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Blacks Targeted in Wasteful War on Marijuana, ACLU Finds

Black Americans are nearly four times more likely to get busted for marijuana possession than white ones, even though both groups smoke pot at roughly comparable rates, the ACLU said in a report released Tuesday. The report, "The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests," is based on the annual FBI Uniform Crime Report and US Census Bureau Data.

Blacks are 3.7 times more likely to get busted for marijuana possession than whites. (aclu.org/marijuana)
The disparity in arrest rates is startlingly consistent, the report found. In more than 96% of the counties covered in the report, blacks were arrested at higher rates than whites. Racial disparities in pot busts came in large counties and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, with large black populations and with small ones.

In some counties, the disparity rose to 15 times more likely, and in the Upper Midwest states of Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota, blacks were eight times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than whites. Nationwide, blacks were 3.73 times more likely to get arrested for marijuana than whites.

And it's getting worse, not better. The report found that even though the racial disparities in marijuana arrests existed 10 years ago, they have increased in 38 states and the District of Columbia.

"The war on marijuana has disproportionately been a war on people of color," said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project and one of the primary authors of the report. "State and local governments have aggressively enforced marijuana laws selectively against black people and communities, needlessly ensnaring hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system at tremendous human and financial cost."

In budgetary terms, that cost to the states was $3.61 billion in 2010 alone, the report found. During the decade the report studied, despite aggressive enforcement and rising marijuana arrest rates, all those arrests failed to stop or even diminish the use of marijuana, and support for its legalization only increased.

"The aggressive policing of marijuana is time-consuming, costly, racially biased, and doesn't work," said Edwards. "These arrests have a significant detrimental impact on people's lives, as well as on the communities in which they live. When people are arrested for possessing even tiny amounts of marijuana, they can be disqualified from public housing or student financial aid, lose or find it more difficult to obtain employment, lose custody of their child, or be deported."

The report recommends legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana, which it said would eliminate racially-targeted selective enforcement of marijuana laws, save the billions of dollars spent on enforcing pot prohibition, and raise badly needed revenues by taxation. If legalization is not doable, then decriminalization, and if not decriminalization, then lowest prioritization.

The ACLU also calls in the report for reforms in policing practices, including not only ending racial profiling, but also constitutionally-suspect stop-and-frisk searches, such as those embraced with such gusto by the NYPD in New York City. It also crucially recommends reforming federal law enforcement funding streams, such as the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program, that encourage police to make low-level drug busts by using performance measures that reward such arrests at the expense of other measures.

NYC Marijuana Arrests Declining, But Still Sky High

Thanks to aggressive policing strategies, New York City has for more than a decade been the world's leader in marijuana possession arrests, but now those numbers are starting to go down.

According to the State Division of Criminal Justice Services, some 10,078 people had been arrested on pot possession charges through April 23, about a 20% decrease over the same period last year. And last year saw a 22% overall decline in possession arrests over 2011.

That means that if the current trend continues, New York City will still see more than 30,000 small-time marijuana busts this year. But that's better than the 50,000 of a couple of years ago or the 40,000 last year.

This is in a state that decriminalized marijuana possession in 1977. The arrests occur because possession in public view is not decriminalized, and for years, the NYPD followed a practice of police directing people to produce what they were carrying, then charging them with misdemeanor possession instead of citing them for the civil offense of possession.

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly issued a memo in fall 2011 directing the force to stop arresting people for that, which undoubtedly accounts for some of the decline. Increased public scrutiny of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy, which saw some 600,000 people a year searched -- the vast majority of them young people of color -- has probably also played a role in forcing the numbers down.

Earlier this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that people arrested for small-time possession would no longer be sent to Central Booking, where they typically spend 24 hours before being released, but would instead be given a desk appearance ticket. That move reduced the pain somewhat, but not the arrest numbers.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has proposed decriminalizing possession in public view. If that law had been in effect last year, 39,257 of the 40,661 pot possession arrests in 2012 would have gone up in smoke.

New York City, NY
United States

As NYC Pot Busts Continue, New York Punts on Marijuana Reform

People -- almost all of them young people of color -- are being arrested at the rate of a thousand a week in New York City for marijuana possession "in public view," but although a legislative fix was in sight this week, the state's political establishment couldn't come to an agreement on it. Instead, the legislature is going on vacation.

The New York City "in public view" arrests violate the spirit of the Empire State's 1977 marijuana decriminalization law, which made possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense, not a criminal one. They typically occur when the NYPD stops and frisks someone, then either reaches into his pockets or belongings or intimidates the detainee into pulling out his biggie himself and then charges him with the criminal misdemeanor of possession "in public view."

Through-out the legislative session, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Senate and Assembly leaders talked about fixing the situation as part of the budget process. During his State of the State address, Cuomo had called for decriminalizing the possession of up to 15 grams "in public view," but with smoking in public remaining a misdemeanor. But on Thursday, Cuomo and the legislative leadership announced they had reached a final deal on the budget, one that didn't include marijuana law reform.

