Incarceration

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Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki Talks Drug Reform [FEATURE]

In a conference call Monday morning, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki discussed the impact of his award-winning drug war documentary The House I Live In and where we go from here in the fight to end the drug war and mass incarceration.

Eugene Jarcecki (wikimedia.org)
The call was the second in a series of discussions planned and organized by the Drug Policy Alliance as part of its campaign to deepen and broaden the drug reform movement. The first discussion featured Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. Hear that conversation here.

Jarecki won the Sundance Film Festival grand jury prize for The House I Live In in 2012. The film made a shattering case against the drug war. Since its release, it has been used as a primer in faith institutions, schools and community-based organizations across the nation.

The drug reform landscape has been undergoing tectonic shifts in the two years since The House I Live In was released. It is possible, Jarecki said, that his film has played a role in shifting public opinion.

"One of the great lies that pervades the public imagination is the Hollywood lie that its movies don't shape the violence in this country," he said. "For Hollywood to pretend that movies have no role in shaping behavior is laughable. There are books that start revolutions. While Hollywood should bristle at the notion that movies create violence -- the violence comes in a society where we don't have health service and the roots of unwantedness can lead to violent behavior -- movies do shape public activity," he said.

"My movie is shaping public activity, and I am reminded by friends that this matters," the filmmaker continued. "A lot of young people will look at Michelle Alexander and say 'I want to be like that,' and that kind of example is extremely precious."

The recognition that the film would be an instrument of social change even influenced the title, Jarecki said.

"The making and handling of the film as a tool for public change and discussion" was important, he said. "We called it House over sexier titles, such as Kill the Poor or just Ghetto. I couldn't get it in a church or prison with a title like Kill the Poor. We had to choose a softer title; we weren't just thinking about the most poetic title, but really, how do we make sure this thing has legs where people all across the country can use it? We didn't want to alienate groups on the ground, and I wanted to make sure there were many groups on the ground doing this important work."

It worked. The film is now standard viewing in all the prisons in at least 11 states, and in New York, a viewing serves as an alternate punishment for juvenile offenders. And, Jarecki said, churches have been a key partner in getting the message out.

"We've found churches very welcoming, in large part because of our partnership with the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference," he said. "They've helped get churches across the country seeing the film, and it stretches far beyond the black church community. It's been very useful and robust. We also live stream the showings themselves to other churches. When we broadcast out of Shiloh Baptist Church, 180 other congregations also watched it."

But while Jarecki intended the film to serve polemic purposes, even he was surprised at the rapidity of the changes coming in the drug policy realm.

"The most significant surprise has been seeing the entire climate of the war on drugs change in the public imagination," he said. "When we started out, it was impossible to imagine any systemic shifts from the top. We see that the entrenched bureaucracies and corrupt interests are never open to negotiation, but the combination of the moral bankruptcy of the war on drugs and its economic bankruptcy -- 45 million drug arrests over 40 years, and what do we have to show for it? -- the catastrophic cycle of waste without achieving goals, unifies the left and the right like no other issue. The left sees a monster that preys on human rights for profit, and the right sees a bloated government program."

The policies of the war on drugs are now vulnerable, Jarecki said.

"Community groups see how it brings unfairness to communities and ravages society, so now, Washington is trying to appeal to the public by being more sensible," he argued. "This policy is vulnerable. While we've joined forces with the Drug Policy Alliance and other organizations to fight at the ground level, we're also seeing shreds of leadership from Obama, Holder, and Rand Paul. This is a moment of enormous vitality for us."

With a few exceptions, as mentioned just above, "the political class is isolated and orphaned as supporting something that doesn't make any sense," Jarecki said. "I thought I was choosing a very tough enemy, but it doesn't seem like much of a worthy adversary. The gross expenditures are hard to defend, they don't have the national security card to play anymore, the drug war has worn itself thin. 'Just Say No' and 'This is Your Brain on Drugs' hasn't worked. Instead, people just see family members with damaged lives."

It's not just in the realm of marijuana policy that the landscape is shifting in a favorable direction. The issue of the racial disparity in the drug war is also gaining traction.

"The condition of understanding the black American crisis of the drug war has moved light years in the last two years," Jarecki said. "Black folks are bizarrely and disproportionately targeted by the drug war, and that's become a common discussion. It's not a rare thing."

Still shot from The House I Live In
That understanding is extending to an acknowledgement that the war on drugs has been a brutal attack on the gains of the civil rights era, Jarecki argued.

"In the black American story, there is an argument to be made that the new Jim Crow established with the war on drugs was the final nail in the coffin of the civil rights movement," he said. "Black people are worse off economically than before the civil rights movement, and this critical viewpoint has become more widely understood."

But it's not just race. The unspeakable word in American political discourse -- class -- plays a role as well, Jarecki suggested.

"We've seen a shift from a drug war that could be described as predominantly racist to one that also has elements of class in it," he argued. "Poor whites, Latinos, women -- those are the growth areas for the war on drugs now. But let's not forget that black America is still essentially the leading link. We haven't shifted the drug war from race to class; it has diversified, it preserves its racism, but has seized market share by broadening into other class populations."

Racism and the war on drugs are only a part of a much larger problem, the filmmaker argued.

"We have to invite the country to begin seriously asking itself what kind of country it wants to be," he said. "What we are really looking at is a society that has bought into the notion that we can entrust the public good to private gain. We have industrial complexes that grip American policymaking in almost every sphere of public life, and the prison industrial complex is one of them. It is simply a crass illustration that you can feed a human being into the machine, and out comes dollar signs. This is a country without compassion, a town without pity."

And while change will come from the top, it will be impelled only by pressure from the bottom up, he said.

"Change comes from groups working together, and you start going down that road by getting out and starting walking," Jarecki advised. "It's an illusion to think we're supposed to be rescued by the government."

We have to do it ourselves.

Chronicle AM -- May 1, 2014

Asset forfeiture gone wild is in the news, so is a Delaware drug lab scandal, there's a major report on imprisonment from the National Academy of Sciences, Silk Road is back, and more. Let's get to it:

Silk Road is back and as busy as ever.
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Bill to Seal Old Marijuana Convictions Wins Committee Vote. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bipartisan sponsored bill that would allow someone to have their marijuana conviction sealed, if the conviction is now legal under Amendment 64. The committee heard nearly two hours of public comment before approving the measure, Senate Bill 14-218. The bill passed on a 3-2 vote and is now headed to the Committee on Appropriations.

Medical Marijuana

Louisiana Medical Marijuana Bill Dies in Committee. There will be no medical marijuana legislation passing through the Louisiana legislature this year. Senate Bill 541, sponsored by Sen. Fred Mills (R-New Iberia) was defeated in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on a vote of 6-2.

