The changing political realities of drug policy

At my talk on Saturday, I mentioned the local political dust-up I got caught in back in 2004 (some of the regulars here may remember this – Link).

There was a Congressional representative in my area in Illinois with a particularly nasty record in drug policy, and he was being opposed by a candidate who had indicated possible support for medical marijuana and decriminalization (not legalization). At the time, that was a pretty good change, and so I endorsed the challenger on Drug WarRant. Thought nothing of it.

The incumbent used my endorsement in attack ads, claiming that the challenger was endorsed by a drug legalization “group” and had values completely out of touch with Illinois. The challenger returned my small personal donation to his campaign and said the endorsement was similar to when the Ku Klux Klan endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980!

Now flash ahead 14 years…

Tom Angell reports: The New Politics Of Marijuana Are Emerging In Illinois

Marijuana was once seen as a third-rail issue of politics: You touch it, you die. Not that many years ago, many candidates for public office ran as far and as fast as they could from cannabis issues out of fear they would be attacked as soft on drugs or soft on crime. […]

Contenders in the March 20 primary got into a testy Twitter exchange on the issue over the weekend, with JB Pritzker, widely seen as the front-runner in the race, accusing opponent Chris Kennedy of merely pretending to back legalization, and Kennedy telling his supporters not to believe the other campaign’s claims.

As Tom notes, part of the sudden desire for politicians to suddenly get on top of legalization could have a little bit to do with polling numbers.

New Illinois poll results released yesterday:

The poll found that 66 percent of Illinois voters favor legalizing recreational marijuana if taxed and regulated like alcohol while 32 percent are opposed. There were 3 percent of voters who were unsure.

Back in 2004, when I ran into those problems, the national Gallup poll numbers (don’t have them for Illinois at the time) were 64% opposed, 34% in favor.

A different time.

It’s really interesting to see some of the campaigns this year in Illinois. For example, we’re finally losing Lisa Madigan and Attorney General (long overdue – she’s the one who spearheaded the execrable Illinois v. Caballes case where the Supreme Court ruled that the 4th Amendment doesn’t apply as long as the police get permission… from their dog.)

So the race is crowded (6 on the Democratic side) and they’re all pretty much an improvement. This one, for example is a real breath of fresh air in an Attorney General race – it’s Aaron Goldstein, a former Public Defender!

For far too long our criminal justice system has not been just to people accused of crimes, to the victims of crime and to the public. I will accomplish real criminal justice reform that ends mass incarceration, eliminate the unjust and unfair drug war, and reform the cash bail process that discriminates against people with limited means. I will accomplish real, long overdue, police reform to ensure that police represent (rather than intimidate) the good citizens of our state.

Mass incarceration benefits no one. Many of the people who are in prison are serving their sentence for a non-violent, typically drug-related offense. We must treat the root causes of these crimes like drug addiction, mental health, income inequality, a lack of opportunity and education funding.. Someone who is incarcerated for a non-violent offense comes out of prison not rehabilitated, but with a record and even more likely to fall back into criminal behavior than before. Meanwhile, taxpayers have spent millions of dollars to house inmates while feeling no safer than they were before. We must reduce the prison population by focusing on deferment programs, rehabilitation, and mental health and addiction treatment.

The so-called “drug war” has been one of the worst domestic policies in the last 50 years. We have not reduced the use of drugs while creating a black market that funds street gangs so that they can purchase guns. Further, the drug war has been administered in a way that discriminates against African-Americans, Latinos and the poor. We must legalize marijuana and treat drug addiction as a mental health issue and not a criminal one.

And he repeats his commitment to marijuana legalization:

I believe marijuana should be legalized. One doesn’t have to be a user of marijuana to understand that the war on drugs—and the criminalization of marijuana in particular—has been an abysmal failure. Far too many of our citizens have been convicted and imprisoned for using marijuana, although little evidence exists to support our draconian drug laws.