That doesn't mean decriminalization reform is dead this year -- the session will resume after a three-week hiatus -- but it is certainly delayed and possibly derailed without having the impetus of the budget agreement behind it. In either case, legislators and community activists blasted the leadership for punting on the issue while the arrests (and the costs) mount by the day.

"I am gravely disappointed that this budget failed to enact justice for the more than 44,000 individuals arrested last year based on a flawed law. Not only does allowing these arrests directly impact the lives of individuals and their communities, they are a gross misappropriation of city and state resources, and a waste of officer manpower that can be spent on more pressing law enforcement matters," said Assemblyman Karim Camara, Chair of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus. "Changing this flawed law has the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, NYC Police Commissioner Kelly, the District Attorneys of the five boroughs, and Buffalo and Nassau and Albany counties, the Police Benevolent Association and major law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Yet politics trumped the policy that would be best for New York City and our state."

"This is an issue that cannot wait. Our tens of thousands of youth arrested annually under unfair practices shouldn't have to wait," said Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez. "They deserve better -- they deserve justice and equality. And they deserve it now. We need to end this policy that has plagued our communities for too long  and make public view possession a violation."

"Why is it acceptable to kick the can down the road when it comes to protecting the constitutional rights of young Black and Latino New Yorkers?" asked Alfredo Carrasquillo, civil rights community organizer for VOCAL-NY. "Getting this done is a test for the political leadership in Albany that right now they are failing. It's time to stop delaying justice when it comes to ending racially biased and costly marijuana arrests."

Since 2002, nearly 500,000 thousand people have been arrested in New York  for marijuana possession -- the vast majority of those arrests, 440,000, took place in New York City. Last year alone in the city, there were nearly 40,000 such arrests, far exceeding the total marijuana arrests in the city between 1981 and 1995. The cost to taxpayers is $75 million a year, and over $600 million in the last decade. A report released earlier this week found that the NYPD had spent one million hours making these arrests over the past decade.

"Behind the one million police hours spent arresting young Black and Latino men is the shameful truth of 21st Century racism. These are unlawful, racially biased arrests, plain and simple. We need our elected officials to stand up for civil rights for all people" said Chino Hardin, Field Coordinator and Trainer with the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions.

Albany, NY
United States

NYPD Facing Double-Barreled Challenge to Marijuana Practices [FEATURE]

There has been a double-barreled challenge this week to the NYPD and its heavy-handed policing. On the one hand, the department and the city are being sued in federal court over their stop-and-frisk program, which is aimed predominantly at young men of color. On the other, the NYPD is facing the glare of publicity over a new report that contends it has wasted as much as a million man-hours over the past ten years arresting low-level marijuana offenders.

March 2012 protest of NYC stop and frisk violations
Under the stop-and-frisk program, which the city touts as a crime-fighting effort, more than 531,000 people were stopped last year and nearly five million in the past decade. Some were stopped only for questioning, some had their bags or backpacks searched, some were subjected to full pat-down searches. Only 10% of those stops resulted in arrests -- including arrests for public marijuana possession after police tricked or intimidated people into pulling out their baggies (possession is otherwise decriminalized in the state) -- and only a tiny number resulted in the seizure of weapons.

The massive number of annual stop-and-frisks, five times the number a couple of decades ago, raises questions itself. But who is being stopped-and-frisked is raising even more questions and concerns. While blacks make up a quarter of the city's population, they accounted for 51% of all stop-and-frisk encounters, being stopped at a rate twice what would be expected with color-blind enforcement. Whites, on the other hand, make up 44% of the population, but accounted for only 11% of stop-and-frisk encounters.

Many of the stop-and-frisks are illegal and the enforcement is racially biased, argued attorneys in the class action lawsuit in federal court this week. In the case, which began Monday, attorneys for the plaintiffs -- people who were subjected to stop-and-frisk searches -- are seeking a court-appointed monitor to oversee changes in police practices.

They are not seeking to ban stop-and-frisk searches because they have been found legal. But US District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, who has expressed deep concerns over the tactic in previous rulings, could order reforms. The trial could last for up to a month.

NYPD is doing illegal stops and must reform its practices, said Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Darius Charney, who is representing the plaintiffs. The stops are "arbitrary, unnecessary, and unconstitutional" and a "frightening and degrading experience" for "thousands, if not millions" of New Yorkers, Charney argued. He said plaintiffs will present "powerful testimonial and statistical evidence" that residents are stopped for no good reason.

On Monday, the first plaintiff witnesses took the stand. Devin Almonor, 16, the son of a police officer, testified that he was stopped when he was 13, handcuffed and thrown against an unmarked police car as he made his way home. David Floyd, now a 33-year-old medical student, testified that he was stopped twice without cause.

Attorneys for the city responded that in a city that large, large numbers of stop-and-frisks should not be unexpected and that the NYPD went where the crime was.

