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Chronicle AM -- December 10, 2013

African-American faith leaders observe International Human Rights Day by calling for an end to the drug war and mass incarceration, Texans are ready for criminal justice reform, and Mexico's prohibition-related violence continues apace. And more. Let's get to it:

African American faith leaders called Tuesday for an end to the drug war and mass incarceration. (sdpconference.info)
Medical Marijuana

Michigan Medical Marijuana Bills Pass House Committee. A pair of bills that would allow for the use of medical marijuana-infused products, as well as legalizing dispensaries for cannabis, passed the House Judiciary committee Tuesday morning on unanimous votes. A third bill, which would allow pharmacies to produce and sell medical marijuana, also passed, but on an 8-1 vote. With the legislature adjourning for the year Thursday, it's unlikely they will get final votes before then.

Law Enforcement

California Appeals Court Rules Only Prosecutors -- Not Police -- Can Initiate Asset Forfeiture Proceedings. California's 5th District Court of Appeals in Fresno ruled last week that police agencies cannot initiate asset forfeiture proceedings, which must instead be undertaken by prosecutors. Police had seized $16,000 in cash from Adolfo Cuevas and a friend sitting in a car and moved to forfeit it when traces of methamphetamine were found on a $5 bill. Only prosecutors can make that call, the court held. The case is Cuevas v. Superior Court of Tulare County.

Pain Pills

American College of Physicians Calls for Pain Med Contracts, Database, Educational Programs. In a policy paper released Tuesday, Prescription Drug Abuse, the American College of Physicians set out 10 policy positions and recommendations aimed at reducing "the significant human and financial costs related to prescription drug abuse." They include supporting a national prescription drug monitoring program, more education and prevention efforts for doctors and patients, and considering the use of written agreements ("pain contracts") for doctors and patients when treating pain. [Ed: Patient advocates often regard databases and pain contracts with suspicion. We commonly receive reports about pain contracts in particular having a chilling effect on the availability of pain medication for patients who need it. It is not clear whether this paper fully considers the plight commonly suffered by pain patients because of the war on drugs.]

Sentencing

On International Human Rights Day, Black Leaders Call for End to Drug War, Mass Incarceration. The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a major grouping of African-American faith leaders, called for an end to the war on drugs and mass incarceration Tuesday, International Human Rights Day. The call came as the group released key findings from a series of community-based hearings on mass incarceration it has held around the nation. Click on the link for the recommendations.

Poll: Texans Ready to Reform Drug Punishments. A poll released Monday by the Texas Public Policy Foundation finds that nearly four out five (79%) Texans support drug treatment instead of prison for people caught possessing drugs. The poll also found overwhelming (84%) support for broader criminal justice reforms in the state.

International

Mexican Drug War Deaths Show No Decline. One year after Enrique Pena Nieto assumed office as president of Mexico, the deadly prohibition-related violence that has plagued the country for the past six years shows no sign of abating. According to Frontera NorteSur, citing Mexican press reports, there were 19,016 people killed in the drug violence in the first 11 months of Pena Nieto's term, compared to 18,161 during the last 11 months of Felipe Calderon's government. The violence also appears to have shifted geographically, from border states to states in the south and center of the country.

New York AG Report Slams NYPD Stop-and-Frisk

In a report issued late last week, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman analyzed the impact of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk search policies on the state's criminal justice system -- and on the people victimized by them. The results are illuminating, but not pretty.

NYPD practices stop-and-frisk techniques (nyc.gov/nypd)
The report, A Report on Arrests Arising from the New York City Police Department's Stop-and-Frisk Practices, analyzed nearly 2.4 million stops between 2009 and 2012 resulting in nearly 150,000 arrests. Of those arrests, nearly half led to guilty pleas or convictions at trial, but that is only 0.3% of all those stopped and frisked. Only 0.1% of all stop-and-frisks resulted in a conviction or guilty plea for a violent offense.