Ironically, rather than helping our citizens, criminalization of marijuana has encouraged the development of a huge and chaotic black market, with its inevitable consequences of gang violence and harm to many innocent bystanders. For these reasons, and based on the experience of other states that have legalized marijuana, I believe it is time to legalize marijuana in Illinois. It should be regulated—based on clear scientific evidence—to ensure that legal pot does not create any significant health or public safety risks to the people of Illinois and that the marijuana industry is run fairly and lawfully.

As Attorney General, I will consult with attorneys general from states that have legalized marijuana to ensure that Illinois adopts best practices in the production, distribution and sales of marijuana, and that any tax revenue Illinois derives from the sale of marijuana is used for purposes that benefit all the people, not just the few who are politically connected.

What a breath of fresh air. I don’t know what his chances are, but the fact that people like him are running makes me feel just a touch more optimistic.

And no, just to be on the safe side, I’m not endorsing him.

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11 Responses to The changing political realities of drug policy

  1. Mallam says:

    I’m surprised you’ve not written up anything about Larry Krasner, who has been kicking ass and taking names in Philadelphia. Ending cash bail, released a list of bad police officers the former DA was hiding, proponent of drug reform and needle exchange, and now working towards establishing safe injection sites.

  2. kaptinemo says:

    “What a long, strange trip it has been.”

    Indeed it has, and it is becoming ever clearer to politicians that to stand against cannabis law reform is to face the ire of the electorate that want it.

    “We’ll legalize when Grandma dies.” was a saying way back in the dark days of the Reagan phase of the DrugWar. The implication was that the ignorant, spiteful, low-information voter (the kind of people that believed as Gospel every word about drugs and illicit drug users that came from the mouth of fictional police Sgt. Joe Friday of TV series Dragnet fame), easily led by government propaganda to vote for ever more repressive drug laws, would have to die off by attrition before they could be replaced in the electorate by better informed voters.

    (In point of fact, there had been an ONDCP propaganda effort specifically aimed at grandmothers, ca. 2003, for precisely the purpose of having them continue to vote for the ever-more-punitive drug laws to ‘protect’ their grandchildren. The fact that those ‘grandkids’ were the ones being hurt by the laws seemed to slip their minds.)

    Well, guess what? With the ‘Grandmas’ departure from the voting rolls, the way is open for their replacements. And their replacements are damned sick and tired of stupid drug laws, as demonstrated by half the country being cannabis-legal in one form or another, moving to eventual total re-legalization. Which has caught the notice of politicians and those who want to become one.

    Yes, It’s been a ‘long, strange trip’, from when drug law reformers were publicly vilified in Congressional testimony and threatened with criminal prosecution for exercising their First Amendment rights in their efforts to today, when candidates for office are being accused of not supporting cannabis law reform enough.

    But when I think of all those who have needlessly, callously and cruelly suffered and died at the hands of prohibitionists, all those who’ve been imprisoned over their use of a plant, all those whose families were torn apart, had promising careers trashed, and how all our rights have been degraded and eroded in this modern-day version of the medieval ‘Children’s Crusade’, it will not be enough just to win. The word ‘Nuremberg’ comes to mind…

    • Yeah But says:

      We can but hope, but I’m a bit pessimistic that we’ll see a any Nuremberg trials before the prohibs themselves die off, never mind grandma.

  3. WalStMonky says:


    Voters in Cook County get to weigh in on a non-binding referendum on March 20th:

    Shall the State of Illinois legalize the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, testing, and sale of marijuana and marijuana products for recreational use by adults 21 and older subject to state regulation, taxation and local ordinance?
    Referenda – March 20, 2018 Gubernatorial Primary Election

    Is that just a lame way of letting the small percentage of voters who show up to cast off Election Day ballots to give the lawmakers an excuse to maintain the status quo? That’s what I thought almost a year ago when 10% of Kansas City voters approved lowering “the maximum fine for marijuana possession in city court to $25 from $500 and eliminate jail time as a penalty. Under the old ordinance, a sentence of 180 days was possible. The voters took the prohibitionists out to the woodshed for a spanking by approving the referendum by a margin of 71% to 29%
    KC voters approve lower penalty for pot possession: $25 fine and no jail

    Members of the Illinois Legislature are lobbying for a similar non-binding resolution on Election Day 2018.

