Reentry/Rehabilitation

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Marijuana used for methadone withdrawal in Vancouver program

A new program based in Vancouver,B.C. Canada is using marijuana as an aid in with drawing from methadone.The marijuana is bud placed in capsules and rated in strengths from 30-100 mgms.The patient is brought down in methadone dosage as always.The difference is that the patient is given capsules of marijuana to be taken at bedtime to ease any discomfort from the drop in dose.The one person I know that has gone through the program successfully is off the methadone and expressed that the discomfort was minimal and that she:"slept through the whole thing".There were a few(4)days of minor discomfort but the marijuana eliminated the long nights that the lessening of a methadone dosage can cause and the weeks of sleepless nights following the last dose of methadone were non existent.The person in question went from a dosage of 75 mgms a day to nothing in just under two months.This after a 6 year addiction to methadone and many years on the street doing heroin and cocaine.I am as aware as anyone that the major factor in any of these success stories is that the person in question wants to quit and is ready to do so.That being said,this was a really easy withdrawal and I was as amazed as anyone that marijuana was in any way effective in easing the pain of the experience.This is a major improvement over the clonidine that was used when I was imprisoned the last few times.In the early seventies the prison(Okalla) used to use methadone to withdraw addicts from heroin.It was a painful experience but far less harmful than the alternative.Then the doctor that was sympathetic to addicts retired(he had delayed his retirement long into his 70's as he knew as soon as he left the institution would revert back to the cold turkey that the other B.C. prisons used)and sure enough the medical staff decided that the heroin was so diluted that methadone was no longer required.Perhaps one day they will take a page from this program and use marijuana,at least as a sleeping aid while kicking a habit.I always felt that an addict did more time in the first month than other inmates did in a year.Lets hope that this program is given the attention it deserves.I'm afraid that as soon as the ruling against federal drug laws is over that the Harper government will pretend that this and other programs that are showing success will be stopped and filed away in some dusty corridor in Ottawa,never to be heard from again.They will have a tough time explaining why a program that actually got someone off methadone with relatively little discomfort failed to inspire them but they have a long history of ignoring evidence in favor of moral doctrine.Lets hope the program has enough data to support it's continuation in spite of the conservative governments prejudices.

Your Ideas on Prison/Reentry Needed by Candidate for Georgia Governor

 

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Yesterday, we were approached at our movable art display, voter registration and information kiosk in Washington, DC by a policy advisor for a reputable candidate for governor in the state of Georgia. He wants to create a platform for his candidate that will incorporate realistic ideas for prison and re-entry improvements. If you have any ideas for him, please send them to us and we will pass them along. He particularly wants to hear from people who have had experience with the prison system/re-entry process in Georgia. Please email us at staff@prisonsfoundation.org  

 

"The Safe Streets Arts Foundation, incorporating both the Prisons Foundation and the Victims Foundation, is proud to sponsor the annual From-Prison-to-The-Stage Show at the Kennedy Center and the Prison Art Gallery at 1600 K Street. NW, Suite 501, Washington, DC, three blocks from the White House."

witherspoon 

 
Location: 
GA
United States

Feature: New York Republicans, Prosecutors in Last Minute Bid to Block Rockefeller Reform Provision

The losers in New York state's effort to reform its draconian Rockefeller drug laws, mainly district attorneys and Republican legislators, made a last-ditch effort this week to scuttle part of the reforms. But given a strong response from reform proponents, Gov. David Paterson (D), and Assembly Democrats, the effort appeared dead in the water as the week wound down.

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New York State Capitol
The brouhaha erupted over a provision in the law that allows judges the discretion to conditionally seal some nonviolent conviction records when a person has completed drug treatment. The reason for the provision is simple: To make it possible for people who have successfully undergone treatment to be able to enter the workforce without having the albatross of their nonviolent, pre-treatment drug convictions hanging around their necks.

With the Rockefeller reform law set to go into effect next week, Senate Republican minority leader Dean Skelos headlined a Monday press conference to warn that allowing judges to seal the records of "dangerous criminals" was a threat to the safety of New Yorkers. "This is one that is potentially going to kill people if it's not repealed," said Skelos (R-Rockville Centre). "This is about life and death."

"It's just mind-boggling in terms of the impact of this provision," said Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) the primary sponsor of the effort to undo the provision. "This change in our state drug laws defies all common sense because it would effectively wipe the slate clean for criminals who will face necessary criminal background checks for positions of confidence and public trust."

"It means someone convicted of selling drugs on a school yard could be hired as a teacher," Skelos added. "Someone caring for toddlers, someone running a crystal meth lab could be delivering medications to your grandmother at a nursing home. And an individual convicted of forgery or grand larceny could be handling your money at the bank or taking your application for a loan or credit card."

DAs also joined in the attack. "If you look at the list of jobs and licenses that you are going to be able to get without having your criminal drug activity revealed to a potential employer is remarkable," Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, who heads the state's district attorneys' association, told the Ithaca Journal.

Sounds pretty scary, and that scare tactic worked, at least to some degree. Senate Democrats initially wavered, saying they might take up the issue. On Wednesday, Sen. Eric Schneiderman (D-Manhattan), the Senate sponsor of the Rockefeller reform bill indicated he will try to delay the implementation of the record-sealing provision.

But on closer analysis, the Republicans' and the prosecutors' appeal to public safety appears threadbare, one might even say hypocritical, especially given that DAs have held the same power to seal conviction records for decades -- and have used it expansively with little scrutiny.

The new provision is much more transparent. Under this provision, a judge may order records to be conditionally sealed only after a person has successfully completed both a judicially-supervised drug treatment program and the court-imposed sentence for the offense, and after the judge considers, among other things, the circumstances and seriousness of the offense, the character of the defendant, his or her criminal history, and the impact of the sealing on public safety. A judge must also give the district attorney notice and an opportunity to be heard and may deny a sealing request even if the applicant has completed drug treatment.

Even while signaling he might be open to delay to discuss the provision, Schneiderman defended the bill. "A defendant should be able to go to a judge and say the prosecutor wouldn't do this for me," he said. "Now the judge can overrule the prosecutor," he added before going on to accuse the GOP of trying to "terrorize the citizenry."

If Schneiderman was intimidated by the Republican onslaught, some of his fellow Senate Democrats weren't. Senate Crime Committee Chairwoman Ruth Hassell-Thompson (D-Mount Vernon) said in a statement that the criticism "is an alarmist attitude of a few who refuse to accept the notion that many of these former addicts have served their time and proven themselves worthy of a second chance."