"The New York Police Department is fully committed to policing within the boundaries of the law," said Heidi Grossman, an attorney for the city. "Crime is not distributed evenly across the city. Police are given an awesome responsibility, one of which is to bring crime down and keep people safe."

Given those awesome responsibilities, a new report from the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Arrest Research Project is raising eyebrows. The report's main finding is clear from its title: One Million Police Hours: Making 440,000 Marijuana Possession Arrests in New York City, 2002-2012. The report was authored by CUNY sociology professor Dr. Harry Levine, an expert on marijuana possession arrests, at the request of members of the city council and the state legislature.

While marijuana possession offenders typically faced only fines once they had their day in court, the report found that the arrests themselves inflicted immediate pain. Those 440,000 arrests resulted in five million hours of police custody, an average of more than 10 hours per person of being held in the city's notorious holding cells, often overnight.

"We cannot afford to continue arresting tens of thousands of youth every year for low-level marijuana possession," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, civil rights organizer with VOCAL-NY. "We can't afford it in terms of the negative effect it has on the future prospects of our youth and we can't afford in terms of police hours. It's shocking that the same mayor who has been taking money away from youth programs and cutting other social services, is wasting tens of millions of dollars locking youth up through the NYPD's marijuana arrests crusade. We need legislative action to fix this madness."

"This report shows that people arrested for marijuana possession spend an average of 12-18 hours, just in police custody, and the vast majority of those arrested are young Black and Latino men from seven to ten neighborhoods in NYC," said Chino Hardin, field coordinator and trainer with the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions. "This is not just a crisis, but a frontline civil rights issue facing urban communities of color in the 21st century. We are calling on Governor Cuomo to do the right thing, and exercise the moral and political will to address this injustice."

While Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly last fall announced changes it how the NYPD processes marijuana arrests and the number of pot possession busts have begun to decline slightly, advocates are calling on the legislature and the governor to change the state's 1977 decriminalization law to remove law enforcement's "in public view" loophole, the provision NYPD has used to great effect.

"For years, New Yorkers from across the state have organized and marched and rallied, demanding an end to these outrageous arrests. And now we learn that the police have squandered one million hours to make racially biased, costly, and unlawful marijuana possession arrests. This is scandalous," said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "I’m sure we can all think of more effective things for the police to spend their time on -- imagine if NYPD committed one million hours to working with communities to stop gun violence or to pursue unsolved serious crimes. We stand with the caucus and other leaders in Albany -- both Democrats and Republicans -- in demanding reform. The hour of change is upon us, and reform is long, long overdue."

Whether it is the massive stop-and-frisk policing program or the practice of turning marijuana possession tickets into misdemeanor arrests complete with post-booking jail time and criminal records, NYPD is coming under increasing scrutiny and criticism..

New York City, NY
United States

NYPD Marijuana Arrests Scandal Blows Up Again

March 2012 protest of NYC stop and frisk violations
A front page story on The Huffington Post reported on another New York marijuana arrests report by our friend Prof. Harry Levine, this one with Loren Siegel (formerly of ACLU) and DPA's Gabriel Sayegh. It's the best one yet, or at a minimum the title is the best one yet:

"NYPD Spent 1 Million Hours Making 440,000 Marijuana Possession Arrests Over Last Decade"
 

Many of those hours involved overtime pay too. It really sums up the stupidity of it all, in a pretty special way. (The injustices were addressed last week.)

Also, there's a lawsuit, and a judge told NYPD to stop "stop and frisk" arrests in the meanwhile. (But have they?) And Gov. Cuomo continues to push for full decrim to plug the "open view" loophole officers have abused to make all these arrests.

Phil is working on a story for the Chronicle, but there are some links in the meanwhile.

Location: 
New York City, NY
United States

Look Out, New York, It's Credico For Mayor! [FEATURE]

New York City has earned itself the sobriquet of Marijuana Arrest Capital of the World, with tens of thousands of minor pot possession arrests every year -- mostly of young men of color -- generated in good part by the city's equally infamous stop-and-frisk policing, again aimed primarily at the city's young and non-white residents. There's a man running an outsider campaign for the mayor's office there this year who wants to end all that.

Randy Credico during 2010 Senate campaign
Veteran Big Apple civil rights, social justice, Occupy Wall Street (OWS), and drug reform activist Randy Credico, who also doubles as a professional comedian, is mounting an insurgent campaign for the Democratic Party mayoral nomination, and he wants to end the city's drug war and a whole lot more, and he wants to do it now.

The inventively funny, yet deadly serious, agitprop artist has an ambitious 17-point program for his first day in office, with promises that range from going after "the biggest criminals in our city" -- the Wall Street bankers -- and reforming the city's tax code to favor the poor to rolling back privatization of city schools and reforming various city agencies.

But just beneath banksters and taxes is a vow to begin reining in the NYPD by firing Police Commissioner Ray Kelly (to be replaced with Frank Serpico) and "abolishing the NYPD’s unconstitutional policies of racial profiling, stop and frisk, domestic spying, entrapment, and its infamous (albeit unadmitted) 'quota system.'"