  4. Servetus says:

    No amount of effort by leaders or governments has been spared in the use of substance laws to repress individuals and civilian populations. It’s a tactic that’s been used for centuries by religious organizations, and in more recent decades by politicians. It is why marijuana’s role as a political vehicle in the ongoing defeat of such cruelties is an accomplishment that far exceeds the legalization of cannabis consumption by itself. A defeat achieved by cannabis activists means the United States still has what it takes in the long run to thwart tyranny.

    Not just any tyranny is at work. The great political theorist Sheldon Wolin dubbed it ‘inverted totalitarianism’ in his classic book: Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008). Under inverted totalitarianism, the tyrant is corporate rather than primarily political. Wolin notes some differences in methodology from political totalitarianism:

    …inverted totalitarianism instead exploits the legal and political constraints of the established democratic system, and uses these constraints to defeat their original purpose…[Ibid, p. 56]

    With marijuana restrictions, the laws use justice to defeat justice. It’s well understood by lawmakers that drug enforcement erodes civil liberties—a basic goal of totalitarianism. The consequences of drug prohibition must therefore be seen as purposely intended. In an interview with Chris Hedges, Wolin elaborates:

    In classical totalitarian regimes, such as those of Nazi fascism or Soviet communism, economics was subordinate to politics. But “under inverted totalitarianism the reverse is true,” Wolin writes. “Economics dominates politics—and with that domination comes different forms of ruthlessness.”

    He continues: “The United States has become the showcase of how democracy can be managed without appearing to be suppressed.”

    The corporate state, Wolin told me, is “legitimated by elections it controls.” To extinguish democracy, it rewrites and distorts laws and legislation that once protected democracy. Basic rights are, in essence, revoked by judicial and legislative fiat. Courts and legislative bodies, in the service of corporate power, reinterpret laws to strip them of their original meaning in order to strengthen corporate control and abolish corporate oversight. […]

    The indiscriminate police violence in poor communities of color is an example of the ability of the corporate state to “legally” harass and kill citizens with impunity. The cruder forms of control—from militarized police to wholesale surveillance, as well as police serving as judge, jury and executioner, now a reality for the underclass—will become a reality for all of us should we begin to resist the continued funneling of power and wealth upward. We are tolerated as citizens, Wolin warns, only as long as we participate in the illusion of a participatory democracy. The moment we rebel and refuse to take part in the illusion, the face of inverted totalitarianism will look like the face of past systems of totalitarianism.

    “The significance of the African-American prison population is political,” he writes. “What is notable about the African-American population generally is that it is highly sophisticated politically and by far the one group that throughout the twentieth century kept alive a spirit of resistance and rebelliousness. In that context, criminal justice is as much a strategy of political neutralization as it is a channel of instinctive racism.” […]

    “Unlike the Nazis, who made life uncertain for the wealthy and privileged while providing social programs for the working class and poor, inverted totalitarianism exploits the poor, reducing or weakening health programs and social services, regimenting mass education for an insecure workforce threatened by the importation of low-wage workers,” Wolin writes. “Employment in a high-tech, volatile, and globalized economy is normally as precarious as during an old-fashioned depression. The result is that citizenship, or what remains of it, is practiced amidst a continuing state of worry. Hobbes had it right: when citizens are insecure and at the same time driven by competitive aspirations, they yearn for political stability rather than civic engagement, protection rather than political involvement.” […]

    Summarized Interview of Wolin by Chris Hedges:

    Video of Hedges–Wolin Interview (2 hours 56 min):

    • kaptinemo says:

      Thank you, Servetus; I haven’t heard of Wolin’s work, and now am going to have to do some reading. But his basic premise is one that any civil libertarian would immediately recognize WRT the DrugWar.