Iowa Limited CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Senate. The Iowa Senate on Thursday approved a narrow opening for Iowa parents with children suffering from severe epilepsy to be able to access cannabis oil as a treatment option. After an emotion-charged debate, senators voted 36-12 to pass Senate File 2360, a bill that legalizes the possession and medical use under certain conditions of cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive component of marijuana that backers say possesses a wide range of therapeutic benefits. Ten Republicans joined 26 Democrats in passing the bill. Sen. Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City) is the sponsor.

US House Narrowly Defeats Amendment to Allow VA Docs to Recommend Medical Marijuana. Nearly 200 members of Congress, including 22 Republicans, voted in favor of an amendment Wednesday intended to allow physicians within the Veterans Affairs system to recommend medical marijuana to veterans in states that allow it. The bipartisan-sponsored amendment failed 195-222. The amendment, sponsored by Congressmen Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Sam Farr (D-CA), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and Jared Polis (D-CO), was the first of its kind to be introduced on the House floor. It would have become part of House Resolution 4486, the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act.

Asset Forfeiture

Florida Sheriff on Asset Forfeiture Rampage. Marion County Sheriff Chris Blair is seizing criminal suspects' assets like never before, according to this report from The Ocala Star Banner. Prior to Blair taking office in 2012, asset forfeiture cases averaged 38 a year, but jumped to 57 last year, and there are already 33 so far this year. Now, Blair is expanding the practice beyond drug cases to include common crimes. Suspects face being stripped of their property after being arrested by officers for DUI, shoplifting, burglary, armed robbery, resisting arrest, driving with a suspended or revoked license, or grand theft. One woman had her 2008 Chevy seized after being caught with a few oxycodone pills. Here's the money quote (so to speak), as Blair's office explains the increase in seizures: "It shows the difference between a sheriff with 35 years of law enforcement experience and a sheriff who came from the business world," Chief Deputy Fred LaTorre explained. The whole article is worth the read; click the link.

Class Action Lawsuit Coming Over Nevada County's Highway Robbery Asset Forfeiture Program. Humboldt County already had to give back the money it stole from driver Tan Nguyen under the guise of its highway asset forfeiture program -- and pay his lawyer's fees -- but now the county faces a class action lawsuit from other victims of its overzealous law enforcement practices. After Ngyuen won his case against the Humboldt County Sherff's Department, 20 more people have come forward to say that they too had been stopped in Humboldt County and forced to give up money without any charges or even being accused of a crime. In many cases, they weren't even slapped with a speeding ticket. "What they're doing is profiling. They think they're stopping people who are on their way to California to buy drugs, and then bring them back to the Midwest or the Eastern states, and then sell them," said John Ohlson, he attorney for the cash seizure victims.

Drugged Driving

"Impaired" Driving Bill Wins Vermont Senate Committee Vote. The Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday approved a drugged driving bill, House Bill 501, but not before amending it to remove the zero tolerance language in the version passed by the House. Instead, the Senate version now says the amount of drugs in your system has to actually impair your ability to drive. While the distinction between the two bills seems small, it may be a tough fight to hammer out a compromise by next Friday, when the session adjourns. The version of the bill cited here is the original; the amended version is not yet available.

Law Enforcement

Delaware Drug Lab Scandal Could See Thousands of Drug Cases Thrown Out. The Delaware Public Defender's Office on Wednesday filed "the first wave" of legal challenges to try and overturn 9,500 drug convictions because of tampering and thefts at the state's drug testing lab. This is on top of the more than 3,700 pending drug prosecutions in Delaware courts that are at risk of being dismissed due to the scandal at the Controlled Substances Lab inside the Delaware Medical Examiner's Office. And on the same day that public defenders delivered five archive boxes containing 112 motions for post-conviction relief to prosecutors and the court, state officials revealed that an employee at the Medical Examiner's Office has been suspended with pay as an investigation into the missing drug evidence continues. Click on the link for all the sleazy details.

Georgia Narc Denied Immunity in Killing of Innocent Pastor in Drug Investigation. A narcotics officer who fatally shot a Baptist pastor in Georgia persuaded a federal judge to partly reduce the jury-imposed $2.3 million verdict, but failed in his bid to claim qualified immunity because he was acting in his capacity as a law enforcement officer. Billy Shane Harrison shot and killed Pastor Jonathan Ayers after Ayers attempted to flee in his car from undercover officers attempting to question him in a drug investigation. The judge in the case ruled that "defendant could not have reasonably believed that Ayers posed an imminent threat of serious harm or that deadly force was necessary to prevent his escape," the 11-page ruling states. "And because it is clearly established that it is unreasonable for a police officer to use deadly force under such circumstances, defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law based on qualified immunity is denied." No criminal charges were ever filed against Harrison for the killing.

Maine Governor Says He Found Money to Pay for More Drug War. Gov. Paul LePage (R) announced Wednesday that his administration has found $2.5 million to pay for a drug enforcement bill that would add agents, judges and prosecutors and increase funding for addiction treatment programs. The bill was enacted with broad bipartisan support, but the Legislature's budget committee did not fund it. On Wednesday, the LePage administration said it has found a projected surplus in the state's unclaimed-property fund, which is overseen by the State Treasurer's Office and consists of money and personal assets that are considered lost or abandoned. The governor said he will propose emergency legislation today to allocate the surplus to the drug enforcement initiative. But it's unclear whether the Legislature will consider it. The ACLU of Maine, which has consistently opposed the bill, urged lawmakers to reject LePage's proposal. "The governor continues to push a proposal that would scale up an already bloated criminal justice system while giving a back seat to more effective treatment programs," the group said. "Plenty has been said about the need for a balanced approach, but this proposal is nothing of the sort... A truly balanced approach would mean scaling back law enforcement while increasing treatment and prevention."

Sentencing

National Academy of Sciences Report Calls for Big Cuts in Imprisonment. A groundbreaking report released yesterday by the National Research Council, the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, documents the unprecedented and costly price of US incarceration rates. As the report points out, this unprecedented rate of incarceration is a relatively new phenomenon in US history. America's prison population exploded largely as a result of the failed drug war policies of the last 40 years. The report calls for a significant reduction in rates of imprisonment and says that the rise in the US prison population is "not serving the country well." It concludes that in order to significantly lower prison rates, the US should revise its drug enforcement and sentencing laws.

Sentencing Commission Submits Federal Sentencing Guideline Amendments to Cut Drug Sentences. On Wednesday, the US Sentencing Commission submitted its proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines to Congress. In addition to recommending reductions in some drug sentences, the Commission is also seeking public comment on the issue of whether to apply the amendment to the drug quantity table retroactively. Comments can be made through July 7 and can be emailed to public_comment@ussc.gov.