Central to that policing reform plank, Credico says, is reclassifying the smoking and carrying of marijuana as no longer an arrestable offense. He also vows to fire any officer who lies or perjures himself on the stand, and to bar the use of "no-knock" warrants and stun grenades "except in the case of legitimate terrorist attack."

And he wants to replace the city's Special Narcotics Office with a Harm Reduction Office, whose leadership he has offered to Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann. He also vows to shut down the Rikers Island prison and turn it into a treatment center and education facility with a state of the art library, and to nominate law professor Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-blindness, to run it.

That's quite a tall order for a first day in office, but Credico says he's up for it.

"I plan to stay up for 24 hours and get all that stuff done," he told the Chronicle.

Of course, first he has to win the Democratic Party nomination and then win the general election, and that's a pretty tall order, too. There is a bevy of candidates (polling data at the link as well) running for a shot at the prestigious post, and he is facing stiff establishment opposition in the primary, most notably from Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and the as yet officially undeclared city council Speaker Christine Quinn, who leads the other Democrats in early polls, but is in a close race with "undecided."

The Republican race includes a handful of announced or potential candidates led by former Metropolitan Transit Authority head Joseph Lhota (who still trails "undecided" by a large margin) and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, who is as yet unannounced. The Libertarians may also field a candidate this year, possibly former "Manhattan madam" and gubernatorial candidate Kristin Davis, and we can't forget the Rent Is Too Damn High Party, either.

"The GOP has a rich guy who just jumped in, and the Democrats have a six-pack of hacks, all getting money from the real estate interests and Wall Street and none of whom will talk about the issues," Credico explained. "The Democrats are all doing the Schumer act -- just talking about the middle class, not the poor, the homeless, the division between the rich and poor, not about drug policy. This city is virtually a police state right now."

Credico has a remedy for that: Elect him.

"I will get rid of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who is a combination of J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph Fouche, Napoleon's dreaded head of the secret police. Everyone is afraid of him. He's got the Red Squads going; they were infiltrating groups at Occupy Wall Street. Kelly is doing all these joint operations with the feds under the guise of fighting terrorism, and this city is crawling with undercover cops -- FBI, DEA, AFT, all running joint task forces with the NYPD. They've foiled 14 plots, all hatched by the NYPD. Ray Kelly has way too much power," the veteran activist said flatly.

"There is a lot of money not only in the prison industrial complex, but also the police industrial complex," Credico noted. "They have asset forfeiture and lots of new schemes, tons of undercover agents, who are really there to beat up on the black community. They infiltrate, demonize, and destroy lives, and this has to stop."

Credico has been active in the Occupy Wall Street moving, having been arrested five times by the NYPD, but before that, he was active in the city's minority communities for years, working to reform the Rockefeller drug laws with the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice (in between stints flying out to Tulia, Texas, to deal with the bogus mass arrests of black men on drug charges there), and fighting stop-and-frisk. He currently is taking time out of his days to attend hearings in the criminal trial of the NYPD officer who shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Ramarley Graham in his own bathroom as he was flushing a bag of weed down the toilet.

"I go to every one of the court dates and sit right next to his mother," he said. "This cop invaded Ramarley's house and shot him in the head for weed, but it's not an isolated incident. No cops go to jail for killing a black person, but a spit on a cop and you can go to jail for years. This is just one cop -- and he's like the Lt. Calley of the NYPD. [Editor's Note: Calley was the sole US Army officer convicted of a crime in the Vietnam War My Lai massacre.] It's not an isolated incident; it's the policy, the same policy that killed Ramarley Graham and Sean Bell and Amador Diallou. So many people have been killed by the NYPD, and it's not just the guys on the street; it's a brutal force."

Marijuana could also be a wedge issue for him, Credico said.

"I'm a committed pot smoker, and I think it should be legal, and I'm the only candidate saying it should be legal. Of course, it's up to the state legislature to do that, but I would direct the NYPD not to enforce those laws and particularly not to arrest anyone."

Under current state law, pot possession is decriminalized, but beginning with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the NYPD had a policy of turning what should have been tickets for possession into misdemeanors by either reaching in someone's pocket and removing the baggie or intimidating the person into revealing it himself, thus elevating the offense from an infraction to the misdemeanor of "public possession." Under increasing pressure over the tactic, Commissioner Kelly last year issued an order for it to stop, and arrests have declined somewhat, but still remain at unacceptably high levels.

In 2011, there were some 50,000 marijuana possession arrests in the city, nearly 80% of them of people of color. Nearly one-quarter (12,000) were youth aged 16 to 19, and of those, 94% had no prior criminal records.

And it's not just marijuana, Credico said.

"There should be no more prosecutions for drug possession," he said. "They should be going after the real criminals, the guys on Wall Street. They don't have to go up to Harlem and Washington Heights, the real big barracudas are right down here."

The city's criminal justice system is rotten to the core, he said.