      I would add to Wolin’s premise that the DrugWar was the ideological expression of a generation’s social mores upon the following ones. And part of that ideology was driven by eugenically-oriented authoritarianism.

      It’s a matter of historical record that many if not all of the early prohibitionists subscribed to the eugenics movement popular in America at the beginning of the 20th century. Concepts such as ‘miscegenation’ and ‘degeneracy’ were integral with eugenics, and represented factors that were tied with the processes that were seen by eugenicists as heralding the downfall of civilizations.

      Since minorities were already thought of as barely human, hopelessly ‘backwards’, dangerously emotionally and mentally unstable and thus ‘degenerate’ and in need of constant, authoritarian social control, to ‘protect civilization’ the passage of the drug laws was pretty much a given.

      The original eugenic rationale for the drug laws has been lost to time, as the philosophy itself fell out of favor, but the Frankenstein’s Monster it created is still running loose with the kernel of original programming still running in its head.

  5. Mike says:

    and the director of the marijuana project at
    Ol Miss for years is now just sounding the alarm,

    might be those teachers who went on strike are
    giving a little back bone to others.

  6. Carlyle Moulton says:

    On 3 things Goldstein is flat out wrong:-

    1 “Mass incarceration benefits no one.”

    Wrong wrong wrong, an awful lot of people benefit for example:-
    Prison Guards many would not have jobs without it;
    Criminal lawyers whether judges prosecutors or defenders who would be unemployed without it;
    Bail bondsmen;
    Investors in Insurance and private prisons whose dividends would be less;
    Racists whose desire for revenge on blacks for slavery is provided by mass incarceration of blacks;
    Unskilled white people who have access to jobs because black people can’t compete for those same jobs because they are locked up or if not locked up have a conviction that prevents their being hired.

    2 “The so-called “drug war” has been one of the worst domestic policies in the last 50 years”

    The word “worst” implies a criterion by which something is judged.

    Authorities like to have laws that provide discretion and can be used against problematic people when necessary and laws against use and trading of mind altering chemicals provide oodles of discretion because they criminalize normal human behaviour and the total number of breaches of the law is so enormous that it is impossible to detect, charge and prosecute more than a fraction of them it is easy to skew enforcement to those usual suspects that the authorities want to punish for other reasons. If people whom the authorities want to punish do not cooperate by using or trading drugs themselves drugs can always be planted.

    3 “Ironically, rather than helping our citizens, criminalization of marijuana has encouraged the development of a huge and chaotic black market, with its inevitable consequences of gang violence and harm to many innocent bystanders.”

    Does Goldstein really think these black markets that create such misery where poor coloured people live isn’t a desired consequence of the policy correctly named as “The war on blacks and poor people”. The war on drugs provides the most powerful implement of ethnic and social hygiene policy.

  7. FallInLineOrDie says:

    A former federal prosecutor who is running to be Michigan’s attorney general took what he said is a “stronger stance” on marijuana legalization Wednesday, backing a proposed 2018 ballot measure that would legalize the drug for recreational use.

    Pat Miles, who is locked in a fight for the Democratic nomination, issued a statement outlining his shift on the issue less than six weeks before the party’s de-facto nominating convention.

    “After careful consideration, and dialogue with activists and voters across the state, I’ve decided to take a stronger stance on marijuana legalization,” he said. “While I’ve said so far that this issue is up to the voters of Michigan, which it most certainly is, I’ve reviewed the language of the ballot initiative to regulate marijuana like alcohol, and find it to be very thoughtful and well-written, and I support it.”

  8. Yeah But says:

    Pharma Bro facing years in prison for insider trading, but

    “What he did (with Daraprim) wasn’t illegal or even, sadly, all that unusual. Price gouging is a common practice for US pharmaceutical companies.”

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