisis: it would save billions of dollars now spent on law enforcement and add billions in revenues if drugs were taxed.

He notes the disparity in treatment among post offenders as exemplified by Sen. Jim Webb's statement that "tens of thousands of passive users and petty dealers" are languishing in our prisons, while on 4/20 in Boulder:

There, on a sunny Monday, a crowd estimated at more than 10,000 converged on the campus of the University of Colorado to light up marijuana joints, whose smoke hung over the scene like a grey blanket. Overhead, an aircraft dragged a banner with the words “Hmmm, smells good up here.” Police watched but made no arrests and issued no fines.

He correctly notes reformers shouldn't put their hopes for change on President Obama who has said he opposes legalization.

He ends with a question about whether Sen. Webb's commission, should it ever get implemented and finished, can effect the change.

The so-called Shafer report, whose members were appointed by then-president Richard Nixon, found in 1972 that “neither the marijuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety” and recommended that there should be no criminal penalties for personal use and casual distribution.

Nixon rejected the report. He had already declared “war on drugs”, and American prisons soon began filling up.

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  • Display: Sort:
    how can smoking tobacco (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by ding7777 on Sun May 03, 2009 at 12:27:57 PM EST
    " constitute a danger to public safety" but not

    Any breakdown as to how many people (none / 0) (#1)
    by oculus on Sun May 03, 2009 at 11:36:26 AM EST
    are in state or federal custody due to "casual distribution" of marijuana?  

    The most recent BJS study on MJ offenders is for (none / 0) (#3)
    by JSN on Sun May 03, 2009 at 02:38:20 PM EST
    1997. Using their percentages and the most recent figures for prison populations there would be about 9,800 federal prisoners and 14,400 state prisoners with MJ possession as the most serious charge. Most of these prisoners would be dealers or user/dealers because most arrested users (about 500,000) of MJ would be incarcerated for short periods in a county jail.

    On of the problems is that when a drug house is raided all adult occupants are arrested and some folks are incarcerated because they were hanging out with the wrong crowd.


    The issue with the (none / 0) (#4)
    by JamesTX on Sun May 03, 2009 at 02:49:39 PM EST
    "round'm all up" approach is bad, but it speaks to larger deterioration of the criminal justice system as a whole, rather than just drug war insanity. It demonstrates that it is no longer necessary for the police to provide evidence of guilt for individuals. They can arrest whole groups and make no discrimination between the level of culpability individuals in that group. Whether you are guilty or not simply depends on whether they have drawn the "perimeter" with you inside of it.

    Of course, people detained/arrested (none / 0) (#8)
    by oculus on Sun May 03, 2009 at 03:48:30 PM EST
    in US don't end up in federal or state correctional (as opposed to detention) facilities unless a prosecutor issues a complaint and the person eithe pleads guilty or is convicted by a jury.  Even then, I've never heard of anyone being sentenced to a correctional facility for simple possession of MJ.  Feds. are quite severe on "transporters" who bring MJ across the border as mules though.

    Wisconsin (none / 0) (#7)
    by Ben Masel on Sun May 03, 2009 at 03:47:02 PM EST
    A snapshot of the State Prison System on Jan. 1, 2008 found 307 imprisoned for cultivation, 170 on strictly possession charges. Some, maybe most of the latter were originally possession with intent, plead down, any getting actual prison, distinct from jail, for small possessions in this State would be multiple offenders.

    These numbers omit the likely larger number sent up on probation or parole violation for pee testing  for marijuana consumption, listed in the stats simply as "probation violation" or "parole violation."


    Thanks for the information. (none / 0) (#9)
    by oculus on Sun May 03, 2009 at 03:49:44 PM EST
    I am not sure what (none / 0) (#5)
    by JamesTX on Sun May 03, 2009 at 03:04:49 PM EST
    to do about this, but somehow these issues have dropped completely off the radar of the progressive blogosphere. I think it has something to do with unconditional support of Obama, a sort of "worship" mentality that says,"since Obama has abandoned reform in this area, progressives should, too."

    It looks like that attitude is going to hold, so basically all the work progressives concerned with these issues have done (the endless support and contributions for Obama, the campaigning, the getting involved, etc.) was for naught. They have decided to abandon us for political expedience.

