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November 2015
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About those drug war prison statistics

We’ve talked a lot over the years about the impact that the drug war has had on the over-incarceration in the U.S. And inevitably someone responds by saying that there aren’t all that many in prison (or state prison, or federal prison, or those convicted of possession only, etc.) as if somehow the fact that not all prisoners were a direct result of the drug war negated the argument.

Here’s an interesting article that sheds a little more light on the subject:

Drug offenders in American prisons: The critical distinction between stock and flow

There is no disputing that incarceration for property and violent crimes is of huge importance to America’s prison population, but the standard analysis—including Alexander’s critics—fails to distinguish between the stock and flow of drug crime-related incarceration. In fact, there are two ways of looking at the prison population as it relates to drug crimes:

  1. How many people experience incarceration as a result of a drug-related crime over a certain time period?
  2. What proportion of the prison population at a particular moment in time was imprisoned for a drug-related crime? […]

Snapshot pictures of prison populations tell a misleading story

Violent crimes account for nearly half the prison population at any given time; and drug crimes only one fifth. But drug crimes account for more of the total number of admissions in recent years—almost one third (31 percent), while violent crimes account for one quarter.

Interesting data.

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More from the New York Times Editorial Board

Cut Sentences for Low-Level Drug Crimes by the Editorial Board.

Now that Congress is within sight of passing the most significant federal sentencing reforms in a generation, it’s worth taking a closer look at where the legislation falls short.

The main driver of the federal prison population is, by far, the dramatic increase in the time people spend behind bars — specifically, those convicted of drug offenses, who account for nearly half of the nation’s 199,000 federal inmates. From 1988 to 2012, the average time served for drug crimes more than doubled in length, according to a new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. That increase in the length of drug sentences comes at a great expense: an estimated $1.5 billion each year, based on how much it costs to keep a federal inmate behind bars.

The new sentencing-reform bills now moving through the Senate and House would help reduce some of the longest mandatory-minimum sentences, including ending the use of life without parole for drug crimes, and would give judges more power to impose a shorter sentence when the facts of a case warrant it.

But these fixes do not reach to the heart of the problem, which is that the vast majority of federal drug offenders serving outsize sentences are in for low-level, nonviolent crimes, and have no serious history of violence. […]

Making any real dent in the federal prison population will require broader reforms than those Congress is currently considering.

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Ethan Nadelmann at the conference

Video of keynote address by Ethan Nadelmann at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Washington DC available here.

Early on in his talk, he discussed how we lose track of the lessons from history, and he mentioned about how few young people know about McCarthyism and what we went through in that period and reflected:

“and just thinking about the war on drugs and where we lie now, because what happened in the late 1980s and 1990s, and for that matter under Nixon in the 70s, but truly in the 80s and 90s and into the first decade of this century, was something like McCarthyism on steroids.

It resembled McCarthyism in that it played on real fears of the American people — fears about drugs coming into our country, fears about junkies and drug addicts and drug dealers, and all sorts of things. It played on that. But what it also shared in common, was the fact that almost everybody went along. Almost everybody went along. Not just white people, but black people and brown people leaders and followers, people around the world. It became almost a great global consensus where America and Cuba and Libya and Russia could all agree on something, which was that we needed a global war on drugs no matter the cost or the consequences.

And what pains me about today, is that we barely know our history. And that there has been no accountability. That the Joe McCarthys of the drug war still stand strong and still get honor in our societies and have not been called out.”


Later on in the talk, another good sound bite: “Drug policy reform is many things, but it is foremost a movement for liberty and freedom.”

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Think of the children!

The war on drugs: Harming, not protecting, young people by Count the Costs.

7 ways the war on drugs hurts children and young people

7 ways the war on drugs hurts children and young people

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Sgt. Jim Gerhardt spreads ignorance

Colorado police officers warns of marijunana dangers [sic]

Wow. This guy travelled all the way to Iowa just to give them a combination of outright lies and dramatic misstatements.

A Denver-area police officer cautioned Siouxlanders Friday not to follow down the path of his own state on marijuana. […]

“If you legalize it, then you’re done,” Gerhardt said at a news conference Friday. “There is going to be no way to contain it.”

In the last four years, there has been a 92-percent increase in marijuana-related fatal car accidents in the state, according to data from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program, a component of the National Drug Control Strategy. Overall, fatal car accidents rose by 8 percent, Gerhardt said.

Joining him with the false fear mongering was Peter Komendowski, president of the Partnership for a Drug-Free Iowa:

Komendowski said parents and their children should be educated on health risks that might come with marijuana so they are prepared.