Nor were reform proponents taking the attack lying down. "The real issue here is not about sealing, but who gets to decide," said Gabriel Sayegh, project director with the Drug Policy Alliance. "Prosecutors have been sealing records for years, and so long as they held the discretion to seal records, they didn't mind sealing. But now that discretion has been returned to judges, the prosecutors have objections to the practice. This isn't about record sealing, which works when done right. It's about who gets to decide, and prosecutors don't want to lose control over the process."

"The right-of-center representatives and law enforcement officials, mainly DAs, are trying to make political hay out of this issue and are using fairly old-school tactics to bum rush the public into being scared," said Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, a member of the Rockefeller reform coalition Drop the Rock. "But I think our side has defended the sealing provisions very eloquently and forcefully."

"People with past criminal histories -- no matter how old or the nature of the record -- are often indefinitely denied access to many spheres of society including employment," said Anita Marton, vice president of the Legal Action Center. "This provision increases employment opportunities, so people can truly be given a second chance at succeeding in and contributing to society. This is smart policy."

"Prosecutors and some opportunistic elected officials want to set up road blocks and stigmatize people by prohibiting judges from sealing records for people who have successfully completed their drug treatment," said Anthony Papa, communications specialist at the Drug Policy Alliance, who served 12 years for a first time nonviolent drug offense. "We should be removing barriers for people who are reentering society so they can function as productive, taxpaying citizens, and access to employment is an important part of that."

By Wednesday, Gov. David Paterson (D) had weighed in, saying the law should stand as is. The reforms are aimed at giving judges discretion in diverting nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison, he said, and people who complete such programs should not be penalized when seeking work. "We feel it helps society to try to place them in homes and in jobs without putting the scar of their addiction on them," he said during a meeting with legislators to discuss the matter.

The governor's statement was on the money, said Gangi. "Sealing the records is actually a very good idea that doesn't increase the risk to public safety," he said. "People who have gone through treatment and avoided prison are going to continue to do well. We don't want to place obstacles in their path."

With Paterson standing firm and Assembly Democrats right there beside him, the issue should be dead now, said Gangi. "The Assembly Democrats won't even be considering looking at this," he said, "even if the Senate Democrats waiver. With the governor's support and if the Assembly Democrats hold the line, this is even more of a non-starter. It should be case closed, and let's move on to the next pressing matter."

My, how the mighty have fallen! Up until last year, DAs and their Republican allies in the state legislature were able to beat back reform with the clubs of fear-mongering and demagoguery. Now, they appear lonely losers, their appeals to fear scoffed at, their shrieks of discontent lost in the wind.

Criminal Justice: US Senator Introduces Bill to Create Commission for "Top-to-Bottom" Review of Criminal Justice System

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
US Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) yesterday introduced a bill that would create a commission designed to overhaul the US criminal justice system. The bill would create a commission that would have 18 months to do a top-to-bottom review of the criminal justice system and come back with concrete, wide-ranging reforms to address the nation's sky-high incarceration rate, responsd to international and domestic gang violence, and restructure the county's approach to drug policy.

"America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace," Webb said in introducing the bill. "Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness. Our failure to address this problem has caused the nation's prisons to burst their seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become more dangerous. We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives. We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration."

Opening with an all too familiar litany of ills plaguing the US criminal justice system-- skyrocketing incarceration, the imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders, the negative effects of drug prohibition -- the bill calls on the commission to make specific finding regarding:

  • Reasons for increase in the US incarceration rate compared to historical standards;
  • Incarceration and other policies in similar democratic, western countries;
  • Prison administration policies, including the availability of pre-employment training programs and career progression for guards and prison administrators;
  • Costs of current incarceration policies at the federal, state & local level;
  • The impact of gang activities, including foreign syndicates;
  • Drug policy and its impact on incarceration, crime and sentencing;
  • Policies as they relate to the mentally ill;
  • The historical role of the military in crime prevention and border security;
  • Any other area that the Commission deems relevant.

Sen. Webb is also looking for policy change recommendations on drug policy, reentry programs for ex-offenders, prison reforms, and how better to deal with international and domestic criminal organizations.

That Webb should introduce such a sweeping bill comes as little surprise given his history of interest in the field. In 2007, he led a Joint Economic Committee hearing on mass incarceration, and last year, he led another Joint Economic Committee hearing on the economic cost of drug policy, as well as returning to the theme on various other occasions.

The bill does not yet have a number.

Incarceration: Federal Judges Order California to Free Tens of Thousands of Prisoners

A panel of federal judges charged with overseeing the California prison system tentatively ruled Monday that the state must release tens of thousands of inmates from its swollen prison population to reduce overcrowding. The three-judge panel said that no other action would improve conditions so awful that inmates regularly commit suicide or die from lack of proper medical care.

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CDCR secretary Matthew Cate responds to the court order (cdcr.ca.gov/News/2009_Press_Releases/Feb_09.html)
The state must present a plan to bring inmate numbers down within two to three years, the judges said. They suggested a target of 108,000 to 121,000 inmates from the current California prison population of around 158,000. That would mean that somewhere between 36,000 and 50,000 prisoners would be freed.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Services year end 2007 report, some 34,000 drug offenders were imprisoned in the Golden State. That figure includes some 1,500 marijuana or hashish offenders.

"There are simply too many prisoners for the existing capacity," they wrote in the 10-page order. "Evidence offered at trial was overwhelmingly to the effect that overcrowding is the primary cause of the unconstitutional conditions that have been found to exist in the California prisons."

The San Francisco-based panel said it may hold more hearings before making the decision final. It suggested the state could reduce the prison population by the amount required through changes in parole and other policies without endangering the public safety.

Reducing the size of the nation's largest state prison system "could be achieved through reform measures that would not adversely affect public safety, and might well have a positive effect. This is particularly true considering that California's overcrowded prison system is itself, as the governor, as well as experts who have testified before the Court, have recognized, a public safety hazard," the judges said.

The order came quickly after the judges heard two days of closing arguments last week. The judges said they hoped to force the state to either reach a settlement with attorneys for the inmates who brought the lawsuit or to act on its own to rectify the situation. Previous negotiations had failed to achieve a settlement, leading to a two-week trial in November and December.

"Obviously, the governor and I strongly disagree with the panel's conclusions and our response will be based on how best to protect the public from a court-ordered release of inmates," said CDCR Secretary Michael Cate said in a statement.