    That means it may be time to regroup and rethink strategies. One important strategy, I think, is to seek support across populations that normally do not mix, and who oppose the drug war for different reasons. Rather than being "a few nuts", we need to be big enough to matter. We have "a few nuts" who want to legalize marijuana so they can party with their friends, "a few nuts" who want the federal government out of the relationship between doctors and patients being treated for pain, "a few nuts" who think marijuana is a useful drug to treat their illnesses, "a few nuts" who think marijuana should be available for adults (like cocktails), "a few nits" who want other types drugs legalized or decriminalized for other reasons, "a few nuts" who think drugs are theoretically not within the legal jurisdiction of the state, "a few nuts" who think the drug war is the cause of serious corruption and organized crime, etc. If we got all these groups of "a few nuts" together, we would have more than a few. If we could get them to recognize and respect the goals and needs of the diverse population who are fighting for decriminalization and an end to the drug war, get them organized, and get an agenda, then when it comes time to have another election we might could get something other than being thrown under the bus.

    "dropped off the radar" (none / 0) (#6)
    by Ben Masel on Sun May 03, 2009 at 03:26:12 PM EST
    I disagree. I'm seeing more discussion of Drug policy than ever.

    I am seeing less, (none / 0) (#11)
    by JamesTX on Sun May 03, 2009 at 08:15:06 PM EST
    but then I am not sure I am still frequenting progressive sites where it is a topic. For instance, it gets little coverage a DailyKos, and the important thing is that when it is diaried, there is little to no response or discussion. Count the responses on this diary, then compare to a diary about some other tangential progressive cause. I would be happy to be directed to where all the people who used to rant against the drug war have gone.

    casual users in prison? (none / 0) (#10)
    by diogenes on Sun May 03, 2009 at 05:09:54 PM EST
    In New York you get prison for terms of more than one year.  Very few casual users get any time at all for possession, and most of those get county jail time of less than one year.  

    And just how much dirty money from illegal drugs (none / 0) (#13)
    by SeeEmDee on Mon May 04, 2009 at 07:44:56 AM EST
    is propping up the banks right now? Don't forget that the bankers don't want that guaranteed floor taken out from under them...and despite all the rhetoric about pitchforks, Obama would not be where he is right now without the help of his banker friends.

    So, despite all the hopefulness displayed by drug law reformers, the economic realities will only force change if Joe Sixpack is staring at a pink slip, and then hears some anti-drug bureaucrat mouthing off how he needs Joes' tax dollars to keep his cushy job 'protecting' Joe's kids from 'druuuuuuugs'...when Joe needs the money for unemployment insurance to keep those kids housed and fed. Then you'll really see the pitchforks come out...

    Who cares... (none / 0) (#14)
    by kdog on Mon May 04, 2009 at 09:01:37 AM EST
    about the exact number of caged souls...one soul for one minute is one soul and one minute too many.

    I guess it's relative to the economic arguments against prohibition, but the moral and liberty based arguments against prhibition should only require one caged soul to outrage.

    Kdog, 'compassion' in 'Murikah is wussy (none / 0) (#15)
    by SeeEmDee on Mon May 04, 2009 at 01:03:30 PM EST
    and whupping up on dem dere 'druggies' is 'manly'. Or so it would seem...

    I gave up on pointing out the gross injustices inherent in the DrugWar when speaking with those who (falsely) believe themselves unaffected by it.  For the most part, the efforts have fallen on deaf ears these past two decades.

    So...if the only thing that cash-strapped and increasingly desperate Joe Sixpack understands is money...and especially his lack of it now...then that's the tack that must be taken.

    Pointing out that the DrugWar is a horrendously wasteful exercise in futility, and whispering in his ear that he ought to have the money that's being pissed away in this modern-day Children's Crusade, has proven to be far more effective a means of swaying public opinion than passionately railing on about how unfair the DrugWar is to minorities, how it's destructive of civil liberties, etc.

    In the land of the Dollar Bill, the Bottom Line is King. Those willing to give up their - and our - civil liberties for the (pardon me, but it's so apt) 'pipe dream' of a 'drug free' world couldn't care less. But money? Talk that, and watch the dull eyes light up and the rusty calculators begin spinning. Sad but true.

    get real! (none / 0) (#16)
    by moirao on Sat Jun 20, 2009 at 06:50:05 PM EST
    look at the reason these people stay high...officers, guards, cops...whatever you want to call em...they bring in more of the contraband that the visitors...