Federal Judge Calls for Clemency for Convicted Cocaine Dealer. In an opinion issued Tuesday, US District Court Judge Paul Friedman urged President Obama to commute the sentence of Byron McDade, who was convicted following a jury trial in 2002 of conspiracy to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine. Friedman sentenced McDade to 27 years in prison, the shortest sentence possible under federal sentencing guidelines, which were mandatory at the time. Prior to his conviction in the drug case, McDade had only a single misdemeanor on his record, for which he paid a $10 fine. "The sentence this Court was required to impose on Mr. McDade was unjust at the time and is 'out of line' with and disproportionate to those that would be imposed under similar facts today," Friedman wrote in his opinion dismissing McDade's latest bid to overturn his conviction. "While the Court is powerless to reduce the sentence it was required by then-existing law to impose, the President is not. The Court urges Mr. McDade's appointed counsel to pursue executive clemency on Mr. McDade's behalf so that justice may be done in this case." The administration recently called on federal drug prisoners to seek clemency.

International

Silk Road Internet Drug Sales Web Site Still As Busy As Ever. Eight months after federal agents brought down the man alleged to be running an underground Web site called Silk Road that had become a thriving venue for drug trafficking, not only is the site up and running again but the new version is more vibrant than ever. Busted Not Broken, a report from watchdog group the Digital Citizens Alliance claims the "online black market economy has done a complete somersault in the six months since the fall of the original Silk Road. New players have arisen, including a second incarnation of 'Dread Pirate Roberts' and a revived Silk Road (which seems to be thriving, even after law enforcement arrested and charged some of the new site's prominent figures) has replaced the original."

Jakarta Drug Crackdown An Exercise in Futility. The vice governor of Jakarta, commonly known as Ahok, has announced a crackdown on drugs in the Indonesian capital, but a thoughtful analysis from asiancorrespondent.com's Patrick Tibke shows how it is in exercise in both futility and hypocrisy. Click on the link; the read is worth it.

Lebanese Druse Leader Walid Jumblatt Says Legalize Marijuana. Walid Jumblatt, stalwart of the Lebanon's Druse community and leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, said Thursday he supported marijuana legalization, for both medical and economic reasons. "Never in my life have I smoked marijuana, but I support growing cannabis for medical use and to improve the living conditions of farmers in north and the Bekaa Valley," Jumblatt told Al-Jadeed TV. "Let's legalize cannabis and regulate its cultivation," the politician said. Crop substitution programs in the Bekaa Valley, which once saw a multi-billion marijuana trade, have been a failure, he added.

Faith Leaders Issue Easter Statement on War on Drugs, Mass Incarceration [FEATURE]

A broad coalition of Christian leaders have taken the occasion of the holiest day on the Christian calendar to release an Easter statement calling for the end of the war on drugs and mass incarceration. They said they chose the Easter season to release their statement because of the spirit of the Resurrection, which Easter commemorates and celebrates.

The Rev. Edwin Sanders (cannabisculture.com)
The statement calls for repealing laws that criminalize drug possession and replacing them with policies that expand access to effective health approaches to drug use, including evidence-based drug treatment.

It also calls for the elimination of policies that result in racially disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates and that that unjustly exclude people with a record of arrest or conviction from key rights and opportunities.

The United States is the world leader in incarceration, accounting for 25% of the global prison population while only making up 5% of the planet's population. In state prisons, drug offenders typically make up 20-30% of all prisoners, although that proportion has begun declining as nearly half the states have undertaken sentencing reforms in recent years.

But while state prison population numbers have begun a slight decline, the federal prison population continues to increase, driven in large part by the war on drugs. As of this month, there were more than 216,000 federal prisoners, with just more than half (50.1%) doing time for drug crimes, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.

"The cross that faith leaders are imploring others to take up is this unjust and immoral war on drugs and mass incarceration of the poor. In particular, poor black and brown young adults whose futures are being ruined at the most critical point in their lives," said Reverend John E. Jackson of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference.

"We are guided by our religious principles to serve those in need and give voice to those who have been marginalized and stigmatized by unjust policies. We cannot sit silently while a misguided war is waged on entire communities, ostensibly under the guise of combating the very real harms of drug abuse. The war on drugs has become a costly, ineffective and unjust failure," says Reverend Edwin Sanders, who is a Board Member of the Drug Policy Alliance and the Senior Servant for the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, Tennessee.

More than 100,000 people are doing time for drug offenses in federal prisons (wikimedia/chris piner)
"We are called upon to follow Jesus's example in opposing the war on drugs, which has resulted in the United States becoming the world's biggest jailer," added Sanders.

"Resurrection reality commissions and commands us to change these policies, laws and systems that rob whole communities of their most precious resource, their young. These are the ones Jesus faced betrayal, denial and desertion for. These are the ones Jesus gave up everything for. These are the issues Jesus was raised from a 3 day grave to speak truth to power to through our voices, through our crying loud and sparing not and through our organized efforts," added Jackson.

The story of the prodigal son is appropriate to ponder, said Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, Founder and Executive Director of The Ordinary Peoples Society, in Dothan, Alabama, himself a former drug war prisoner.

"The story of the prodigal son says he went out and lived a riotous life, like somebody who committed a crime or was on drugs or got incarcerated," said Glasgow. "The father of the prodigal son embraced him with open arms, but as a society, we don't do that. We incarcerate instead of trying to treat or restore. His father gave him shoes on his feet and a coat of many colors. These are things we're not doing when it comes to mass incarceration and the war on drugs."

Pastor Kenneth Glasgow (theordinarypeoplesociety.org)
The struggle against the war on drugs is a fight for civil rights and democracy, said Glasgow.

"After they gave us civil rights, they came along with the drug war and took our voting rights back," he said, referring to the hundreds of thousands who have had voted rights restricted or denied after being convicted of drug offenses.

There are concrete steps to take, said several speakers.

"We want to repeal the laws that criminalize drug possession and replace them with effective approaches, and put an end to any policy that unjustly excludes people because they have a previous criminal conviction," said the Rev Michael McBride, Director of Urban Strategies, Lifelines to Healing, Berkeley, California.

"We are fighting a righteous fight and standing in solidarity in the Holy Week to call for an end to the war on drugs and mass incarceration," McBride added. "We are organizing hundreds of faith congregations across the country to build a faith and moral movement to address and redress these unjust policies. Holy Week reminds us that death does not have a final say, but that God is able to bring redemption for the worst things that happen in our lives. Mass incarceration is the civil rights issue of our generation, and the faith community is in the forefront."

"For those of us who follow Jesus, this is the time to receive his grace, but also to receive his calling," said Bill Mefford, director of Civil and Human Rights for the United Methodist Church, which has been at the forefront of the faith community's challenge to the drug war. "It is time to proclaim relief for the captives and freedom for the oppressed. Unfortunately, because we are the world's leader in incarceration, we don't have to look far," he noted.