“If we have to wait for a test to see if they’re really impaired, or if we have to go to do the morgue, it’s too late,” he said.

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DEA petition delivered

DEA Boss Clings On Amid Campaign for His Ouster

Chuck Rosenberg was supposed to be a different kind of Drug Enforcement Agency leader, someone who could serve as acting administrator for the remainder of President Barack Obama’s time in office without rocking the boat like his embattled predecessor.

Instead, Rosenberg is under siege from activists and lawmakers after calling the use of raw marijuana to treat medical conditions “a joke” earlier this month, and he’s facing a campaign by reformers unseen even by the famously anti-reform Michele Leonhart, who stepped down in May after a sex party scandal.


On Thursday, seven members of Congress – Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., Sam Farr, D-Calif., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Ted Lieu, D-Calif., and Jim McDermott, D-Wash. – wrote to Obama asking that he fire Rosenberg.

And on Friday, a group of nearly two dozen patients, caregivers and policy advocates visited the DEA’s headquarters in northern Virginia to present boxes stuffed with printouts of an online petition calling for Rosenberg’s ouster. The petition has been signed by more than 100,000 people and was spearheaded by Marijuana Majority leader Tom Angell.

Again, I reiterate, petitions are generally worthless. But what Tom has done here is really quite excellent. He started a petition, and, because he keeps really good relationships with a variety of media folks, he gets articles written about there being a petition, which gets more people to sign it. And because he has also developed relationships with political leaders, they write their own letters, which generates more press. Then he gets the press to cover the deliverance of the petitions, along with sick people who signed them.

And, because I’m on Tom’s press list, I get regular updates from him on the status of the petition, which makes me more likely to write about it. Good organization. Good activism.

Will Rosenberg be fired? Of course not. But that’s not the important thing – what we’ve got is major news outlets treating the DEA as under siege, putting them on the defensive, and giving medical marijuana patients sympathy for being treated “as a joke” by the bad government bureaucrats.

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2015 strategy released

Well, at least there’s still a tiny bit of 2015 left.

The White House apparently finally released the 2015 National Drug Control Strategy on Tuesday, with no fanfare at all. This is a bit of a guess on my part, since there’s been almost no media coverage of the strategy, and no press release this year on the ONDCP website regarding the strategy.

Here’s the full strategy.

I’ve skimmed it, and, as far as I can tell, not much to see. More of the same kinder, gentler prohibition stuff that we’ve seen in recent years. “Criminal justice reform” essentially meaning “be nicer to people when you imprison them and help them get treatment.”

After a lot of talk about treatment, it’s still a lot of enforcement stuff – maximize spending on drug task forces, etc. – interdiction, cracking down…

There’s the obligatory section about focusing on drugged driving. And even that seems a bit half-hearted. While leading with strong headlines like “Preventing Drugged Driving Must Become a National Priority Equivalent to Preventing Drunk Driving,” they end up admitting that “The study found that marijuana users are more likely to be involved in accidents, but that the increased risk may be due in part because marijuana users are more likely to be in high-risk groups for becoming involved in crashes (e.g., young males).” and also talked about their education efforts including “ONDCP sent more than 50 tweets about drugged driving during a one-hour period and more than 30 national partners joined the chat to learn more about drugged driving.” Exciting stuff.

Interestingly, the subject of marijuana legalization was almost completely ignored. A few minor references in the little snapshot features of citizens who are making a difference, talking about how they had opposed legalization, and this small reference:

Increasingly, marijuana growers are modifying their methods to evade detection by law enforcement and the public. In recent years cultivation operations have moved away from outdoor grows on public lands to indoor grow sites. According to DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program, the number of plants seized from indoor cultivation operations nationwide increased from 302,080 in 2012 to 396,620 in 2014.130 This shift makes detection more challenging and complicates eradication efforts, particularly in states where the legalization of recreational marijuana or of medical use of marijuana has complicated law enforcement efforts to secure necessary search warrants. To address this growing threat, Federal law enforcement, in coordination with state and local agencies will aggressively deploy resources as efficiently as possible to eradicate indoor marijuana and dismantle the organizations that produce dangerously large quantities.

Yep, that’s their entire discussion about states legalizing marijuana.

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The butterfly effect

I don’t have the answer to the violence in the world, nor do I know what we could have done to prevent it. I, like many people, have ideas. And when tragedy strikes, your mind can’t help trying to make the pieces fit together.