"This is like Tulia, this is like the South," he moaned. "The criminal justice system here is a black box where blacks and Latinos go in and disappear into the penal system. The cops are white, the judges are white, the prosecutors are white -- only the Bronx has a rainbow coalition of prosecutors -- the rest are white, and they're going after black people in this city."

Many of those busted ended up in Rikers Island or the Tombs, often after first spending hours or days crammed into precinct holding cells.

"Rikers Island is like Alcatraz for poor people on minor drug offenses," said Credico. "It's all Mickey Mouse; there's no Hannibal Lectors there. They need to turn it into a university for poor people. And no one is talking about the Tombs. I've been there. There are lots of junkies in there going through withdrawals, filthy toilets, people penned in like cattle. No one will talk about that, or about the hundreds of precincts with their holding cells."

Unsurprisingly, Credico doesn't think much of his establishment opposition.

"Christine Quinn is Bloomberg in drag wearing a red wig," he declared, "and de Blasio supported stop-and-frisk. He was also Hillary's hit man when she was running for the Senate, and derailed Grandpa Munster Al Lewis's campaign then."

Lhota, who has recently made noises about legalizing marijuana, "looks like a weed head," Credico snorted. "But I actually smoke it."

Now, Credico has to go through the process of qualifying as a Democratic candidate, smiting his foes within the party, and then taking on the Republican challenger in the general election. His first official campaign task will be to complete a month-long signature-gathering drive in late spring to qualify for the primary.

"I'll be on talk shows -- people all over the place are asking for interviews -- making some ads and some YouTube videos, and they'll be interesting and funny. It will be a very entertaining campaign. We have buttons coming out soon, we have the web site, there are people who will be putting ads in the Nation," he explained.

"Drug reformers are interested in my campaign, and I've got tons of volunteers from the stop-and-frisk campaigns and people from OWS," he said. "I'm getting a lot of attention right now."

Credico, of course, is a long-shot, but even if he doesn't become the next mayor of New York, to the degree that his campaign shines a light on the problems in the city's criminal justice system and forces other candidates to address them, he will be judged a success.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

New York City, NY
United States

The Top Ten Drug Policy Stories of 2012 [FEATURE]

In some ways, 2012 has been a year of dramatic, exciting change in drug policy, as the edifice of global drug prohibition appears to crumble before our eyes. In other ways it is still business as usual in the drug war. Marijuana prohibition is now mortally wounded, but there were still three-quarters of a million pot arrests last year. The American incarceration mania appears to be running its course, but drug arrests continue to outnumber any other category of criminal offense. There is a rising international clamor for a new drug paradigm, but up until now, it's just talk.

The drug prohibition paradigm is trembling, but it hasn't collapsed yet -- we are on the cusp of even more interesting times. Below, we look at the biggest drug policy stories of 2012 and peer a bit into the future:

1. Colorado and Washington Legalize Marijuana!

Voters in Colorado and Washington punched an enormous and historic hole in the wall of marijuana prohibition in November. While Alaska has for some years allowed limited legal possession in the privacy of one's home, thanks to the privacy provisions of the state constitution, the November elections marked the first time voters in any state have chosen to legalize marijuana. This is an event that has made headlines around the world, and for good reason -- it marks the repudiation of pot prohibition in the very belly of the beast.

And it isn't going away. The federal government may or may not be able to snarl efforts by the two states to tax and regulate legal marijuana commerce, but few observers think it can force them to recriminalize marijuana possession. It's now legal to possess up to an ounce in both states and to grow up to six plants in Colorado and -- barring a sudden reversal of political will in Washington or another constitutional amendment in Colorado -- it's going to stay that way. The votes in Colorado and Washington mark the beginning of the end for marijuana prohibition.

2. Nationally, Support for Marijuana Legalization Hits the Tipping Point

If Colorado and Washington are the harbingers of change, the country taken as a whole is not far behind, at least when it comes to public opinion. All year, public opinion polls have showed support for marijuana legalization hovering right around 50%, in line with last fall's Gallup poll that showed steadily climbing support for legalization and support at 50% for the first time. A Gallup poll this month showed a 2% drop in support, down to 48%, but that's within the margin of error for the poll, and it's now a downside outlier.

Four other polls released this month
demonstrate a post-election bump for legalization sentiment. Support for legalization came in at 47%, 51%, 54%, and 57%, including solid majority support in the West and Northeast. The polls also consistently find opposition to legalization strongest among older voters, while younger voters are more inclined to free the weed.

As Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown put it after his survey came up with 51% support for legalization, "This is the first time Quinnipiac University asked this question in its national poll so there is no comparison from earlier years. It seems likely, however, that given the better than 2-1 majority among younger voters, legalization is just a matter of time."