But the judges said California largely brought the problem on itself, and that savings from reforms could help pay for reentry services for the expected flood of ex-inmates. "California, like most other states, is in the throes of an unprecedented economic crisis," the panel noted. State law enforcement, courts, and rehabilitation services are stretched tightly in the state's $42 billion budget deficit crisis.

The judges pointed out that the CDCR has projected it could save $800 to $900 million a year by sending fewer parolees back to prison on technical violations and by increasing good time for inmates who take classes and vocational programs. "It appears from these figures that the State could easily fully fund all the community rehabilitative and other programs... without expending any funds other than those regularly provided in the prisons budget," the judges wrote.

This is not a done deal yet, but we could be seeing the beginning of the end of California's massive over-incarceration binge. Too bad it's taking an intervention by the federal courts to wean the state of its addiction to mass imprisonment.

Feature: Narcs Cheer -- House Economic Stimulus Bill Would Give Byrne Grant Program $3 Billion Over Three Years

As part of the $825 billion economic stimulus bill passed by the House last week, the Democratic Party leadership and the Obama administration included $3 billion for the controversial Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program, which funds multi-agency drug task forces across the country, and $1 billion for the Community Oriented Policing (COPS) program, which will pay for thousands of additional police officers to hit the streets. Drug enforcement lobby groups are pleased, particularly about the Byrne funding, but others predict that any "stimulus" more Byrne grants might provide will be followed long-term drag on state budgets in ways going beyond the federal dollars.

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Sen. Harkin and Iowa law enforcement officials at 2004 press conference
In one of the few drug policy-related decisions made by the Bush administration that reformers could cheer, the Bush administration tried throughout its second term to reduce or eliminate funding for the Byrne grants. In so doing, it was heeding the concerns of conservative and taxpayer groups, who called the program "an ineffective and inefficient use of resources." But while the Bush administration tried to gut the program, Congress, still tied to the "tough on drugs" mentality, kept trying to restore funding, albeit at reduced levels.

The Byrne grant program, and especially its funding of the scandal-ridden multi-jurisdictional anti-drug task forces, also came in for harsh criticism from drug reform, civil rights and criminal justice groups. For these critics, the program was in dire need of reform because of incidents like the Tulia, Texas, scandal, where a Byrne-funded task force police officer managed to get 10% of the black population of the town locked up on bogus cocaine distribution charges. Scandals like Tulia showed the Byrne grant program "did more harm than good," the critics wrote in a 2006 letter demanding reform.

Of course, Tulia wasn't the only Byrne-related scandal. A 2002 report from the ACLU of Texas found 16 more scandals involving Byrne grant-funded task forces in Texas, including cases of witness tampering, falsifying of government records, fabricating evidence, false imprisonment, racial profiling, and sexual harassment. Byrne-related scandals have also occurred in other states, including the misuse of millions of dollars of grant money in Kentucky and Massachusetts, false convictions because of police perjury in Missouri, and making deals with drug offenders to drop or lower charges in exchange for cash or vehicles in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

In accord with its own budget-cutting imperatives, and in response to critics on the right and left, the Bush administration again tried to zero out the Byrne grant program in FY 2008. While the program was indeed cut from $520 million in 2007, Congress still funded it at $170 million for 2008. Now, it has folded the Byrne program and the Clinton-era COPS program into the emergency economic stimulus bill, leading to loud cheers from the law enforcement community.

"Safe communities are the foundation of a growing economy, and increased Byrne JAG funding will help state and local governments hire officers, add prosecutors and fund critical treatment and crime prevention programs," said National Criminal Justice Association President David Steingraber, executive director of the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance. "I applaud the stimulus bill proposed by the House Democrats and press Congress for its quick approval."

"This is very encouraging," said Bob Bushman, vice-president of the National Narcotics Officers Associations Coalition and a 35-year veteran of drug law enforcement in Minnesota. "We think it's a very good sign that this was included in the House bill. The House side was where we struggled in past years. Maybe now the House has listened to us and is taking our concerns more seriously," he said. "We built a broad coalition of law enforcement and drug treatment and prevention people."

Byrne money doesn't just fund the task forces, Bushman pointed out, although he conceded that's where much of the money has gone. "Byrne money goes to all 50 states, and most of them used it for the multi-jurisdictional task forces. Here in Minnesota, we split it between task forces and offender reentry programs and drug courts."

While a answer to just how much Byrne money has gone to the task forces remains buried deep in the bowels of the Justice Department -- part of the problem is that the 50 states are awarded block grants and then decide at the state level how to allocate the funds, and some states are better than others at reporting back to Justice -- observers put a low-ball figure of at least 25% going to fund them, and possibly much higher.

The task forces are needed, said Bowman. "While we are never going to arrest our way out of this, I've seen too much of the damage done by drug abuse, and we need all the help we can get," he said. "Not just for policing, but also for treatment and prevention and drug courts. We need all three pillars, and the Byrne program helps with all three."

If law enforcement was pleased, that wasn't the case with civil rights, taxpayer, and drug reform groups. They said they were disappointed in the restoration of funding under the auspices of the economic stimulus bill, and vowed to continue to try to either cut or reform the program.

"We're working on a letter to Congress about the Byrne grants right now," said Lawanda Johnson, communications director for the Justice Policy Institute, one of the organizations that had signed on to the 2006 DPA letter. "The Byrne grant program is not an effective use of funds for preserving public safety or stimulating the economy. The only way you will get an economic boost from this is if you own stock in Corrections Corporation of America," she laughed, grimly.

"With so many smart people working on the budget and the stimulus package, you would think they would understand that the states are looking to reduce their prison populations and change those policies that have jailed so many people," said Johnson. "To then turn around and have the federal government invest $4 billion in more police and more grants seems paradoxical. It's just going to jack up the spending for states and localities, and they are already struggling."

"We oppose the wasteful economic stimulus bill and we oppose the inclusion of the Byrne grants in it," said Leslie Paige, spokesperson for Citizens Against Government Waste, one of the conservative taxpayer groups that has opposed the grants for the past several years. "If there is going to be government spending, the least you can do is make sure the money is going to have a long term positive impact on the economy."

"This is disappointing, but not surprising," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This reverses Bush's cuts in the program and restores funding at even higher levels. At the same time Congress and the Obama administration are expressing great concern about racial disparities and over-incarceration, they keep trying to fund this program, which will only stimulate more arrests of more nonviolent drug offenders," Piper noted.

"The Democrats are framing this as helping in these tough economic times, but the people who will be arrested will end up in state prison, and the states will have to pay for that," Piper pointed out. "The states may well end up paying more in the long run. It's far from clear that this will stimulate the economy, but what is clear is that it will stimulate the breaking up of families and decreasing productivity and tax revenues, especially in communities already devastated by the impact of over-incarceration."