"My office's analysis of the city's stop and frisk practices has broad implications for law enforcement, both in New York City and across the state. It's our hope that this report -- the first of its kind -- will advance the discussion about how to fight crime without overburdening our institutions or violating equal justice under the law," said Schneiderman. "The vast amount of data we analyzed over four years should serve as a helpful guide to municipalities and law enforcement officials around the state, where stop and frisk practices are used to varying degrees. I want to thank the NYPD and the Office of Court Administration for providing the data for our report."

Schneiderman was being politic, but his report's numbers speak for themselves:

  • Close to half of all stop and frisk arrests resulted in no convictions because the arrestees were never prosecuted, their cases were dismissed, or they received an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal (a dismissal of a charge if the defendant does not commit another crime within six months or a year);
  • Just one in 16 stop and frisk arrests -- or 0.3 % of all stops -- led to a jail or prison sentence of more than 30 days;
  • Just one in 50 stop and frisk arrests -- or 0.1 % of all stops -- led to a conviction for a violent crime;
  • Just one in 50 stop and frisk arrests -- or 0.1 % of all stops -- led to a conviction for possession of a weapon; and
  • Almost one quarter of stop-and-frisk arrests (24.7 %) were dismissed before arraignment or resulted in a non-criminal charge.

The report also highlighted the collateral consequences that arrests have for all individuals subject to stop and frisk, regardless of the ultimate outcome of the case, and the burdens that various aspects of the stop and frisk program place on institutional actors within the criminal justice system, including:

  • Threats of a possible loss of employment, housing, student loans, and immigration status, even for those charged with misdemeanors, and added incentive to plead guilty; and
  • A sharp uptick in litigation costs for New York City for lawsuits alleging constitutional violations by the NYPD. In 2009, for the first time in 30 years, the NYPD had the largest legal settlements of any city agency.

The NYPD's stop-and-frisk policies have drawn intense political fire and judicial scrutiny. Now, they are being subjected to scrutiny of their real world consequences as well. This is an issue where incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio can signal that he's no Bloomberg.

New York, NY
United States

Chronicle AM -- November 19, 2013

Hmmm, on the same day the DEA warns that "marijuana availability seems to be on the increase," hundreds of people apply for licenses to sell pot in Washington state. Times are changing, and somebody needs to let the DEA know. And there's more news, too. Let's get to it:

Crackdowns on pain pills are leading the way to comeback for heroin. (wikipedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Hundreds Apply for Pot Business Licenses in Washington State. Monday was the first day budding ganjapreneurs could apply for licenses to open marijuana cultivation, processing, and retail facilities, and interest was intense. By 2:00pm Monday, 299 applications had been submitted. The state envisions up to 334 marijuana retail shops opening next year; it is unclear how many production and processing facilities will be licensed, although regulators have said they want to limit cultivation to two million square feet statewide. Applications are being accepted through December 17.

Arkansas Attorney General Rejects Another Marijuana Initiative. The Arkansas attorney general's office Monday rejected the proposed language of an initiative that would repeal the state's marijuana laws. The initiative isn't clear about what it seeks to achieve, the office said. The attorney general's office has been busy with initiatives this year; it has already approved two separate medical marijuana initiatives, and the author of this one can come back with new language if she wishes.

Drug Policy

DEA Releases 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment. The DEA Monday released the annual drug threat assessment, which includes looks at drug use and trafficking trends. The report identifies the illicit use of controlled prescription drugs as "the nation's fastest growing drug problem," warns that heroin use and supply is up, as is methamphetamine, but that cocaine use and supply is down. Also, "marijuana availability seems to be increasing," and synthetic drugs "have emerged as a serious problem in the United States."