Mefford is the chairman of an interfaith coalition working on Capitol Hill to reform the criminal justice system. It represents 35 faith organizations with millions of members.

"There are steps we can take to rescue ourselves from our own captivity," Medford continued. "We can pass the Smarter Sentencing Act as an incremental step toward justice reform that will address costly overcrowding at the Bureau of Prisons by cutting in half mandatory minimum sentences for low level drug offenses."

The Smarter Sentencing Act has passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and awaits a Senate floor vote. It has yet to move in the GOP-controlled House.

As Holy Week looms, it is indeed appropriate to ask that rhetorical question. When it comes to dealing with drug use and the drug trade, what would Jesus do?

New York City, NY
United States

"The New Jim Crow" Author Michelle Alexander Talks Race and Drug War [FEATURE]

On Thursday, Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling and galvanizing The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness sat down with poet/activist Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance to discuss the book's impact and where we go from here.

Michelle Alexander (wikimedia.org)
The New Jim Crow has been a phenomenon. Spending nearly 80 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, it brought to the forefront a national conversation about why the United States had become the world's largest incarcerator, with 2.2 million in prison or jail and 7.7 million under control of the criminal justice system, and African American boys and men -- and now women -- making up a disproportionate number of those imprisoned. Alexander identified failed drug war policies as the primary driver of those numbers, and called for a greater challenge to them by key civil rights leaders.

It's now been nearly four years since The New Jim Crow first appeared. Some things have changed -- federal sentencing reforms, marijuana legalization in two states -- but many others haven't. Alexander and Bandele discuss what has changed, what hasn't, and what needs to, raising serious questions about the path we've been down and providing suggestions about new directions.

Audio of the conversation is online here, and a transcript follows here:

Asha Bandele: The US has 5% of the world's population, but has 25% of the world's incarcerated population, and the biggest policy cause is the failed drug war. How has the landscape changed in the last four years since The New Jim Crow came out?

Michelle Alexander: The landscape absolutely has changed in profound ways. When writing this book, I was feeling incredibly frustrated by the failure of many civil rights organizations and leaders to make the war on drugs a critical priority in their organization and also by the failure of many of my progressive friends and allies to awaken to the magnitude of the harm caused by the war on drugs and mass incarceration. At the same time, not so long ago, I didn't understand the horror of the drug war myself, I failed to connect the dots and understand the ways these systems of racial and social control are born and reborn.

But over last few years, I couldn't be more pleased with reception. Many people warned me that civil rights organizations could be defensive or angered by criticisms in the book, but they've done nothing but respond with enthusiasm and some real self-reflection.

There is absolutely an awakening taking place. It's important to understand that this didn't start with my book -- Angela Davis coined the term "prison industrial complex" years ago; Mumia Abu-Jamal was writing from prison about mass incarceration and our racialized prison state. Many, many advocates have been doing this work and connecting the dots for far longer than I have. I wanted to lend more credibility and support for the work that so many have been doing for some, but that has been marginalized.

I am optimistic, but at the same time, I see real reasons for concern. There are important victories in legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington, in Holder speaking out against mandatory minimums and felon disenfranchisement, in politicians across the country raising concerns about the size of the prison state for the first time in 40 years, but much of the dialog is still driven by fiscal concerns rather than genuine concern for the people and communities most impacted, the families destroyed. We haven't yet really had the kind of conversation we must have as a nation if we are going to do more than tinker with the machine and break our habit of creating mass incarceration in America.

Asha Bandele: Obama has his My Brother's Keeper initiative directed at black boys falling behind. A lot of this is driven by having families and communities disrupted by the drug war. Obama nodded at the structural racism that dismembers communities, but he said it was a moral failing. He's addressed race the least of any modern American president. Your thoughts?

Michelle Alexander: I'm glad that Obama is shining a spotlight on the real crisis facing black communities today, in particular black boys and young men, and he's right to draw attention to it and elevate it, but I worry that the initiative is based more in rhetoric than in a meaningful commitment to addressing the structures and institutions that have created these conditions in our communities. There is a commitment to studying the problem and identifying programs that work to keep black kids in school and out of jail, and there is an aspect that seeks to engage foundations and corporations, but there is nothing in the initiative that offers any kind of policy change from the government or any government funding of any kind to support these desperately needed programs.

There is an implicit assumption that we just need to find what works to lift people up by their bootstraps, without acknowledging that we're waging a war on these communities we claim to be so concerned about. The initiative itself reflects this common narrative that suggests the reasons why there are so many poor people of color trapped at the bottom -- bad schools, poverty, broken homes. And if we encourage people to stay in school and get and stay married, then the whole problem of mass incarceration will no longer be of any real concern.

But I've come to believe we have it backwards. These communities are poor and have failing schools and broken homes not because of their personal failings, but because we've declared war on them, spent billions building prisons while allowing schools to fail, targeted children in these communities, stopping, searching, frisking them -- and the first arrest is typically for some nonviolent minor drug offense, which occurs with equal frequency in middle class white neighborhoods but typically goes ignored. We saddle them with criminal records, jail them, then release them to a parallel universe where they are discriminated against for the rest of their lives, locked into permanent second-class status.

We've done this in the communities most in need our support and economic investment. Rather than providing meaningful support to these families and communities where the jobs have gone overseas and they are struggling to move from an industrial-based economy to a global one, we have declared war on them. We have stood back and said "What is wrong with them?" The more pressing question is "What is wrong with us?"

Asha Bandele: During the Great Depression, FDR had the New Deal, but now it seem like there is no social commitment at the highest levels of government. And we see things like Eric Holder and Rand Paul standing together to end mandatory minimums. Is this an unholy alliance?

Michelle Alexander: We have to be very clear that so much of the progress being made on drug policy reflects the fact that we are at a time when politicians are highly motivated to downsize prisons because we can't afford the massive prison state without raising taxes on the predominantly white middle class. This is the first time in 40 years we've been willing to have a serious conversation about prison downsizing.

But I'm deeply concerned about us doing the right things for the wrong reasons. This movement to end mass incarceration and the war on drugs is about breaking the habit of forming caste-like systems and creating a new ethic of care and concern for each of us, this idea that each of us has basic human rights. That is the ultimate goal of this movement. The real issue that lies at the core of every caste system ever created is the devaluing of human beings.

If we're going to do this just to save some cash, we haven't woken up to the magnitude of the harm. If we are not willing to have a searching conversation about how we got to this place, how we are able to lock up millions of people, we will find ourselves either still having a slightly downsized mass incarceration system or some new system of racial control because we will have not learned the core lesson our racial history is trying to teach us. We have to learn to care for them, the Other, the ghetto dwellers we demonize.