Caravan for Peace vigil, Brownsville, Texas, August 2012
3. Global Rejection of the Drug War

International calls for alternatives to drug prohibition continued to grow ever louder this year. Building on the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the voices for reform took to the stage at global venues such as the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April, the International AIDS Conference in Washington in July, and at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

While calls for a new paradigm came from across the globe, including commissions in Australia and the United Kingdom, this was the year of the Latin American dissidents. With first-hand experience with the high costs of enforcing drug prohibition, regional leaders including Colombian President Santos, Guatemalan President Perez Molina, Costa Rican President Chinchilla, and even then-Mexican President Calderon all called this spring for serious discussion of alternatives to the drug war, if not outright legalization. No longer was the critique limited to former presidents.

That forced US President Obama to address the topic at the Summit of the Americas and at least acknowledge that "it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good in certain places" before dismissing legalization as a policy option. But the clamor hasn't gone away -- instead, it has only grown louder -- both at the UN in the fall and especially since two US states legalized marijuana in November.

While not involved in the regional calls for an alternative paradigm, Uruguayan President Mujica made waves with his announcement of plans to legalize the marijuana commerce there (possession was never criminalized). That effort appears at this writing to have hit a bump in the road, but the proposal and the reaction to it only added to the clamor for change.

4. Mexico's Drug War: The Poster Child for Drug Legalization

Mexico's orgy of prohibition-related violence continues unabated with its monstrous death toll somewhere north of 50,000 and perhaps as high as 100,000 during the Calderon sexenio, which ended this month. Despite all the killings, despite Calderon's strategy of targeting cartel capos, despite the massive deployment of the military, and despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid for the military campaign, the flow of drugs north and guns and money south continues largely unimpeded and Mexico -- and now parts of Central America, as well -- remain in the grip of armed criminals who vie for power with the state itself.

With casualty figures now in the range of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars and public safety and security in tatters, Calderon's misbegotten drug war has become a lightning rod for critics of drug prohibition, both at home and around the world. In the international discussion of alternatives to the status quo -- and why we need them -- Mexico is exhibit #1.

And there's no sign things are going to get better any time soon. While Calderon's drug war may well have cost him and his party the presidency (and stunningly returned it to the old ruling party, the PRI, only two elections after it was driven out of office in disgrace), neither incoming Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto nor the Obama administration are showing many signs they are willing to take the bold, decisive actions -- like ending drug prohibition -- that many serious observers on all sides of the spectrum say will be necessary to tame the cartels.

The Mexican drug wars have also sparked a vibrant and dynamic civil society movement, the Caravan for Peace and Justice, led by poet and grieving father Javier Sicilia. After crisscrossing Mexico last year, Sicilia and his fellow Mexican activists crossed the border this summer for a three-week trek across the US, where their presence drew even more attention to the terrible goings on south of the border.

5. Medical Marijuana Continues to Spread, Though the Feds Fight Back

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have now legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and while there was only one new one this year, this has been a year of back-filling. Medical marijuana dispensaries have either opened or are about to open in a number of states where it has been legal for years but delayed by slow or obstinate elected officials (Arizona, New Jersey, Washington, DC) or in states that more recently legalized it (Massachusetts).

None of the newer medical marijuana states are as wide open as California, Colorado, or Montana (until virtual repeal last year), as with each new state, the restrictions seem to grow tighter and the regulation and oversight more onerous and constricting. Perhaps that will protect them from the tender mercies of the Justice Department, which, after two years of benign neglect, changed course last year, undertaking concerted attacks on dispensaries and growers in all three states. That offensive was ongoing throughout 2012, marked by federal prosecutions and medical marijuana providers heading to federal prison in Montana. While federal prosecutions have been less resorted to in California and Colorado, federal raids and asset forfeiture threat campaigns have continued, resulting in the shuttering of dozens of dispensaries in Colorado and hundreds in California. There is no sign of a change of heart at the Justice Department, either.

6. The Number of Drug War Prisoners is Decreasing

The Bureau of Justice Statistics announced recently that the number of people in America's state and federal prisons had declined for the second year in a row at year's end 2011. The number and percentage of drug war prisoners is declining, too. A decade ago, the US had nearly half a million people behind bars on drug charges; now that number has declined to a still horrific 330,000 (not including people doing local jail time). And while a decade ago, the percentage of people imprisoned for drug charges was somewhere between 20% and 25% of all prisoners, that percentage has now dropped to 17%.

That decline is mostly attributable to sentencing reforms in the states, which, unlike the federal government, actually have to balance their budgets. Especially as economic hard times kicked in in 2008, spending scarce taxpayer resources on imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders became fiscally and politically less tenable. The passage of the Proposition 36 "three strikes" sentencing reform in California in November, which will keep people from being sentenced to up to life in prison for trivial third offenses, including drug possession, is but the latest example of the trend away from mass incarceration for drug offenses.

The federal government is the exception. While state prison populations declined last year (again), the federal prison population actually increased by 3.1%. With nearly 95,000 drug offenders doing federal time, the feds alone account for almost one-third of all drug war prisoners.