New Yorkers to Map Out City Drug Policies on Saturday. New York City residents just elected a self-described progressive -- Bill de Blasio -- as mayor. Now, they will have a chance to let him know what direction they want the city to take on drug policy. As part of Talking Transition, "an open conversation about the future of New York City," hundreds of people are expected to attend a Saturday forum on "Ending the New Jim Crow: Mapping the Future of Drug Policy in New York City," then break into small groups to make recommendations on issues ranging from racially-biased marijuana arrests, lack of effective drug treatment, and overdose prevention strategies. Click on the main link for more details.

Heroin

Ohio Attorney General Declares War on Heroin. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine Monday announced he had created a new heroin unit within his office to fight back against what he called "an epidemic" of heroin use. The move comes as heroin overdose deaths have doubled in recent years, from 292 in 2010 to 606 last year. DeWine said his office will spend an additional $1 million a year on increased assistance to law enforcement, community outreach workers, and lab technicians. The rise in heroin use in Ohio comes after Gov. John Kasich cracked down on pain clinics in 2011, leaving illicit heroin as the last resort for people strung out on opioids.

International

China to Turn "Re-Education" Labor Camps into Drug Treatment Centers. At its recent Third Plenary meeting, the Chinese Communist Party announced it was abolishing its controversial "re-education" labor camps. Now, it turns out that the camps won't be closing, but will instead be converted into drug treatment and rehabilitation centers. "The new rehab centers will provide compulsory drug rehabilitation treatment for addicts, and help them find self-confidence again," one official explained. There are 1.8 million "officially registered" addicts in China, but the number of actual addicts could run as high as 12 million.

Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy Meets in Vancouver This Weekend. Canadian SSDP is holding its annual national conference this weekend in Vancouver. In addition to panels and speeches, there will be tours of Insite, Vancouver's supervised injection facility, a Downtown Eastside Walking Tour, and rides on the Sensible BC bus. For more details, click the link.

Panel to Study California Marijuana Legalization

California Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) will lead a blue ribbon panel of expert to chart a path toward marijuana legalization, the ACLU of California announced Thursday. At the same time, the group released polling results showing that two-thirds of California voters are ready to support regulated legal marijuana commerce that contributes to state tax coffers.

Gavin Newsom announces panel formation. (Rebecca Farmer)
"The prohibition of marijuana has had an enormous human and financial cost in communities across this state," said Newsom, the highest ranking elected official in California to publicly endorse taxing and regulating marijuana for adults. "It is far past time for Californians take a serious look at smarter approaches to marijuana, and it is imperative that happen before any marijuana ballot initiative gets underway."

The panel will consist of academic, legal, and policy experts and "will engage in a two-year research effort," the ACLU said. That is a clear signal that organizers are aiming at 2016 -- not 2014 -- as the time to put the matter before voters, even though at least two separate 2014 marijuana legalization initiative efforts are already underway in the state.

"The panel's work will be designed to help voters and policy makers evaluate proposals for a strict tax and regulation system that will enable California to benefit from billions of dollars of new revenue while ensuring safe communities and protecting against underage use," the ACLU said.

Among those named to the panel are Keith Humphreys, a Stanford Health Policy Associate who was a senior policy analyst at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in 2009-2010; Erwin Chemerinsky, constitutional law expert and dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law; two past presidents of the California Society of Addiction Medicine; Dr. Seth Ammerman, a Stanford University professor and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics; Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith; and Sam Kamin, a Denver University law professor who has been appointed to the Colorado governor's task force for implementing that state's marijuana legalization initiative.

Also included are Alison Holcomb, campaign manager of Washington state's successful 2012 ballot initiative to tax and regulate marijuana; Tamar Todd, staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance; Karen O'Keefe, staff attorney for the Marijuana Policy Project; and Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

In addition to enhancing state revenue streams, marijuana legalization would end the extreme racial disparities in marijuana arrests in California, the ACLU said.

"Marijuana prohibition has harmed communities and families by needlessly ensnaring hundreds of thousands of people in the overburdened criminal justice system, with people of color far more likely to be arrested and prosecuted," said Allen Hopper, director of criminal justice and drug policy for the ACLU of California. "California voters recognize that it's time for change and will overwhelmingly support reforming marijuana laws provided it can be done responsibly with adequate safeguards and assurances that tax revenues will go to fund public schools and other important social services."