Temporary, fleeting political alliances with politicians who may have no real interest in communities of color is problematic. We need to stay focused on doing the right things for the right reasons, and not count as victories battles won when the real lessons have not been learned.

Asha Bandele: Portugal decriminalized all drugs and drug use has remained flat, overdoses been cut by a third, HIV cut by two-thirds. What can we learn from taking a public health approach and its fundamental rejection of stigma?

Michelle Alexander: Portugal is an excellent example of how it is possible to reduce addiction and abuse and drug related crime in a non-punitive manner without filling prisons and jails. Supposedly, we criminalize drugs because we are so concerned about the harm they cause people, but we wind up inflicting far more pain and suffering than the substances themselves. What are we doing really when we criminalize drugs is not criminalizing substances, but people.

I support a wholesale shift to a public health model for dealing with drug addiction and abuse. How would we treat people abusing if we really cared about them? Would we put them in a cage, saddle them with criminal records that will force them into legal discrimination the rest of their lives? I support the decriminalization of all drugs for personal use. If you possess a substance, we should help you get education and support, not demonize, shame, and punish you for the rest of your life.

I'm thrilled that Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana and DC has decriminalized it -- these are critically important steps in shifting from a purely punitive approach. But there are warning flags. I flick on the news, and I see images of people using marijuana and trying to run legitimate businesses, and they're almost all white. When we thought of them as black or brown, we had a purely punitive approach. Also, it seems like its exclusively white men being interviewed as wanting to start marijuana businesses and make a lot of money selling marijuana.

I have to say the image doesn't sit right. Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for doing the same thing. As we talk about legalization, we have to also be willing to talk about reparations for the war on drugs, as in how do we repair the harm caused.

With regard to Iraq, Colin Powell said "If you break it, you own it," but we haven't learned that basic lesson from our own racial history. We set the slaves free with nothing, and after Reconstruction, a new caste system arose, Jim Crow. A movement arose and we stopped Jim Crow, but we got no reparations after the waging of a brutal war on poor communities of color that decimated families and fanned the violence it was supposed to address.

Do we simply say "We're done now, let's move on" and white men can make money? This time, we have to get it right; we have to tell the whole truth, we have to repair the harm done. It's not enough to just stop. Enormous harm had been done; we have to repair those communities.

Chronicle AM -- March 7, 2014

Oregon's medical marijuana dispensary regulation bill has passed the legislature with only temporary local bans allowed, more CBD medical marijuana bills are moving, an Indiana hemp bill has passed the legislature, and more. Let's get to it:

Yours truly with Peruvian coca farmer. The government wants to eradicate his crop. (Phil Smith/stopthedrugwar.org)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Cops Want Marijuana Tax Dollars Because…. Colorado police chiefs have written a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) asking for a bigger cut of marijuana tax revenues. "Many of our local law enforcement agencies have diverted staff from other operations into marijuana enforcement, leaving gaps in other service areas as a direct result of marijuana legalization," according to the letter from the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police. They claim they need more money to learn how to spot stoned drivers, to pay for "oral fluid testing" at DUI stops, and to create a database of marijuana-related crime.

Maryland Senate Committee Approves Decriminalization Bill. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee approved a decriminalization bill on a 8-3 vote Friday. Senate Bill 364, cosponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore) and Sen. Allan Kittleman (R-Howard), would replace criminal penalties for possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana with a $100 fine, similar to a parking ticket. It would also make penalties for minors the same as those for underage possession of alcohol. Under current Maryland law, possession of small amounts of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $500. The bill now heads for a Senate floor vote.

Puerto Rico Decriminalization, Medical Marijuana Approval Looming. Bills that would decriminalize small-time pot possession (Senate Bill 517) and allow for medical marijuana (House Bill 1362) in Puerto Rico are due for debate soon and are expected to pass. The decrim bill has already passed the Senate.

Medical Marijuana

New Hampshire Home Grow Bill Passes House. The House Friday approved a bill that would allow patients to grow their medicine while waiting for the state to develop regulations for dispensaries and commercial medical marijuana cultivation. House Bill 1622 now heads for the state Senate.

Michigan Medical Marihuana Review Panel Recommends PTSD as Qualifying Condition. The Michigan Medical Marihuana Review Panel appointed by the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs has decided to recommend that the department add PTSD to the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana. It is now up to Steve Arwood, Director of the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, to accept or reject the recommendation. If he does, Michigan will become the 8th state to allow marijuana for the treatment of PTSD.

South Carolina CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Passes House Panel. A bill that would allow for the use of high-CBD cannabis oil for epileptic seizures passed a House subcommittee Thursday. House Bill 4803, sponsored by Rep. Jenny Horne (R-Summerville), calls for clinical trials of a CBD-based drug, but very few can participate in such trials, Hilton said. While the bill would also allow doctors to prescribe CBD oil pharmaceuticals, it's unclear whether all doctors would be able to do so.

Alabama CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Stalls in Senate. A bill that would allow for the use of high-CBD cannabis oil for treatment of seizure disorders hit a roadblock as the Senate adjourned Thursday before taking it up. Senate Bill 174 could still get a hearing next week, though.

California Dispensary Limits Bill Gets Hearing Next Week. A bill that would expand the minimum distance of dispensaries or collectives from schools to 1,000 feet (up from 600 feet under current law) is set for a hearing next week. Assembly Bill 1588 will go before the Assembly Public Safety Committee Wednesday. It is opposed by Cal NORML.

Oregon Dispensary Regulation Bill Passes With Only Temporary Local Bans Allowed. The Oregon Senate Friday gave final approval to a statewide dispensary regulation bill after the House approved compromise language that would allow localities to issue moratoria on dispensaries, but only for a year while they figure out how to regulate them. Senate Bill 1531 now heads to the governor's desk.

Hemp

Indiana Hemp Bill Goes to Governor. A bill that would license Indiana farmers to grow hemp has been approved by the legislature. Senate Bill 357 passed the Senate unanimously last month and passed the House 93-4 earlier this week. Because it was amended in the House, the Senate needed to approve the changes. It has now done so, and the bill awaits the signature of Gov. Mike Pence (R).

Harm Reduction

Transnational Institute Releases Paper on Cocaine Harm Reduction. The Transnational Institute has released the latest paper in its Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies. The paper, Cocaine: Toward a Self-Regulation Model -- New Developments in Harm Reduction, argues that most cocaine users do not "escalate toward addiction," but instead self-regulate their use, and that drug treatment programs stressing the disease model of addiction should be replaced by programs that empower users and their ability to self-regulate.

Federal Overdose Prevention Bill Reintroduced. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and 18 cosponsors reintroduced the Stop Overdose Stat Act (House Resolution 4169) Friday in a bid to reduce the toll of fatal drug overdoses. It would provide federal support for overdose prevention programs run by community agencies and municipal, state and tribal governments. The bill is supported by the American Medical Association, the Trust for America's Health, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Harm Reduction Coalition.