President Obama could exercise his pardon power by granting clemency to drug war prisoners, but it is so far a power he has been loathe to exercise. An excellent first candidate for presidential clemency would be Clarence Aaron, the now middle-aged black man who has spent the past two decades behind bars for his peripheral role in a cocaine deal, but activists in California and elsewhere are also calling for Obama to free some of the medical marijuana providers now languishing in federal prisons. The next few days would be the time for him to act, if he is going to act this year.

7. But the Drug War Juggernaut Keeps On Rolling, Even if Slightly Out of Breath

NYC "stop and frisk" protest of mass marijuana arrests
According to annual arrest data released this summer by the FBI, more than 1.53 million people were arrested on drug charges last year, nearly nine out of ten of them for simple possession, and nearly half of them on marijuana charges. The good news is that is a decline in drug arrests from 2010. That year, 1.64 million people were arrested on drug charges, meaning the number of overall drug arrests declined by about 110,000 last year. The number of marijuana arrests is also down, from about 850,000 in 2010 to about 750,000 last year.

But that still comes out to a drug arrest every 21 seconds and a marijuana arrest every 42 seconds, and no other single crime category generated as many arrests as drug law violations. The closest challengers were larceny (1.24 million arrests), non-aggravated assaults (1.21 million), and DWIs (1.21 million). All violent crime arrests combined totaled 535,000, or slightly more than one-third the number of drug arrests.

The war on drugs remains big business for law enforcement and prosecutors.

8. And So Does the Call to Drug Test Public Benefits Recipients

Oblivious to constitutional considerations or cost-benefit analyses, legislators (almost always Republican) in as many as 30 states introduced bills that would have mandated drug testing for welfare recipients, people receiving unemployment benefits, or, in a few cases, anyone receiving any public benefit, including Medicaid recipients. Most would have called for suspicionless drug testing, which runs into problems with that pesky Fourth Amendment requirement for a search warrant or probable cause to undertake a search, while some attempted to get around that obstacle by only requiring drug testing upon suspicion. But that suspicion could be as little as a prior drug record or admitting to drug use during intake screening.

Still, when all the dust had settled, only three states -- Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee -- actually passed drug testing bills, and only Georgia's called for mandatory suspicionless drug testing of welfare recipients. Bill sponsors may have been oblivious, but other legislators and stakeholders were not. And the Georgia bill is on hold, while the state waits to see whether the federal courts will strike down the Florida welfare drug testing bill on which it is modeled. That law is currently blocked by a federal judge's temporary injunction.

It wasn't just Republicans. In West Virginia, Democratic Gov. Roy Tomblin used an executive order to impose drug testing on applicants to the state's worker training program. (This week came reports that only five of more than 500 worker tests came back positive.) And the Democratic leadership in the Congress bowed before Republican pressures and okayed giving states the right to impose drug testing requirements on some unemployment recipients in return for getting an extension of unemployment benefits.

This issue isn't going away. Legislators in several states, including Indiana, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia have already signaled they will introduce similar bills next year, and that number is likely to increase as solons around the country return to work.

9. The US Bans New Synthetic Drugs

In July, President Obama signed a bill banning the synthetic drugs known popularly as "bath salts" and "fake weed." The bill targeted 31 specific synthetic stimulant, cannabinoid, and hallucinogenic compounds. Marketed under brand names like K2 and Spice for synthetic cannabinoids and under names like Ivory Wave, among others, for synthetic stimulants, the drugs have become increasingly popular in recent years. The drugs had previously been banned under emergency action by the DEA.

The federal ban came after more than half the states moved against the new synthetics, which have been linked to a number of side effects ranging from the inconvenient (panic attacks) to the life-threatening. States and localities continue to move against the new drugs, too.

While the federal ban demonstrates that the prohibitionist reflex is still strong, what is significant is the difficulty sponsors had in getting the bill passed. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) put a personal hold on the bill until mandatory minimum sentencing requirements were removed and also argued that such efforts were the proper purview of the states, not Washington. And for the first time, there were a substantial number of Congress members voting "no" on a bill to create a new drug ban.

10. Harm Reduction Advances by Fits and Starts, At Home and Abroad

Harm reduction practices -- needle exchanges, safer injection sites, and the like -- continued to expand, albeit fitfully, in both the US and around the globe. Faced with a rising number of prescription pain pill overdoses in the US -- they now outnumber auto accident fatalities -- lawmakers in a number of states have embraced "911 Good Samaritan" laws granting immunity from prosecution. Since New Mexico passed the first such law in 2007, nine others have followed. Sadly, Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the New Jersey bill this year.

Similarly, the use of the opioid antagonist naloxone, which can reverse overdoses and restore normal breathing in minutes, also expanded this year. A CDC report this year that estimated it had saved 10,000 lives will only help spread the word.

There has been movement internationally as well this year, including in some unlikely places. Kenya announced in June that it was handing out 50,000 syringes to injection drug users in a bid to reduce the spread of AIDS, and Colombia announced in the fall plans to open safe consumption rooms for cocaine users in Bogota. That's still a work in progress.