CA
United States

Senate Hearing Takes on Mandatory Minimums [FEATURE]

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on mandatory minimum sentencing last Wednesday as Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and fellow committee member Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) sought to create momentum for a reform bill they filed together this spring, the Justice Safety Valve Act (Senate Bill 619).

Senate Judiciary Committee, hearing on mandatory minimums -- Rand Paul waiting to testify
The hearing comes in the face of a federal prison population that has increased seven-fold in the past 30 years, driven in large part by mandatory minimum sentences, the number of which has doubled in the past 20 years. Many of them are aimed at drug offenders, who make up almost half of all federal prisoners. Taxpayers are shelling out more than $6.4 billion this fiscal year to pay for all those prisoners.

Mandatory minimum sentencing reform has already won support from the Obama administration, with Attorney General Eric Holder last month issuing guidance to federal prosecutors instructing them not to pursue charges with mandatory minimums in certain drug cases and announcing last week that the shift would also include people who have already been charged, but not convicted or sentenced.

And it has support on the federal bench. The same day as the hearing last week, Judge Robert Holmes Bell, chairman of the criminal law committee of the US Judicial Conference, sent a letter to the committee expressing the federal judiciary's position that mandatory minimums lead to "unjust results" and its "strong support" for the Justice Safety Valve Act. The letter noted that the federal judiciary has a longstanding policy of opposing mandatory minimums.

The hearing began with an extended photo-op and media availability as Sens. Leahy and Paul chatted before the cameras in an exercise in bipartisan camaraderie.

"Senator Paul and I believe that judges, not legislators, are in the best position to evaluate individual cases and determine appropriate sentences," said Leahy. "Our bipartisan legislation has received support from across the political spectrum."

Leahy noted the Justice Department's recent moves on mandatory minimums, but said that wasn't enough.

"The Department of Justice cannot solve this problem on its own," Leahy said. "Congress must act. We cannot afford to stay on our current path. Reducing mandatory minimum sentences, which have proven unnecessary to public safety, is an important reform that our federal system desperately needs. This is not a political solution -- it is a practical one, and it is long overdue."

Paul, for his part, was on fire at the hearing. The libertarian-leaning junior senator from Kentucky decried not only the inequity of the harsh punishments but also of policies that disproportionately affect racial minorities.

"I know a guy about my age in Kentucky who grew marijuana plants in his apartment closet in college," Paul related. "Thirty years later, he still can't vote, can't own a gun, and when he looks for work, he must check the box, the box that basically says, 'I'm a convicted felon, and I guess I'll always be one.'"

It wasn't just white guy pot offenders Paul was sticking up for.

Pat Leahy
"If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago," Paul said. "Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs. The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African American or Latino."

As was the case with the Judiciary Committee hearings on marijuana law reform earlier this month, octogenarian Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) appeared to be the sole holdout for maintaining harsh war on drugs policies. Grassley, the ranking minority member on the committee, complained that the move to pull back on mandatory minimums ignored the fact that the law was originally written to address sentencing disparities based on judicial discretion.

"No longer would sentences turn on which judge a criminal appeared before," Grassley said before criticizing the Supreme Court for making federal sentencing guidelines advisory and the Obama administration for citing prison costs as a reason to reduce mandatory minimums. "So we have this oddity, this administration finally found one area of spending it wants to cut," Grassley complained.

Among witnesses at the hearing, only Scott Burns, formerly of the drug czar's office and currently executive director of the National District Attorney's Association, sided with Grassley. He said crime is down and it is a myth that the federal system is in crisis.

"Prosecutors have many tools to choose from in doing their part to drive down crime and keep communities safe and one of those important tools has been mandatory minimum sentences," Burns said.