Law Enforcement

Press Conference Monday to Promote New Jersey Bail Reform. The Assembly Judiciary Committee is set to hear a bail reform bill Monday morning, but before that happens, supporters of the legislation will hold a statehouse news conference will faith leaders. Click on the link for more details. A number of bail bills have been filed; it's not clear which one(s) will be heard.

International

Italian Government Won't Challenge Abruzzo Law Allowing Medical Marijuana. The Italian government has decided not to challenge a regional law that would permit the supply of cannabis-based prescription drugs in Abruzzo, government sources said. The decision would open the door for legal marijuana use for therapeutic purposes in the central Italian region. The case refers to a law passed this past January. The area has been on the vanguard of cannabis legislation in Italy for years.

Peru Will Spend $300 Million to Eradicate Coca Crops. Peru's government has reaffirmed its pledge to meet a coca eradication target set at 30,000 hectares by allocating US $300 million for boosting ongoing efforts to tackle drug trafficking, Peruvian Prime Minister, Rene Cornejo, said on Thursday. Cornejo's remarks came during the signing ceremony of a financing agreement with the European Union to support the country's National Anti-Drug Strategy. Peru is once again the world's largest coca and cocaine producer, after losing that title to Colombia late in the last century.

Israeli Health Ministry Approves Medical Marijuana for Epileptic Kids. The Health Ministry has decided to approve the use of medical marijuana for children suffering from extreme cases of epilepsy, but only if other drugs are ineffective or less effective. It's not clear if only high-CBD cannabis oils are approved, but the exception for epilepsy is only for kids. The ministry also added fibromyalgia to the list of approved diseases and conditions.

Cameron Douglas Writes from Behind Bars

Actor Cameron Douglas was serving five years prison time for a drug law violation, when he was tested positive for drug use. The judge added 4.5 more years to his sentence, the heaviest penalty ever dealt out in that situation. He wrote an editorial, "Words Behind Walls," submitted by his girlfriend on his behalf to the Huffington Post.

"Words Behind Walls" is not mainly about his own story -- although he goes into being kept in solitary confinement for 11 months -- but mostly about the tragedy and injustice of half a million nonviolent drug offenders in the prisons and jails, many simply in a cycle of addiction and relapse like he is.

His piece, linked above, is worth reading -- but not before I remark on the incomprehensible cruelty shown by the judge in this case. That judge must be some kind of lost soul himself. At least that is how it looks from here.

Angry Afternoon (The Human and Fiscal Cost of the Medical Marijuana Wars)

Two reports came out today about the federal government's attacks on medical marijuana providers. First, California NORML surveyed court records connected with medical marijuana cases, finding nearly 500 person years of incarceration for medical marijuana defendants. Second, Americans for Safe Access has estimated $300 million spent by the Obama administration on anti-medical marijuana enforcement, after $200 million spent in two terms of the Bush administration -- half a billion total.

Dale Schafer and Mollie Fry (canorml.org)
Among the cases highlighted are those of people like Richard Flor, Montana medical marijuana provider who died in federal prison. They include the husband and wife defendants Dale Schafer (a hemophiliac) and Dr. Mollie Fry (a cancer patient). Not highlighted in the release, but on the list, is my friend Bryan Epis, California's second medical marijuana defendant and the first to be convicted. Bryan is getting out soon, but he's spent too many years behind bars. There are many more, of course.

Some people argue that these people knowingly took a risk, violating federal law, and even if one disagrees with a law, it's the law and prosecutors are bound to uphold it. But that misses a basic ethical point, and a practical one. In practical terms, police and prosecutors have discretion to focus their resources on the cases of most importance to them. They also can choose not to prosecute, or make deals to let people out of prison time, no abuse of discretion being thereby committed. In many cases that's what happened.

And so in a situation such as this one -- states passing pro-medical marijuana laws, now even legalization laws, the Obama administration effectively encouraging people further by promising a more-or-less hands off approach to the issue, that clearly would have been the right approach for officials to take. If they felt (rightly or wrongly) that they had to shut down certain operations, the ethical approach, given all that came before, would have been to tell the people things have changed, they have to stop doing what they're doing or face prosecution, but giving them that chance. (The same idea applies to Marc Emery, whose business was accepted by authorities for nine years until they hit him with the years he's serving.)

Instead of doing that, in the many cases CANORML has highlighted, they instead let the parties go about their business for years, until they had the evidence compiled they would need to get the extremely harsh sentences they wanted. If these outlets were really harming the public, shouldn't they have moved to close them down as soon as they could instead? I thought the point of our laws was to protect the public, not to destroy the individuals targeted by the law.

Those are a few of the reasons it's an angry afternoon for me.

Celebrities Urge Obama Forward on Drug, Sentencing Reform [FEATURE]

A coalition of more than 175 artists, actors, athletes, elected officials, and civil rights and civil liberties advocates Tuesday sent an open letter to President Obama urging him to redouble his efforts to shift from a punitive, repressive federal criminal justice policy to one emphasizing prevention and rehabilitation.

Russell Simmons, 2012 Tribeca Film Festival (courtesy David Shankbone via Wikimedia)
The US is the world's leading incarcerator, with more than 2.3 million people behind bars. The US leads the world both in absolute numbers of prisoners and in prisoners per capita, with 715 per capita, comfortably leading the nearest per capita contenders, Russia (584) and Belarus (554).

Of those 2.3 million people behind bars, more than 500,000 are charged with drug offenses. While the number of prisoners being held by the states and the number of drug offenders held by the states have begun to decline slightly in recent years as state-level policy makers grapple with economic problems, the federal prison population continues to grow, driven in part by drug offenders. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were some 95,000 federal drug war prisoners at the end of 2011, nearly half the federal prison population. That's up from only 70,000 a decade ago.

"It is critical that we change both the way we think about drug laws in this country and how we generate positive solutions that leave a lasting impact on rebuilding our communities," said hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who helped organize the star-studded effort. "We need to break the school to prison pipeline, support and educate our younger generations and provide them with a path that doesn’t leave them disenfranchised with limited options."

In the letter, the coalition praised Obama for criminal justice reforms he had undertaken, such as the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced (but did not eliminate) the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, but urged him to do more. "Mr. President, it is evident that you have demonstrated a commitment to pursue alternatives to the enforcement-only "War on Drugs" approach and address the increased incarceration rates for non-violent crimes," the letter said. "We believe the time is right to further the work you have done around revising our national policies on the criminal justice system and continue moving from a suppression-based model to one that focuses on intervention and rehabilitation."

The coalition called for specific reforms.