Killing funding outright is unlikely, said Piper. "I don't think there's any way we can stop this from being included because the support for it is strong and bipartisan," he said. "No one wants to go up against the police. Our real hope is that later in the year we can put some restrictions on the program, which is what we've been working on. Instead of trying to cut it, we can try to use it to encourage state and local law enforcement to change how they operate. They're so addicted to federal funding that they may do just about anything, such as documenting arrests or having performance measures."

Bushman and the rest of law enforcement aren't resting easy just yet. "The funding has to survive hearings and make it into the final appropriation," he noted. "This is not a done deal yet."

But it looks like Congress is well on the way to funding three more years of Byrne grants at $1 billion a year, the highest level of funding in years. And don't forget the 13,000 new police officers to be funded for the next three years by the COPS program. If Congress and the cops have their way, we can look forward to more drug busts, more prosecutions, more people sentenced to prison, and a greater burden on already deficit-ridden state budgets.

The White House: Obama on Drug Policy

The incoming Obama administration has posted its agenda online at the White House web site Whitehouse.gov. While neither drug policy nor criminal justice merited its own category in the Obama agenda, several of the broad categories listed do contain references to drug and crime policy and provide a strong indication of the administration's proclivities.

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But before getting into what the agenda mentions, it's worth noting what the agenda does not mention: marijuana. There is not a word about the nation's most widely used illicit drug or the nearly 900,000 arrests a year generated by marijuana prohibition. Nor, despite Obama campaign pledges, is there a word about medical marijuana or ending the DEA raids on providers in California -- which doesn't necessarily mean he will go back on his word. It could well be that the issue is seen as too marginal to be included in the broad agenda for national change. With the first raid on a medical marijuana clinic during the Obama administration hitting this very week, reformers are anxiously hoping it is only the work of Bush holdovers and not a signal about the future.

Reformers may find themselves pleased with some Obama positions, but they will be less happy with others. The Obama administration wants to reduce inequities in the criminal justice system, but it also taking thoroughly conventional positions on other drug policy issues.

But let's let them speak for themselves. Here are the relevant sections of the Obama agenda:

Under Civil Rights:

  • End Racial Profiling: President Obama and Vice President Biden will ban racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies and provide federal incentives to state and local police departments to prohibit the practice.
  • Reduce Crime Recidivism by Providing Ex-Offender Support: President Obama and Vice President Biden will provide job training, substance abuse and mental health counseling to ex-offenders, so that they are successfully re-integrated into society. Obama and Biden will also create a prison-to-work incentive program to improve ex-offender employment and job retention rates.
  • Eliminate Sentencing Disparities: President Obama and Vice President Biden believe the disparity between sentencing crack and powder-based cocaine is wrong and should be completely eliminated.
  • Expand Use of Drug Courts: President Obama and Vice President Biden will give first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior.
  • Promote AIDS Prevention: In the first year of his presidency, President Obama will develop and begin to implement a comprehensive national HIV/AIDS strategy that includes all federal agencies. The strategy will be designed to reduce HIV infections, increase access to care and reduce HIV-related health disparities. The President will support common sense approaches including age-appropriate sex education that includes information about contraception, combating infection within our prison population through education and contraception, and distributing contraceptives through our public health system. The President also supports lifting the federal ban on needle exchange, which could dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users. President Obama has also been willing to confront the stigma -- too often tied to homophobia -- that continues to surround HIV/AIDS.

Under Foreign Policy:

  • Afghanistan: Obama and Biden will refocus American resources on the greatest threat to our security -- the resurgence of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They will increase our troop levels in Afghanistan, press our allies in NATO to do the same, and dedicate more resources to revitalize Afghanistan's economic development. Obama and Biden will demand the Afghan government do more, including cracking down on corruption and the illicit opium trade.

Under Rural Issues:

  • Combat Methamphetamine: Continue the fight to rid our communities of meth and offer support to help addicts heal.

Under Urban Issues:

  • Support Local Law Enforcement: President Obama and Vice President Biden are committed to fully funding the COPS program to put 50,000 police officers on the street and help address police brutality and accountability issues in local communities. Obama and Biden also support efforts to encourage young people to enter the law enforcement profession, so that our local police departments are not understaffed because of a dearth of qualified applicants.
  • Reduce Crime Recidivism by Providing Ex-Offender Supports: America is facing an incarceration and post-incarceration crisis in urban communities. Obama and Biden will create a prison-to-work incentive program, modeled on the successful Welfare-to-Work Partnership, and work to reform correctional systems to break down barriers for ex-offenders to find employment.

Europe: Government Must Support Employers in Hiring Drug Users, British Drug Watchdog Group Warns

With drug strategies and welfare reform plans in the British Isles moving toward pushing drug users into treatment and from treatment into the workplace, the British government is going to have to do a lot more to help drug users find jobs, a leading British drug policy think tank said in a report released this week. The report, Working Toward Recovery: Getting Problem Drug Users Into Jobs was published by the UK Drug Policy Commission and contains more than three-dozen recommendations aimed at easing the transition.

The report noted that while holding a job is a key component of drug user rehabilitation and integration into society, about 80% of problem drug users were unemployed. (The report defined "problem drug user" as someone dependent on heroin or crack cocaine.) And while government strategies in England, Scotland, and Wales are to get users off drugs and into jobs, the strategies are undeveloped and, and employer practices sometimes counterproductive.

In particular, the report criticized the informal "two years drug free" rule used by many employers. With the two years of abstinence including abstinence from opiate substitute medications, such as methadone, the practice is unduly harsh and unnecessary, given that many people on the controlled drug regimen have already achieved the stability employers say they want.

Employers are unlikely to want to hire problem drug users, with only 26% saying they would be prepared to hire a former drug user. Employers cited several types of risk associated with drug users -- from continuing drug use, to the firm's reputation, and to the firm's customers and employees -- and about three-quarters of them they needed more government help in developing risk assessments, support for drug using employees, and information about indemnity insurance.

The Labor government's welfare reform proposals will tie money to pay for drug treatment to drug users agreeing to a rehabilitation plan, the study noted. But with employment a big part of rehabilitation, the government is going to have to provide incentives and programmatic support if it is going to force those drug users into the job market.