But other witnesses, including former US Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman, disagreed. Tolman told the committee that the mandatory minimum sentencing structure was inherently unfair because it put all discretion in the hands of prosecutors, who have a vested interest in securing convictions and harsh sentences. Political concerns of prosecutors rather than the public safety too often drive charging decisions, which should instead be left up to judges, he said.

Even conservative witnesses agreed that mandatory minimum sentencing had become excessive.

"The pendulum swung too far, and we swept in too many low-level, nonviolent offenders," said Mark Levin, policy director of the Right on Crime Initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a leading voice in the conservative criminal justice reform movement.

The bill has been filed, the hearing has been held, support has been made evident. Now, it is up to the Congress to move on the Justice Safety Valve Act and other pending sentencing reform legislation.

Washington, DC
United States

NYC Comptroller Says Legalize and Tax Marijuana in New Report

New York City Comptroller John Liu Wednesday released a report calling for the legalization, regulation, and taxation of marijuana. Doing so would reduce the harms generated by marijuana prohibition and generate more than $400 million a year in taxes to pay for higher education, Liu said.

New York City Comptroller John Liu (wikipedia.org)
The comptroller is the chief fiscal officer and financial officer for the city. Liu, who has served one four-year term, is not seeking reelection.

"New York City's misguided war on marijuana has failed, and its enforcement has damaged far too many lives, especially in minority communities," said Comptroller Liu. "It's time for us to implement a responsible alternative. Regulating marijuana would keep thousands of New Yorkers out of the criminal justice system, offer relief to those suffering from a wide range of painful medical conditions, and make our streets safer by sapping the dangerous underground market that targets our children. As if that weren't enough, it would also boost our bottom line."

Liu estimated the size of the city's marijuana market at $1.65 billion a year and proposed using tax revenues from the legalized trade to cut tuition at the City University of New York (CUNY) by up to 50%.

"In this way, we'll invest in young people's futures, instead of ruining them," he said. "By regulating marijuana like alcohol, New York City can minimize teens' access to marijuana, while at the same time reducing their exposure to more dangerous drugs and taking sales out of the hands of criminals."

Under Liu's proposal, adults age 21 and over could possess up to one ounce of marijuana, which would be grown, processed, and sold by government-licensed businesses for recreational or medicinal purposes. A strict driving under the influence enforcement policy would be implemented concurrently, and marijuana use in public would be prohibited.

The report comes just days after a federal judge slammed the city for its stop-and-frisk policing tactics, which have played a key role in making the Big Apple the world leader in marijuana possession arrests. The street searches are racially biased, the judge found, ordering reforms.

"New Yorkers, like people elsewhere around the country, are questioning our broken polices related to marijuana," said Gabriel Sayegh, New York director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Comptroller Liu's report offers another important opportunity for New Yorkers to examine the issues and discuss the range of options for fixing these laws. An increasing number of elected officials in the City and state agree that our marijuana policies are broken -- resulting in racial disparities, Constitutional violations, fiscal waste and needless suffering. While there may not be widespread agreement about how to fix these problems, it's critical that we have an open and vigorous debate about the issue."

New York City, NY
United States

Federal Judge Finds NYPD's Stop-and-Frisk Practices Unconstitutional

A federal judge Monday found that the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk search tactics violated the constitutional rights of racial minorities in the city and ordered a federal monitor to oversee broad reforms in the department. Federal District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin did not find stop-and-frisks unconstitutional in themselves, but ruled that NYPD's policy on them amounted to "indirect racial profiling."

NYPD practices stop-and-frisk techniques (nyc.gov/nypd)
The ruling came in Floyd v. the City of New York, in which plaintiffs represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights challenged the massive program, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of street searches each year (4.43 million between 2004 and 2012, according to trial evidence), the vast majority aimed at young black and brown people, and the vast majority of which resulted in no findings of drugs or weapons.