"Some of the initial policies we recommend is, under the Fair Sentencing Act, extend to all inmates who were subject to 100-to-1 crack-to-powder disparity a chance to have their sentences reduced to those that are more consistent with the magnitude of the offense," the letter said. "We ask your support for the principles of the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 (Senate Bill 619), which allows judges to set aside mandatory minimum sentences when they deem appropriate."

The letter also implicitly chided the Obama administration for its failure to make much use of his power to pardon and commute sentences. In fact, Obama has pardoned prisoners or commuted sentences at a much lower rate than any of his recent predecessors. He has granted only 39 pardons and one commutation (of a terminally ill cancer patient) in five years in office, while failing to act on such deserving and well-publicized cases as that of Clarence Aaron, who is now 20 years into a triple life sentence for a cocaine deal in which he was neither the buyer, seller, or supplier of the drugs.

"We ask that you form a panel to review requests for clemency that come to the Office of the Pardon Attorney," the letter said. "Well-publicized errors and omissions by this office have caused untold misery to thousands of people."

The letter also applauded Obama's "staunch commitment" to reentry programs for prisoners who have finished their sentences and urged him to expand those transition programs, and it urged him to support the Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education (Youth PROMISE) Act (House Bill 1318), "a bill that brings much needed focus on violence and gang intervention and prevention work."

The coalition also asked for a meeting with the president.

"We request the opportunity to meet with you to discuss these ideas further and empower our coalition to help you achieve your goals of reducing crime, lowering drug use, preventing juvenile incarceration and lowering recidivism rates," the letter said.

From the Hollywood community, signatories to the letter included: Roseanne Barr, Russell Brand, Jim Carrey, Cedric The Entertainer, Margaret Cho, Cameron Diaz, Mike Epps, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Woody Harrelson, Ron Howard, Eugene Jarecki, Scarlett Johannson, the Kardashians, LL Cool J, Eva Longoria, Demi Moore, Michael Moore, Tim Robbins, Chris Rock, Susan Sarandon, Sarah Silverman, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, and Mark Wahlberg.

From the music community, signatories included: Big Boi of Outkast, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Chuck D, DJ Envy, DJ Pauly D, Ani Difranco, Missy Elliot, Ghostface Killah, Ginuwine, Jennifer Hudson, Ice-T, Talib Kweli, John Legend, Ludacris, Lil Wayne, Natalie Maines, Nicky Minaj, Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross, RZA, and Angela Yee.

From the civil rights and civil liberties community, signatories included: Harry Belafonte, Julian Bond, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition leader Neill Franklin, Rev. Jesse Jackson, NAACP head Benjamin Todd Jealous, National Urban League leader Marc Morial, Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann, Rev. Al Sharpton, ACLU head Anthony Romero, Families Against Mandatory Minimums head Julie Stewart, and Dr. Boyce Watkins.

From the faith community, signatories included:  Bishop James Clark, Bishop Noel Jones, Bishop Clarence Laney, Bishop Edgar Vann, Dr. Iva Carruthers, Deepak Chopra, Father Michael Pfleger, Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, Rabbi Nina Mandel, Rev. Jamal Bryant, Rev. Delman Coates, Rev. Leah D. Daughtry, Rev. Dr. Fredrick Haynes, Rev. Michael McBride, Rev. Dr. W Franklyn Richardson, and Rev. Barbara Skinner Williams.

Media and academic figures who signed on include: CNN's TJ Holmes, Radio One's Cathy Hughes and Alfred Liggins, former MSNBC host (and now hydroponic farmer!) Dylan Ratigan, "The New Jim Crow" author Michelle Alexander, Michael Eric Dyson, Naomi Klein, Julianne Malveaux, and Spelman College's Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum.

Also signing were businessmen Virgin Airlines magnate Sir Richard Branson, US Black Chamber of Commerce head Ron Busby, and St. Louis Rams owner Chip Rosenbloom, elected officials Congressman Tony Cardenas (D-CA), Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), Congresswoman Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), Congressman Bobby Rush (D-IL), and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA), and professional athletes Brendon Ayanbadejo, Lamar Odom, Isaiah Thomas, and MikeTyson, among others.

"The letter is intended to be a respectful appeal to the Obama administration asking that we develop productive pathways to supporting families that have been harmed by the War on Drugs," said Dr. Boyce Watkins, author, entrepreneur, and current scholar in residence in entrepreneurship and innovation at Syracuse University. "Countless numbers of children have been waiting decades for their parents to come home, and America is made safer if we break the cycle of mass incarceration. Time is of the essence, for with each passing year that we allow injustice to prevail, our nation loses another piece of its soul. We must carefully examine the impact of the War on Drugs and the millions of living, breathing Americans who've been affected.  It is, quite simply, the right thing to do."

"So called 'tough on crime' policies have failed our nation and its families, while 'smart on crime' policies work," said NAACP head Benjamin Todd Jealous. "When we know that drug treatment is seven times more effective than incarceration for drug addicts, basic human decency demands our nation makes the switch. The fate of hundreds of people and the children who need them home and sober hang in the balance. Great progress is being made in states from New York to Georgia with strong bipartisan support. The time has come for all of us to do all that we can. The future of our families, states, and nation demand it."

Will President Obama respond to this clarion call for action? Stay tuned.

Drug Sentences Driving Federal Prison Population Growth, Government Report Finds

In a report released Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that growth in the federal prison population is outstripping the Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) rated capacity to house prisoners and that the bulge in federal prisoners is largely attributable to drug prisoners and longer sentences for them. That growing inmate overcrowding negatively affects inmates, staff, and BOP infrastructure, the GAO said.

The federal prison population increased 9.5% from Fiscal Year 2006 through FY 2011, exceeding a 7% increase in rated capacity. Although BOP increased the number of available beds by 8,300 during that period by opening five new facilities (and closing four minimum security camps), the number of prisons where overcrowding is occurring increased from 36% to 39%, with BOP forecasting overcrowding increasing to encompass 45% of prisons through 2018.

The drug war and harsh federal drug sentencing are the main drivers of the swelling federal prison population. The GAO reported that 48% of federal prisoners were drug offenders last year, and that the average sentence length for federal drug prisoners is now 2 ½ times longer than before federal anti-drug legislation passed in the mid-1980s.There are also now more than 100,000 federal drug prisoners, more than the total number of federal prisoners as recently as 20 years ago.

The negative effects of federal prison overcrowding include "increased use of double and triple bunking, waiting lists for education and drug treatment programs, limited meaningful work opportunities, and increased inmate-to-staff ratios," the report found. All of those "contribute to increased inmate misconduct, which negatively affects the safety and security of inmates and staff." The report also noted that "BOP officials and union representatives voiced concerns about a serious incident [read: riot] occurring."