Meanwhile, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs unanimously supported a resolution calling on the World Health Organization and other international bodies to promote measures to reduce overdose deaths, including the expanded use of naloxone; Greece announced it was embracing harm reduction measures, including handing out needles and condoms, to fight AIDS; long-awaited Canadian research called for an expansion of safe injection sites to Toronto and Ottawa; and Denmark first okayed safe injection sites in June, then announced it is proposing that heroin in pill form be made available to addicts. Denmark is one of a handful of European countries that provide maintenance doses of heroin to addicts, but to this point, the drug was only available for injection. France, too, announced it was going ahead with safe injection sites, which could be open by the time you read this.  

This has been another year of slogging through the mire, with some inspiring victories and some oh-so-hard-fought battles, not all of which we won. But after a century of global drug prohibition, the tide appears to be turning, not least here in the US, prohibition's most powerful proponent. There is a long way to go, but activists and advocates can be forgiven if they feel like they've turned a corner. Now, we can put 2012 to bed and turn our eyes to the year ahead.

Washington Police and Prosecutors Winding Down Marijuana Possession Cases

Dominic Holden reports for The Stranger:

Prosecutors won't charge marijuana possession cases anymore, starting December 6th:

Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff for the King County Prosecuting Attorney, says his office is trying to figure out how if they will charge the marijuana possession cases are pending. "We haven't figured out how we will handle all of those cases," he says. But assuming the possession portion of the law is not federally challenged -- and no credible lawyer thinks the possession portion can be -- Goodhew says that in future cases, "we cannot charge someone under state statute."
 

...and police won't make possession arrests:

Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for the Seattle Police Department, says this: "For us, the law has changed, and people can expect no enforcement for possession."
 

Or to put it another way: Yesterday Really Happened.

FBI Reports More Than 1.5 Million Drug Arrests Last Year

According to annual arrest data released Monday by the FBI, more than 1.53 million people were arrested on drug charges last year, nearly nine out of ten of them for simple possession, and nearly half of them on marijuana charges.

one of 1.53 million drug arrests last year (wikimedia.org)
The data comes from the agency's Uniform Crime Reporting Program and it shows a decline in drug arrests from 2010. That year, 1.64 million people were arrested on drug charges, meaning the number of overall drug arrests declined by about 110,000 last year. The number of marijuana arrests is also down, from about 850,000 in 2010 to about 750,000 last year.

That still comes out to a drug arrest every 21 seconds and a marijuana arrest every 42 seconds, according to Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), which took the release of the report as an opportunity to criticize 40 years of failed war on drugs policies.

"Even excluding the costs involved for later trying and then imprisoning these people, taxpayers are spending between one and a half to three billion dollars a year just on the police and court time involved in making these arrests," said Neill Franklin, a retired Baltimore narcotics cop who now heads LEAP. "That’s a lot of money to spend for a practice that four decades of unsuccessful policies have proved does nothing to reduce the consumption of drugs. Three states have measures on the ballot that would take the first step in ending this failed war by legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana. I hope they take this opportunity to guide the nation to a more sensible approach to drug use."

No other single crime category generated as many arrests as drug law violations. The closest challengers were larceny (1.24 million arrests), non-aggravated assaults (1.21 million), and DWIs (1.21 million). All violent crime arrests combined totaled 535,000, or slightly more than one-third the number of drug arrests.

Washington, DC
United States

Drug War Snapshot: Ocean City, Maryland

Ocean City, Maryland, is a popular East Coast beach vacation destination, but it's also the scene of a major push for marijuana arrests, according to the Bethany Beach Wave. Police there have made 615 drug possession arrests there so far this year, and a whopping 85% of them are for pot possession.

Ocean City boardwalk (wikimedia.org)
Police said they didn't want such a high level of drug busts, but then said they were a high priority.

"Nobody wants to see all those drugs arrests, but it ultimately makes Ocean City a safer place to get those drugs off the street," police spokeswoman Jessica Waters said. "Drug arrests have been high on the priority list for officers, whether it be on a traffic stop or on the Boardwalk."

The arrests run in tandem with the high season for tourism, when tens of thousands of people flood into the seaside resort to escape the summer heat. Last year, according to the department's annual report, police made 160 drug possession arrests between January and May, but the number skyrocketed to 473 in the month of June 2011, declined to 284 in July and 154 in August before falling to the double or single digits for the rest of the year.

Ocean City police made a total of 3,829 arrests last year, 1,166 on drug charges. The department doesn't specify, but the majority of those were presumably for pot possession. The number of drug arrests has climbed rather remarkably in recent years, averaging under 800 for 2005 through 2008, before climbing to 839 in 2009, 933 in 2010, and more than 1,100 last year.

Ocean City has about five times the number of police per capita as other Maryland departments, at least in part because of its high number of visitors, but it also has a higher crime index than the US national average. While police have prioritized drug arrests in general and marijuana arrests in particular, they have apparently not been able to get a handle on their real crime problems.

And for marijuana consumers, well, there are other beaches on the East Coast.

Ocean City, MD
United States

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