The stop-and-frisk program did, however, contribute to the arrest and temporary jailing of tens of thousands of New Yorkers caught with small amounts of marijuana. Possession of small amounts was decriminalized in New York in 1978, but the NYPD effectively invalidated decriminalization by intimidating people into removing baggies of weed from their pockets and then charging them with public possession, a misdemeanor. Such tactics helped make New York City the world leader in marijuana arrests.

In her ruling Monday, Judge Scheindlin argued that the city's stop-and-frisk policies showed disregard for both the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause. She said the evidence showed that police systematically stopped innocent people in the street without any objective reason to suspect them of wrongdoing.

Scheindlin didn't limit her criticism to the actions of police officers, but also held high NYPD and city officials responsible for what she called a "checkpoint-style" policing tactic.

"I also conclude that the city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner," she wrote. "Blacks are likely targeted for stops based on a lesser degree of objectively founded suspicion than whites," she noted.

While Scheindlin wrote that she was "not ordering an end to practice" of stop-and-frisk searches, she said that the racially disparate manner in which searches were carried out demanded reforms that "protect the rights and liberties of all New Yorkers, while still providing much needed police protection."

In addition to the outside monitor, Scheindlin ordered other remedies, including a pilot program in which officers in five precincts will be equipped with body-worn cameras to record street encounters and a "joint remedial process" where the public will be invited to provide input on how to reform stop-and-frisk. 

While Scheindlin noted NYPD's expressed purpose in the widespread searches was to reduce the prevalence of guns on the street, she said police went too far in their zeal, stretching the bounds of the Constitution as they did so.

 "The outline of a commonly carried object such as a wallet or cellphone does not justify a stop or frisk, nor does feeling such an object during a frisk justify a search,” she ruled.

And, after hearing more than two months of sometimes wrenching testimony from stop-and-frisk victims, Scheindlin deplored what she called "the human toll of unconstitutional stops," calling them "a demeaning and humiliating experience."

"No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life," she wrote. And it wasn't just fear of being stopped. Racial minorities in the city "were more likely to be subjected to the use of force than whites, despite the fact that whites are more likely to be found with weapons or contraband."

The city and the NYPD had argued that the targeting of young people of color was justified because they were more likely to commit crimes, but Scheindlin wasn't buying, especially since the searches usually came up empty.

"This might be a valid comparison if the people stopped were criminals," she wrote. "But to the contrary, nearly 90% of the people stopped are released without the officer finding any basis for a summons or arrest." The city had a "policy of targeting expressly identified racial groups for stops in general," she noted. "Targeting young black and Hispanic men for stops based on the alleged criminal conduct of other young black or Hispanic men violates bedrock principles of equality," she ruled.

The ruling didn't sit well with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has defended and championed stop-and-frisk as an effective crime fighting measure. In remarks after the verdict, Bloomberg lashed out at the judge and the ruling.

"This is a very dangerous decision made by a judge who I don’t think understands how policing works," Bloomberg said."The judge clearly telegraphed her intentions, and she conveyed a disturbing disregard for the intentions of our police officers, who form the most diverse police department in the nation. We didn’t believe we got a fair trial," he complained.

“Our crime strategies and tools -- including stop, question, frisk -- have made New York the safest big city in America," Bloomberg said. "We go to where the reports of crime are," he added. "Those, unfortunately, happen to be poor neighborhoods, or minority neighborhoods.... There are always people that are afraid of police ... some of them come from cultures where police are the enemy. Here, the police department are our friends."

And the police know best, he added. "The public are not experts at policing," Bloomberg said. "Personally, I would rather have [Police Commissioner] Ray Kelly decide how to keep my family safe, rather than having somebody on the street who says, 'Oh, I don’t like this.'"

But the Center for Constitutional Rights suggested that the mayor should grow up and do what's right.

"The NYPD is finally being held to account for its longstanding illegal and discriminatory policing practices," the group said in a statement Monday. "The City must now stop denying the problem and partner with the community to create a police department that protects the safety and respects the rights of all New Yorkers."