For this report, the GAO also examined prison populations in five states and actions those states have taken to reduce populations. It found that the states "have modified criminal statutes and sentencing, relocated inmates to local facilities, and provided inmates with additional opportunities for early release."

Noting that the BOP does not have the authority to modify sentences or sentencing, it nevertheless identified possible means for Congress to address federal prison overcrowding. It could reduce inmate populations by reforming sentencing laws or it could increase capacity by building more prisons, or some combination of the two.

Or it could remove drug control from the ambit of criminal justice altogether and treat the use and distribution of currently illegal drugs as a public health problem.

Washington, DC
United States

US-Mexican Caravan for (Drug War) Peace Gets Underway [FEATURE]

Last Sunday, dozens of Mexican activists led by poet Javier Sicilia crossed into the US at San Diego to begin a weeks-long Caravan for Peace and Justice that will take them more than 6,000 miles through 27 cities in a bid to focus attention on the drug war's terrible toll in both countries. They were met there by representatives of the more than 100 US organizations that are joining and supporting the Caravan as it makes its way toward Washington, DC.

"Our purpose is to honor our victims, to make their names and faces visible," Sicilia said. "We will travel across the United States to raise awareness of the unbearable pain and loss caused by the drug war -- and of the enormous shared responsibility for protecting families and communities in both our countries."

But it's not just about honoring the victims of the drug war; the Caravan also explicitly seeks policy changes on both sides of the border, and not only to drug policy. These policy areas and the Caravan's recommendations include:

Drug War policies: We propose the need to find a solution, with a multidisciplinary and intergenerational approach that places individuals, and their welfare and dignity, at the center of drug policy. We call on both the Mexican and the U.S. community to open and maintain a dialogue about alternatives to Prohibition based on evidence, and which is inclusive in its considerations of the diverse options for drug regulation.

Arms trafficking: We propose that the President of the United States immediately prohibit the importation of assault weapons to the United States. Assault weapons are often smuggled into Mexico, and have also been used too many times against innocent civilians in the US. We propose giving authorities effective regulatory tools and adequate resources to halt arms smuggling in the border regions, especially in border states like Arizona and Texas.

Money laundering: We call for governments on both sides of the border to take concrete steps to combat money laundering. We propose that financial institutions be held accountable for preventing money laundering through increased government surveillance, investigations, fines and criminal charges. We also call for the Treasury Department to immediately implement Congress’ 2009 call to close the “prepaid/stored value cards” loophole.

US foreign aid policy: We call for a change from the United States' "war" focus to one of human security and development that contemplates promoting the healing of Mexico's torn social fabric. We propose the immediate suspension of US assistance to Mexico's armed forces. The "shared responsibility" for peace that both governments share must begin with each country complying with its own respective national laws.

Immigration: We call for a change in the policies that have militarized the border and criminalized immigrants. These policies have generated a humanitarian crisis driven by unprecedented levels of deportations and incarceration of migrants. In addition, these policies have also inflicted immeasurable environmental damage. We call for protecting the dignity of every human being, including immigrant populations that have been displaced by violence who are fleeing to the US seeking safe haven and a better life.


The Caravan is a natural outgrowth of Sicilia's Mexican Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity (MMPJD), which he formed after his son and several comrades were kidnapped and murdered by drug cartel gunmen in Cuernavaca in March 2011. It is designed to put names and faces on the estimated 60,000 dead, 10,000 disappeared, and 150,000 displaced by the prohibition-related violence pitting the so-called cartels against each other and the Mexican state.

In Mexico, the MMPJD struck a deep chord with a population increasingly angered and frightened by the often horrific violence raging across the country. Caravans organized by the MMJPD crisscrossed the country last year before bringing 100,000 people to mass in Mexico City's huge national plaza, the Zocalo in June. The mass outpouring of grief and anger convinced President Felipe Calderon to meet with Sicilia, who brought along photos of some of the dead depicting them as happy, smiling human beings.

"The powers that be were trying to tell us that all those who were dying were just criminals, just cockroaches," Sicilia explained. "We had to change the mindset, and put names to the victims for a change."

On last Sunday, Sicilia and the Caravan were met in San Diego by about 100 supporters from national groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance, Global Exchange, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the NAACP, the Washington Office on Latin America, and, as will be the case across the country, local immigrant rights, civil rights, religious, and drug reform groups.

"This movement brings together activists from both of our countries to shed light on the policies that have failed our families, neighbors, and nations," said Sicilia. "United, we will raise our voices to call for an end to a war on drugs that allows entire communities to become casualties, and we will demand a shift in attention to poverty and the lack of economic opportunity that helps breed the criminality."

"What we are trying to do is raise the level of conversation around this topic," said Global Exchange's Ted Lewis, one of the caravan's organizers. "We're trying to have a bi-national conversation and impact."

Javier Sicilia and Sheriff Joe Arpaio (caravanforpeace.org)
By last Friday, the Caravan had reached Las Cruces, New Mexico, after first stopping in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Tucson. In Los Angeles, the Caravan wooed Hollywood, seeking support from the film community as it seeks to shift public opinion against prohibitionist drug policies that wreak havoc in both countries.

"What unites us is grief for what Mexico has lost, which is peace," said Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the Oscar-nominated director of "Biutiful" and "Babel," who was among the Hollywood stars greeting the Caravan.

In Phoenix on Thursday, Sicilia and the Caravan had an unexpected encounter with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio as they trekked to one of Arpaio's jails to see what the drug war looks like on the US side of the border. The feisty sheriff, who is notorious for his treatment of prisoners and anti-immigrant politics, got an earful from Sicilia, but didn't exactly roll over.

Sicilia chided Arpaio over the flow of American weapons into Mexico and the hands of the cartels and asked him to do a better job controlling the traffic, to which Arpaio retorted, "Control the flow of drugs."

Sicilia also urged Arpaio, who is under Justice Department investigation over his treatment of prisoners and illegal immigrants, to "be more human" in the way he handles people under his control. "We don't come in war but in peace to tell you that you have half of the responsibility for the war that there is in Mexico," he said. "I ask you whether treating migrants like dogs is a correct policy."

"I don't run the jails," Arpaio replied. [Ed: As noted above, Arpaio does run jails, and is being investigated for how prisoners are treated in them.]

Sicilia urged Arpaio to visit Mexico, but Arpaio demurred, saying that the cartels had a price on his head.

The Caravan for Peace is now less nearly two weeks into its journey across the county to Washington, DC. Organizers have not said yet whether they will seek a meeting with President Obama, but are planning on meetings on Capitol Hill. Between now and then, they hope the Caravan will succeed in raising consciousness among Americans about the toll of the drug war on both sides of the border. Whether policymakers will listen is an open question, but the media is certainly listening. Google lists 145 news articles about the Caravan so far. That's a good start.

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