Feature: Looking Forward -- The Prospects for Drug Reform in Obama's Washington

The political landscape in Washington, DC, is undergoing a dramatic shift as the Democratic tide rolls in, and, after eight years of drug war status quo under the Republicans, drug reformers are now hoping the change in administrations will lead to positive changes in federal drug policies. As with every other aspect of federal policy, groups interested in criminal justice and drug policy reform are coming out of the woodwork with their own recommendations for Obama and the Democratic Congress. This week, we will look at some of those proposals and attempt to assess the prospects for real change.

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The White House
One of the most comprehensive criminal justice reform proposals, of which drug-related reform is only a small part, comes from a nonpartisan consortium of organizations and individuals coordinated by the Constitution Project, including groups such as the Sentencing Project, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), and the Open Society Policy Center. The set of proposals, Smart on Crime: Recommendations for the Next Administration and Congress, includes the following recommendations:

  • Mandatory Minimum Reforms:
    Eliminate the crack cocaine sentencing disparity
    Improve and expand the federal "safety valve"
    Create a sunset provision on existing and new mandatory minimums
    Clarify that the 924(c) recidivism provisions apply only to true repeat offenders
  • Alternatives to Incarceration:
    Expand alternatives to incarceration in federal sentencing guidelines
    Enact a deferred adjudication statute
    Support alternatives to incarceration through expansion of federal drug and other problem solving courts.
  • Incentives and Sentencing Management
    Expand the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP)
    Clarify good time credit
    Expand the amount of good time conduct credit prisoners may receive and ways they can receive it
    Enhance sentence reductions for extraordinary and compelling circumstances
    Expand elderly prisoners release program
    Revive executive clemency
  • Promoting Fairness and Addressing Disparity:
    Support racial impact statements as a means of reducing unwarranted sentencing disparities
    Support analysis of racial and ethnic disparity in the federal justice system
    Add a federal public defender as an ex officio member of the United States Sentencing Commission

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also issued a set of recommendations, Actions for Restoring America: How to Begin Repairing the Damage to Freedom in America Under Bush, which include some drug reform provisions:

  • Crack/Powder Sentencing: The attorney general should revise the US Attorneys' Manual to require that crack offenses are charged as "cocaine" and not "cocaine base," effectively resulting in elimination of the disparity.
  • Medical Marijuana: Halt the use of Justice Department funds to arrest and prosecute medical marijuana users in states with current laws permitting access to physician-supervised medical marijuana. In particular, the US Attorney general should update the US Attorneys' Manual to de-prioritize the arrest and prosecution of medical marijuana users in medical marijuana states. There is currently no regulation in place to be amended or repealed; there is, of course, a federal statutory scheme that prohibits marijuana use unless pursuant to approved research. But US Attorneys have broad charging discretion in determining what types of cases to prosecute, and with drugs, what threshold amounts that will trigger prosecution. The US Attorneys' Manual contains guidelines promulgated by the Attorney general and followed by US Attorneys and their assistants.
  • The DEA Administrator should grant Lyle Craker's application for a Schedule I license to produce research-grade medical marijuana for use in DEA- and FDA-approved studies. This would only require DEA to approve the current recommendation of its own Administrative Law Judge.
  • All relevant agencies should stop denying the existence of medical uses of marijuana -- as nearly one-third of states have done by enacting laws -- and therefore, under existing legal criteria, reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule V.
  • Issue an executive order stating that, "No veteran shall be denied care solely on the basis of using marijuana for medical purposes in compliance with state law." Although there are many known instances of veterans being denied care as a result of medical marijuana use, we have not been able to identify a specific regulation that mandates or authorizes this policy.
  • Federal Racial Profiling: Issue an executive order prohibiting racial profiling by federal officers and banning law enforcement practices that disproportionately target people for investigation and enforcement based on race, ethnicity, national origin, sex or religion. Include in the order a mandate that federal agencies collect data on hit rates for stops and searches, and that such data be disaggregated by group. DOJ should issue guidelines regarding the use of race by federal law enforcement agencies. The new guidelines should clarify that federal law enforcement officials may not use race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, or sex to any degree, except that officers may rely on these factors in a specific suspect description as they would any noticeable characteristic of a subject.

Looking to the south, the Latin America Working Group, a coalition of nonprofit groups, has issued a petition urging Obama "to build a just policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean that unites us with our neighbors." Included in its proposals are:

  • Actively work for peace in Colombia. In a war that threatens to go on indefinitely, the immense suffering of the civilian population demands that the United States takes risks to achieve peace. If the United States is to actively support peace, it must stop endlessly bankrolling war and help bring an end to the hemisphere's worst humanitarian crisis.
  • Get serious -- and smart -- about drug policy. Our current drug policy isn't only expensive and ineffective, it's also inhumane. Instead of continuing a failed approach that brings soldiers into Latin America's streets and fields, we must invest in alternative development projects in the Andes and drug treatment and prevention here at home.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has some suggestions as well. As NORML's Paul Armentano wrote last week on Alternet:

  • President Obama must uphold his campaign promise to cease the federal arrest and prosecution of (state) law-abiding medical cannabis patients and dispensaries by appointing leaders at the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the US Department of Justice, and the US Attorney General's office who will respect the will of the voters in the thirteen states that have legalized the physician-supervised use of medicinal marijuana.
  • President Obama should use the power of the bully pulpit to reframe the drug policy debate from one of criminal policy to one of public health. Obama can stimulate this change by appointing directors to the Office of National Drug Control Policy who possess professional backgrounds in public health, addiction, and treatment rather than in law enforcement.
  • President Obama should follow up on statements he made earlier in his career in favor of marijuana decriminalization by establishing a bi-partisan presidential commission to review the budgetary, social, and health costs associated with federal marijuana prohibition, and to make progressive recommendations for future policy changes.

Clearly, the drug reform community and its allies see the change of administrations as an opportunity to advance the cause. The question is how receptive will the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress be to drug reform efforts.

"We've examined Obama's record and his statements, and 90% of it is good," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org (publisher of this newsletter). "But we don't know what he intends to do in office. There is an enormous amount of good he can do," Borden said, mentioning opening up funding for needle exchange programs, US Attorney appointments, and stopping DEA raids on medical marijuana providers. "Will Obama make some attempt to actualize the progressive drug reform positions he has taken? He has a lot on his plate, and drug policy reform has tended to be the first thing dropped by left-leaning politicians."