New York, NY
United States

Obama Discusses Race and Justice System in Trayvon Martin Remarks

Pres. Obama's remarks on the Trayvon Martin case dealt extensively with issues of racial bias in the criminal justice system (starting at about 4:30). Drug laws are briefly touched on (4:38). Obama discusses his work in Illinois's legislature passing racial profiling legislation (9:30).
 
Media have focused on Obama's past involvement in the racial profiling issue in recent days. An Associated Press article yesterday detailed his efforts in the the Illinois legislature to address the issue. In a piece on Salon.com this morning, Edward McClelland posted audio of an interview with the president last year, including a recording Obama played of a 2000 campaign ad highlighting racial profiling (at about 40:20).
 
Video of the speech and interview follow:
 
 
 

Pennsylvania NAACP Says Legalize Marijuana

Last week, the Pennsylvania NAACP endorsed a pending marijuana legalization bill. And on the 4th of July, the civil rights group stepped up that support, holding a press conference to gain traction for the legislation.

The bill, Senate Bill 528, is sponsored by Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery County), and is currently bottled up in the Senate Law and Justice Committee. It would legalize, tax, and regulate the possession of small amounts of pot, as well as its commerce.

"I am honored that the NAACP has spoken out in favor of my legislation to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana in Pennsylvania," Leach said at the press conference. "As noted in recent reports, the war on drugs is racially-biased, inefficient and ineffective; and this modern day prohibition of a product less harmful than alcohol and tobacco needs to end. We can better use the resources we’re spending to fight this unnecessary war, and we can better spend our time and energy cracking down on substances that are actually harmful."

The state NAACP came on board in the wake of the release of a report recently released by the ACLU that showed that black Americans are more than three times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges than white Americans. In the Keystone State, the report found, blacks are 5.2 times more likely to be busted for pot than whites.

"As a representative of the NAACP and a retired Deputy Chief of Police with more than 31 years of service with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) Police Department, it is time Pennsylvania respond to this injustice in a rational and sensible way," said Harvey Crudup, president of the NAACP's Cheltenham Area Branch. "Millions of dollars per year in additional revenues can be generated to build more schools instead of prisons. These tax dollars can also subsidize drug treatment, job training and diversion programs to reduce racial disparities in Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system as well as transportation projects throughout the Commonwealth."

In addition to Leach and Crudup, other speakers at the press conference included Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and David Scott, chair of the legal redress committee for the Cheltenham Area Branch.

Philadelphia, PA
United States

Chronicle Book Review: High Price

High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, by Dr. Carl Hart (2013, Harper/Harper Collins Publishers, 340 pp., $26.99 HB)

Dr. Carl Hart grew up black and poor in Miami in the 1970s and 1980s, learned discipline from his desire to be a professional athlete, joined the armed forces, and wandered almost by happenstance into a career in the neurosciences. Now, Hart is at the pinnacle of his field -- a respected researcher in drug effects, the first African-American to become a tenured professor in the sciences at Columbia University, and a member of the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse and Dependency. And he has some things to say.

Some of those things contradict the conventional wisdom, but Hart has the cred -- both street and academic -- to state them. Although it is the addict or problematic drug user who is too often the media's face of drug use or the subject of scientific research, he notes, the vast majority of drug users are not addicts or problematic. And yes, that even extends to the most demonized drugs, like crack. While we were told one hit could get you strung out, it turns out only a small fraction of crack consumers are addicts, he points out.

Hart also has good, practical advice -- naive drug users shouldn't take drugs the same way experienced users do, for example, or get enough sleep! -- based not only on scientific research, but also personal observation and experience. Now at the pinnacle of his profession, he also wants to restore some sanity to our drug policies.

Dr. Hart has come a long way from the mean, if sun-splashed, streets of Miami, and with High Price, he takes you along for the ride. The journey is well worth it. Part memoir, part social history, part drug science, part plea for sanity on the issues of drugs, race, and class, High Price is revelatory as well as readable, illuminating as well as incisive, as impassioned as it is important.