And so, as I was driving cross country yesterday, my mind put this bizarre chain of events together…

  1. 1986. Reacting to the death of Len Bias from cocaine, Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill demands “some goddamn legislation” and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 is passed with lots of tough on drug provisions including severe mandatory minimums.
  2. Due in part to the massive powder/crack sentencing disparities, the legislation ends up creating a situation where African-American males in particular are heavily targeted by enforcement and given vastly longer sentences. (See Len Bias – the death that ushered in two decades of destruction)
  3. Drug sentences in many states resulted in disenfranchisement. In Florida, for example, in 2000, one in four black men were not allowed to vote. If they had been allowed to vote, it’s likely, in that time, that they would have voted for Gore over Bush, and George W. Bush would not have won the Presidential election.
  4. It’s certainly arguable that a Gore presidency would not have included the war in Iraq (a war to which the French objected). The war was clearly a desire of George W. Bush.
  5. It’s fairly certain that ISIL/Daesh was made possible by the destabilization caused by the Iraq War.
  6. Therefore Tip O’Neill is responsible for the recent attacks in Paris.

Of course, that’s ridiculous. And you could probably construct many other linkages in much the same way.

But it does remind us that public policy is subject to a form of butterfly effect. Decisions made can have broad, unintended consequences.

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History of Presidential candidates supporting marijuana

Reason has an interesting piece looking at the various candidates, past and present, to support significant marijuana law reform:

Marijuana Legalizers Who Ran for President

Three days after Bernie Sanders unveiled legislation to repeal the federal ban on marijuana, Hillary Clinton proposed moving marijuana to a slightly less restrictive legal category. The former secretary of state’s faint echo of the Vermont senator’s bold bill—the first of its kind in the Senate—underlined how timid Clinton has always been on the subject of drug policy reform. Although the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has had second thoughts about the mandatory minimum sentences she used to champion, the woman who a few years ago explained that we can’t legalize the drug trade because “there is just too much money in it” clearly is not ready to call off the war on weed, even though that is what most Americans seem to want.

The dueling marijuana proposals also showed that Sanders, whose chances of winning his party’s presidential nomination are remote at best, is nevertheless pushing Clinton to address issues she would prefer to ignore.

The article covers a variety of candidates, past and present, in addition to Sanders and Clinton, including Mike Gravel, Gary Johnson, Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul, and Rand Paul.

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Rosenberg under fire

This has been building for a little while now, thanks in large part to Tom Angell who started a petition to have the DEA chief removed…

DEA chief says smoking marijuana as medicine “is a joke”

DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg on Wednesday rejected the notion that smoking marijuana is “medicine,” calling the premise a “joke.”

“What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal — because it’s not,” Rosenberg said in a briefing to reporters. “We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether we should legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don’t call it medicine — that is a joke.”

As more and more states experiment with loosening marijuana laws, Rosenberg said that people shouldn’t conflate the issue of legalizing recreational marijuana with medicinal marijuana.

“There are pieces of marijuana — extracts or constituents or component parts — that have great promise” medicinally, he said. “But if you talk about smoking the leaf of marijuana — which is what people are talking about when they talk about medicinal marijuana — it has never been shown to be safe or effective as a medicine.”

16,000 People and Counting Want DEA Chief Fired for Calling Medical Marijuana a ‘Joke’

More than 16,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) be fired for calling medical marijuana a “joke” last week. […]

Medical marijuana advocates quickly criticized Rosenberg, complaining that the DEA blocks medical and scientific research on weed. Many of the petition’s signatories include patients with chronic illnesses who say pot has changed their lives.

‘It worries me that he is so ignorant as to say that it’s a joke. My daughter’s medicine is not a joke to me.’

“While it’s nothing new for drug war bureaucrats to oppose sensible marijuana policies, Rosenberg’s comments go way too far,” the petition, posted on, reads. “Medical marijuana is not a “joke” to the millions of seriously ill patients in a growing number of states who use it legally in accordance with doctors’ recommendations.”

The petition calls for President Barack Obama to “fire Chuck Rosenberg and appoint a new DEA administrator who will respect science, medicine, patients and voters.

Of course, if they were to actually appoint a new DEA administrator who did those things, probably the first thing they’d do is shut down the DEA, or at least significantly change its focus.

The petition was started by Tom Angell, a leader of the pro-pot advocacy group Marijuana Majority. Angell told VICE News he hopes the number of signatures — including one by singer Melissa Etheridge — will “get the White House to take note that this administration’s DEA head is saying things that are offensive to millions of American families who have benefited from medical marijuana.”

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