There will be some early indicators of administration interest in drug reform, said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We will be watching to see if he issues an executive order stopping the DEA raids; that would be a huge sign," he said. "He could also repeal the needle exchange funding ban. The congressional ban would still be in place, but that would show some great leadership. If they started taking on drug policy issues in the first 100 days, that would be a great sign, but I don't think people should expect that. There are many other issues, and it's going to take awhile just to clean up Bush's mess. I'm optimistic, but I don't expect big changes to come quickly."

"We are hoping to see a new direction," said Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for civil and criminal justice reform for the Open Society Policy Center. "We couldn't have a better scenario with the incoming vice president having sponsored the one-to-one crack/powder bill in the Senate and the incoming president being a sponsor. And we have a situation in Congress, and particularly in the Senate, where there is bipartisan interest in sentencing reform. Both sides of the aisle want some sort of movement on this, it's been studied and vetted, and now Congress needs to do the right thing. It's time to get smart on crime, and this is not a radical agenda. As far as I'm concerned, fixing the crack/powder disparity is the compromise, and elimination of mandatory minimums is what really needs to be on the agenda."

"With the Smart on Crime proposals, we tried to focus on what was feasible," said the Sentencing Project's Kara Gotsch. "These are items where we think we are likely to get support, where the community has demonstrated support, or where there has been legislation proposed to deal with these issues. It prioritizes the issues we think are most likely to move, and crack sentencing reform is on that list."

The marijuana reform groups are more narrowly focused, of course, but they, too are looking for positive change. "Obama has made it very clear on the campaign trail that he disagrees with the use of federal agencies to undo medical marijuana laws in states that have passed them," said Dan Bernath, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. "He has vowed to stop that. Obama seems to be someone who values facts and reasoned decision-making. If he applies that to marijuana policy, that could be a good thing".

While the list of possible drug reforms is long and varied, it is also notable for what has not been included. Only NORML even mentions marijuana decriminalization, and no one is talking about ending the drug war -- only making it a bit kinder and gentler. The L-word remains unutterable.

"While we're optimistic about reducing the harms of prohibition, legalization is not something that I think they will take on," said Piper. "But any movement toward drug reform is good. If we can begin to shift to a more health-oriented approach, that will change how Americans think about this issue and create a space where regulation can be discussed in a a rational manner. Now, because of our moralist criminal justice framework, it is difficult to have a sane discussion about legalization."

"We didn't talk that much about legalization," said Gotsch in reference to the Smart on Crime proposals. "A lot of organizations involved have more ambitious goals, but that wouldn't get the kind of reaction we want. There just isn't the political support yet for legalization, even of marijuana."

"We should be talking about legalization, yes," said StoptheDrugWar.org's Borden, "but should we be talking about it in communications to the new president who has shown no sign of supporting it? Not necessarily. We must push the envelope, but if we push it too far in lobbying communications to national leadership, we risk losing their attention."

"I do think it would be a mistake to blend that kind of caution into ideological caution over what we are willing to talk about at all," Borden continued. "I think we should be talking about legalization, it's just a question of when and where," he argued.

Talking legalization is premature, said Eric Sterling, formerly counsel to the US House Judiciary Committee and now president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "What we are not yet doing as a movement is building upon our successes," he said. "We just saw medical marijuana win overwhelmingly in Michigan and decriminalization in Massachusetts, but the nation's commentariat has not picked up on it, and our movement has not been sufficiently aggressive in getting those votes translated into the political discourse. We haven't broken out of the making fun phase of marijuana policy yet."

Sterling pointed in particular to the medical marijuana issue. "Everyone recognizes that the state-federal conflict on medical marijuana is a major impediment, and we have 26 senators representing medical marijuana states, but not a single senator has introduced a medical marijuana bill," he said. "It's an obvious area for legislative activity in the Senate, but it hasn't happened. This suggests that we as a movement still lack the political muscle even on something as uncontroversial as the medical use of marijuana."

Even the apparent obvious targets for reform, such as the crack/powder sentencing disparity, are going to require a lot of work, said Sterling. "It will continue to be a struggle," he said. "The best crack bill was Biden's, cosponsored by Obama and Clinton, but I'm not sure who is going to pick that up this year. The sentencing reform community continues to struggle to frame the issue as effective law enforcement, and I think it's only on those terms that we can win."

Reformers also face the reality that the politics of crime continues to be a sensitive issue for the majority Democrats, Sterling said. "Crime is an issue members are frightened about, and it's an area where Republicans traditionally feel they have the upper ground. The Democrats are going to be reluctant to open themselves up to attack in areas where there is not a strong political upside. On many issues, Congress acts when there is a clear universe of allies who will benefit and who are pushing for action. I don't know if we are there yet."

Change is the mantra of the Obama administration, and change is what the drug reform community is hoping for. Now, the community must act to ensure that change happens, and that the right changes happen.

Feature: Drug Policy and the Reform Vote in the Presidential Race

With the presidential election now less than a month away, Democratic candidate Barack Obama appears poised for victory, according to the most recent polls, though the race is far from over. From the beginning of the campaign, drug reform and drug policy have barely registered in the discourse, a state of affairs that has grown even more pronounced as the country slips into economic crisis and the news media focuses obsessively on the two major party candidates, their campaigns, and their responses to the crisis.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/whitehouse.gif
The White House
Despite the silence at the presidential level, there is an emerging consensus in the country that the war on drugs is a failure -- 76% of respondents in a Zogby poll last week said so -- and there are several presidential candidates whose drug policy platforms actually appeal to drug reformers. With one major party candidate or another establishing clear leads in most states, the presidential election will be decided in a handful of battleground states, and that means drug reformers in the remaining states have the option of voting for candidates whose views resemble their own without jeopardizing the chances of their favored major party candidate.

When it comes to the basic underpinnings of US drug policy, Sens. McCain and Obama are similar, and non-reformist. When it comes to some important details, however, differences do appear. The similarities are well demonstrated by the candidates' responses to a questionnaire from the International Association of Police Chiefs about their views on drug policy, among other issues. The question and their responses are worth reading in their entirety:

"Narcotics abuse and trafficking continues to be a problem that state, local, and tribal law enforcement officers face every day. How would you ensure that enforcement, prevention, and treatment programs receive equal resources and assistance to combat this growing problem?" asked the police chiefs.

Here is McCain's response:

"Illegal narcotics are a scourge that I have fought against for my entire legislative career, and I believe this fight must begin with prevention and enforcement. That is why I introduced the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1988 during my first term in the Senate and supported the Drug Free Borders Act of 1999, which authorized over $1 billion in funds to bolster our ability to prevent drugs from flowing through our borders and ports by improving technology and expanding our interdiction forces. As president, I would continue these efforts to ensure that our nation's children are protected from the influence of illegal drugs and that the drug peddlers are brought to justice for their crimes.