While Hart grew up the wrong color and in a family scrabbling to hang on to its lower middle class status, his is, above all, an American story -- a story of coming of age, overcoming adversity, and striving for success and understanding in a world seemingly stacked against him. It's also the story of the American working class, buffeted by the de-industrialization that began in the 1970s, targeted by Reagan Republicans with cuts in social programs in the 1980s, and mostly dealt with by "tough on crime" and "tough on drugs" policies that have been in place ever since. That the malignant swelling of the nation's prison population is tied to Reagan era policies ( though many of them enacted by Democratic legislators) too often goes unnoted.

But of course, Hart isn't an unhyphenated American, he's African-American, and that means he carries an additional burden, the assumption too many make of criminality based on little more than his skin color. He wasn't expected to succeed, but to become a number, like so many of his peers. And, as he notes, but for the grace of god he could have gone down that path. He recounts the teenage criminality of he and his peers, making the stark point that a single arrest could make the difference between a career as a scientist and a career as an ex-con car washer. Some of his friends, no better or worse than he, had that unfortunate first encounter with law enforcement and the criminal justice system and never recovered: Educational opportunities blocked, job opportunities lost, they were essentially assigned to the scrap heap.

For some of them, it was a drug bust. Slinging dope was and is a way of life for the marginalized poor, an income, although not a great one, and a way to achieve status and respect. But of course, it's also a ticket to the slammer, particularly if you're poor and of color, without the resources available to middle class white folks. One thing Hart makes crystal clear is just how stacked the deck is against the urban poor, and that alone makes his book worth noting.

Hart grew into young adulthood imbibing the conventional wisdom about how drugs had had such a devastating impact on his community, but he also began to start thinking critically about the mismatch between rhetoric and reality. At some point along the way, he had a Chris Rock moment.

"You know what they say, crack is destroying the ghetto," Rock once famously observed. "Yeah, like the ghetto was so nice before crack. They say that shit like everyone in the 'hood had a yacht, a mansion, and a swimming pool, and crack came by and dried it all up."

As Hart began studying psychology and eventually neuroscience, he began noticing that the effects of crack cocaine widely touted in media and political discourses didn't match the science. In fact, he observed, most of the devastating effects attributed to crack could more fairly and accurately be attributed to poverty. Crack didn't bring guns to the ghetto; they were already there. Crack didn't bring broken families to the ghetto; they were already there. It may not have helped, but it was not the root cause of the problem.

"The effect of crack, when it had one, was mainly to exacerbate the problems that I'd seen in my home and in the hood since the 1970s," he wrote. "The drug's pharmacology didn't produce excess violence."

The studies on which he embarked, moving on from observing the effects of drugs on rats to observing their effects on people, led him to a startling -- and eye-opening -- conclusion: "Much of what we are doing in terms of drug education, treatment and public policy is inconsistent with scientific data."

Hart's critique extends to the science itself. He describes famous experiments where rats or monkeys alone in a cage will repeatedly press a lever to get more drugs, up to the point of death itself. But he then explains how those doses are many times higher than those any human would use, and he makes the crucial point that obsessive drug-taking behavior is reduced when the lab animals are part of a community and when they have other options.

Based on his scientific research, as well as his own observations and historical research (and musical and lyrical inspiration from the likes of Bob Marley and Public Enemy), Hart decided he needed to speak out against the injustices of the war on drugs. He became a board member of the Drug Policy Alliance, he began speaking to groups large and small, and High Price is part of that same education project.

This is not your typical drug policy tome. It's not a paean to pot, nor is it a dry academic treatise. But it is important, not only because it provides a voice for the voiceless peers he left behind, but also because it is a science- and evidence-based clarion call for a smarter and more human approach to drugs, one that situates drugs and problematic drug use within the broader social context. And it's a damned good read, too.

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