We must also realize that treatment is an important element of the mission to eradicate drug abuse. I supported the Second Chance Act, which authorized up to $360 million for violator reentry programs in 2009 and 2010. Last year, approximately 750,000 inmates were released from custody and returned to our communities, and typically one half will return to incarceration. The Second Chance Act funds programs that prepare prisoners for the transition from prison to society by providing job training, mentors, counseling, and more. Some programs report reducing recidivism rates by 50 percent. These programs could save American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. On average, the annual cost of incarcerating a prisoner exceeds $20,000 -- a number that increased sixfold between 1982 and 2002. As president, I believe we should support having parents with children in the home rather than in prison, former prisoners working and paying taxes, and citizens contributing to rather than taking from the community."

Here is Obama's response:

"Drug trafficking has long been a scourge on our society, and we need a national drug policy that focuses on tackling new threats with tough enforcement measures while also providing for robust prevention and treatment programs. All three of these components -- enforcement, prevention, and treatment -- are critical to a complete national drug control strategy, and each will be a key part of my agenda in an Obama-Biden administration. Funding the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne-JAG) Program is essential to avoid law enforcement layoffs and cuts to hundreds of antidrug and antigang efforts across the country. The administration has consistently proposed to cut or eliminate funding for the Byrne-JAG Program, which funds antidrug and antigang task forces across the country. Byrne-JAG also funds prevention and drug treatment programs that are critical to reducing US demand for drugs. Since 2000, this program has been cut more than 83 percent. These cuts threaten hundreds of multijurisdictional drug and gang task forces -- many that took years to create and develop. In my home state of Illinois, the Byrne grants have been used effectively to fund anti-meth task forces, and I have consistently fought for increased funding for this program. As president, I will restore funding to this critical program.

Finally, it's important that we address the crime and security problems in Latin America that have clear spillover effects in the United States in terms of gang activity and drug trafficking, which is why I introduced a comprehensive plan to promote regional security in the Americas in June. I will direct my attorney general and homeland security secretary to meet with their Latin American and Caribbean counterparts in the first year of my presidency to produce a regional strategy to combat drug trafficking, domestic and transnational gang activity, and organized crime. A hemispheric pact on security, crime, and drugs will permit the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean to advance serious and measurable drug demand reduction goals, while fostering cooperation on intelligence and investigating criminal activity. The United States will also work to strengthen civilian law enforcement and judicial institutions in the region by promoting anticorruption safeguards and police reform.

I will also support the efforts of our border states to foster cooperation and constructive engagement with the region. Arizona, for instance, has entered into agreements with its neighboring Mexican state, Sonora, to cooperate on fighting border violence and drug trafficking. These agreements have led to the training of Sonora detectives to investigate wire transfers used to pay smugglers in their state; improved radio communication; and better tracking of fugitive and stolen vehicles. The Arizona-Sonora partnership -- based on information sharing, technical assistance, and training -- provides an excellent model for regional cooperation on security issues. An Obama-Biden administration will support these initiatives and will work to integrate these efforts into the region's coordinated security pact."

While the Obama and McCain campaigns differ slightly in their emphases on different drug policy-related issues, there is more similarity than difference between them. Both refer to drugs as a "scourge," both brag about their anti-drug achievements, both support US drug war objectives across the border and overseas.

But even though there is much to unite Obama and McCain on overall agreement with drug prohibition, there are differences, too, some of them significant. While neither Obama nor McCain support marijuana decriminalization, Obama once did, until he reversed position during this year's election campaign. Whether Obama's flip-flop on decrim says more about his good initial instincts or his political opportunism is open to interpretation.

Similarly, as the Sentencing Project showed in a March report on the candidates' positions on drug and criminal justice policy, while McCain has supported mandatory minimum sentences for "drug dealers," Obama in 2003 told an NAACP debate he would "vote to abolish" mandatory minimums. By this year, Obama had slightly softened his stand on mandatory minimums, saying on his web site, "I will immediately review these sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the ineffective warehousing of nonviolent drug offenders."

Although Obama has tacked to the center (read: right) during the campaign season, other of his drug policy positions remain superior to McCain's. Obama supported lifting the ban on federal funding of needle exchanges; McCain did not address it. Obama explicitly supports drug courts; McCain does not, although he has stated he thinks too many drug users -- not drug dealers -- are in prison. Obama supported reducing the disparity between powder and crack cocaine offenders, even sponsoring a bill that would equalize sentences; McCain has not addressed the subject. Obama has said he would stop the raids on medical marijuana patients in California; McCain would not. Obama sees drug policy in the broader context of social justice; McCain has not opined on that idea.

Still, contrast Obama and McCain's drug policy positions with those of the Greens, the Libertarians, and the Ralph Nader campaign, and real differences emerge -- mainly between the bipartisan drug policy consensus and the three alternative campaigns.

For former US Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA), now running as the Green Party presidential candidate, the Green Party platform lays out a clear drug reform agenda:

Law enforcement is placing too much emphasis on drug-related and petty street crimes, and not enough on prosecution of corporate, white collar, and environmental crimes. Defrauding someone of their life savings is the same as robbery.

Any attempt to combat crime must begin with restoration of community. We encourage positive approaches that build hope, responsibility and a sense of belonging. Prisons should be the sentence of last resort, reserved for violent criminals. Those convicted of nonviolent offenses should be handled by other programs including halfway houses, electronic monitoring, work-furlough, community service and restitution programs. Substance abuse should be addressed as a medical problem requiring treatment, not imprisonment, and a failed drug test should not result in revocation of parole. Incarcerated prisoners of the drug war should be released to the above programs.

Repeal state "Three Strikes" laws. Restore judicial discretion in sentencing, as opposed to mandatory sentencing. Stop forfeiture of the property of unconvicted suspects. It is state piracy and denial of due process.

Implement a moratorium on prison construction. The funds saved should be used for alternatives to incarceration.

We call for decriminalization of victimless crimes. For example, the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

We call for legalization of industrial hemp and all its many uses.

We call for an end to the "war on drugs." We support expanded drug counseling and treatment.

Likewise, former US Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), running as the Libertarian Party candidate, also has a strong drug reform platform:

Individuals should be free to make choices for themselves and to accept responsibility for the consequences of the choices they make. No individual, group, or government may initiate force against any other individual, group, or government. Our support of an individual's right to make choices in life does not mean that we necessarily approve or disapprove of those choices.

We support the protections provided by the Fourth Amendment to be secure in our persons, homes, and property. Only actions that infringe on the rights of others can properly be termed crimes. We favor the repeal of all laws creating "crimes" without victims, such as the use of drugs for medicinal or recreational purposes.

Government exists to protect the rights of every individual including life, liberty and property. Criminal laws should be limited to violation of the rights of others through force or fraud, or deliberate actions that place others involuntarily at significant risk of harm. Individuals retain the right to voluntarily assume risk of harm to themselves.... We oppose reduction of constitutional safeguards of the rights of the criminally accused.

American foreign policy should seek an America at peace with the world and its defense against attack from abroad. We would end the current US government policy of foreign intervention, including military and economic aid. We recognize the right of all people to resist tyranny and defend themselves and their rights. We condemn the use of force, and especially the use of terrorism, against the innocent, regardless of whether such acts are committed by governments or by political or revolutionary groups. [Ed: Presumably portions of this plank can be taken to have bearing on the US-imposed international drug war.]

Like the Greens and the Libertarians, the Ralph Nader campaign has a solid drug reform platform, as suggested by its title, "The Failed War on Drugs:"

The Nader campaign supports ending the war on drugs and replacing it with a health-based treatment and prevention-focused approach. Enforcement of drug laws is racially unfair, and dissolution of the drug war would begin to make the types of changes needed in our criminal justice system.

According to the federal Household Survey of drug use, "most current illicit drug users are white. There were an estimated 9.9 million whites (72 percent of all users), 2.0 million blacks (15 percent), and 1.4 million Hispanics (10 percent) who were current illicit drug users in 1998." And yet, blacks constitute 36.8% of those arrested for drug violations, over 42% of those in federal prisons for drug violations. African-Americans comprise almost 58% of those in state prisons for drug felonies; Hispanics account for 20.7%.

The drug war has failed -- we spend nearly $50 billion annually on the drug war and yet problems related to drug abuse continue to worsen. We need to acknowledge that drug abuse is a health problem with social and economic consequences. Therefore, the solutions are -- public health, social services, economic development and tender supportive time with addicts in our depersonalized society. Law enforcement should be at the edges of drug control, not at the center. It is time to bring some currently illegal drugs within the law by regulating, taxing and controlling them. Ending the drug war will dramatically reduce street crime, violence and homicides related to underground drug dealing.

But also like the Greens and the Libertarians, Nader has virtually no chance of winning any state. Most recent presidential campaign polls don't even bother to include anyone besides Obama and McCain, and the most recent poll that included the three minor party candidates, late July Angus-Reid poll, found McKinney, Barr, and Nader combined for only 10% of the vote. Nader polled 6%, Barr 3%, and McKinney 1%.

Still, drug reformers must once again face that perennial question: Should I vote for the major party candidate who is less bad on drug policy, or should I vote for a candidate that reflects my views on this issue? Not surprisingly, there is a variety of views.

Veteran drug reformer Kevin Zeese acted as a Nader spokesman during the 2004 campaign and ran for the US Senate in Maryland as the nominee of both the Green and the Libertarian parties. He still believes third party politics is the answer, he told the Chronicle.

"Until reformers have the courage to vote for what we want why will anyone else? Neither duopoly party will end the drug war -- they are not even discussing it," he said. "The better duopolist picked a leading drug war hawk as his vice president. No doubt many will hope that Biden will pull a Nixon goes to China and reverse himself -- but that is really blind hope."

Drug reformers, especially those in non-battleground states, should send the major parties a message, said Zeese. "Voting for Obama is a true wasted vote in a non-battleground state," he said. "We know how the Electoral College will vote in 40 states. If you disagree with Obama or McCain -- why vote for them in those states? It is important for these parties to see that people are not satisfied with them. If you vote for Obama or McCain when you disagree with them then you are sending a signal of agreement. Why should he change? If you vote against them, they know they have to change in order to earn your vote."

Veteran drug reformer Cliff Thornton, who ran for the governorship of Connecticut on a drug reform platform as a Green Party candidate in 2006, agrees with Zeese. "McCain will just be more of the same, and I don't really know what Obama will do," he said. "Let's just note that Joe Biden was one of the architects of mandatory minimums. If Obama wins, I'm afraid we will have to wait for the next election to see any progress. We need to be supporting alternatives, and a vote for a Green is vote for a Green," he said.

But for Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance Network, the lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance, the differences between Obama and McCain on drug policy, while marginal, are significant. "In terms of reducing the harms associated with both drugs and drug prohibition, the difference between Obama and McCain is big," Piper argued. "Obama supports repealing the federal syringe ban, eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, reforming mandatory minimums, and shifting resources from incarceration to treatment. McCain hasn't said anything major one way or the other about syringe exchange programs or the crack/powder disparity from what I can tell, but has publicly made fun of medical marijuana patients and introduced legislation to essentially ban methadone."

While conceding that it is difficult to predict how either Obama or McCain would govern, Piper argued that an Obama presidency is much more likely to see drug reform. "In terms of seeing a wide range of reforms at the federal level over the next eight years, it seems far more likely to happen under Obama than McCain," he said.

Not likely, retorted Zeese. "Biden will be whispering drug war nonsense in his ears, and his past use of marijuana and cocaine will be reasons that stop him from doing anything sensible," he predicted. "The best we can hope for from Obama is benign neglect. There will be many other domestic and international crises for them to deal with so drug policy will not be high on their agenda -- that is good news -- because Biden is the source of most of what is wrong with modern drug policy. Hopefully, he is kept busy doing something else."

And, said Piper, Obama is not talking about ending drug prohibition, dismantling the prison-industrial complex, and putting violent drug trafficking organizations out of business. "Only Barr, Nader, and McKinney are talking about major reform. They're speaking for the 76% of Americans who say the war on drugs has failed. But they've been excluded from the debates and are largely being ignored by the media. I know a lot of drug policy reformers who are voting for one of them. I know a lot, probably more, who are voting for Obama, and some who are voting for McCain."

Who drug reformers should vote for remains a tricky, personal question, said Piper. "There are a lot of variables to consider, including weighing the possibility of important, short-term incremental gains against the need for long-term systematic change; pondering the question of whether or not change on the margin facilitates or obstructs major change; deciding if the drug war should be the only issue you vote on or just one of many; thinking about the political and cultural changes that have to occur to bring down prohibition and how this election fits into that; considering what state you live in; and wrestling with your conscience," he said, ticking off the issues confronting drug reform voters. "I don't think there is one right answer."

(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.)

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