(renamed "Drug War Chronicle" effective issue #300, August 2003)
Issue #67, 11/13/98
"Raising Awareness of the Consequences of Drug Prohibition"
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The Boston Globe this week (11/8) reports that it has received figures from the Massachusetts Department of Corrections indicating that 84% of state inmates serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses are first-time offenders. These inmates are serving an average of five years, or, according to The Globe, one year longer than the average sentence for violent offenders.
Mandatory minimum sentencing has come under attack in recent years by judges, defense attorneys and justice advocates, because it eliminates the court's ability to take into account the circumstances of a particular case or individual. Further, it has been shown that while high-level drug dealers often have information to trade to prosecutors in exchange for reduced sentences, small-time dealers and users, at the bottom of the supply chain, rarely have information that is of interest to the state.
Monica Pratt of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) says that the numbers in Massachusetts come as no surprise. "The findings of the report are in line with the findings of a long line of reports on the impact of mandatory minimum sentences" she said. "It is overwhelmingly the lowest level offenders who are caught up in these laws."
"A number of states have undertaken to study the impact of these laws and they're all going to find essentially the same thing. The laws simply aren't doing what they were intended to do, they're not reducing the demand for drugs, and they're not slowing the supply of drugs into the country. They're sweeping up the addicts and the bottom rung dealers and the people caught up on the fringes of conspiracies. It's becoming obvious that the biggest impact of these sentencing laws are the enormous cost that they entail to the taxpayers."
(Find FAMM online at http://www.famm.org.)
Marc BrandlOver 50 protesters turned out in front of the DC Board of Elections and Ethics on Tuesday (11/10) to demand the release of the results from last week's vote on Initiative 59, which would allow marijuana to be used in the District for medicinal purposes. The results were never released due to an amendment in the DC appropriations bill by Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA) that prohibited any money being spent by the District of Columbia on the initiative and future marijuana reform initiatives. The protest, organized by Wayne Turner of DC ACT-UP, was an effort to show support for the democratic process as well as an attempt to get Alice Miller, chair of the Board of Elections and Ethics to commit civil disobedience and release the results before the matter is decided in the courts. Several local politicians, community activists and drug policy reformers were on hand to speak to supporters and spectators.
Included among the speakers was Phil Mendelsohn, just elected to the DC city council, who urged other elected local office holders to come forward and show their support for democracy. During the campaign season every major politician running for office in DC, including Mayor-elect Tony Williams, voiced their support for Initiative 59.
In the background of the protest, a court battle is going on between lawyers representing the federal government, the District and the local ACLU. The first hearing was held on Monday (11/9), where Judge Richard Roberts denied a motion to release the results at this time. During the hearing John Ferren representing the District argued that it would cost $1.64 to tabulate and release the results and thus the Barr amendment forbids it. But city officials are caught in a tight spot between what Congress dictates and their own urge for more home rule. Said Ferren, while arguing that DC cannot release the results, "Every single moment this vote is not counted is an injury to you and me and everyone in this room." Another hearing has been scheduled for December 18th.
A Freedom of Information Act has also been filed by the ACLU to learn the results of the initiative. If the results are released by the courts and certified, congressional debate on medicinal marijuana is almost a certainty. Under federal law, the new 106th Congress will have a thirty day review period to decide whether any initiative passed in DC will be implemented or blocked.
Kris LotlikarThe Higher Education Act of 1998 was signed into law by President Clinton on October 7. Included in the law was a provision that would deny federal financial aid eligibility to students with previous drug convictions, including possession. Student groups, collaborating through DRCNet's U-Net campus activism project, have been gearing up to mount a campaign against the drug provision, and are circulating a resolution opposing it.
Students across the country are approaching their student governments, seeking endorsements for the opposition resolution. "We have met with African American, empowerment and civic campus groups to discuss the effects of this law on students. The resolution has been presented to our student government and so far the feedback has been very positive," said Davis Terrell, an officer of Students for Sensible Drug Policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The RIT student government will be voting on the resolution in early of December, and a signature is being mounted on the campus. "Many of the students we talk to can't believe the drug war has been extended this far", commented Terrell.
A new drug policy group developing at George Washington University will also be working on reforming the Higher Education Act provision. "The Higher Education Act is a blatantly wrong law that impacts a diverse segment of the population. The newly forming George Washington University drug policy group is very much opposed to this law and as one of our first effort as a group will work to overturn it."
"This is an issue that will have a devastating impact on students, therefore it is up to students to get active and stand up for themselves," said Troy Dayton, President of American University NORML. "We will make a difference."
For an information packet on what you can do at your campus about the Higher Education Act, call (202)293-8240 or e-mail [email protected]. Check out the U-net web page to get the latest on news involving the student effort for Higher Education Act reform at http://www.drcnet.org/U-net/.
On Election Day, even as Americans in five states and the District of Columbia resoundingly approved medical marijuana initiatives, signature gatherers from Floridians for Medical Rights (FMR) were harassed and threatened with violence and arrest at a polling place in Jacksonville Florida. FMR is in the midst of a two-year effort to collect the more than 435,000 signatures necessary to get a constitutional amendment allowing for the medical use of the plant placed on the 1999 ballot in that state.
Petitioners were first asked to leave the polling place, at the Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, by representatives of the church itself, who eventually called the police when the petitioners, who were there legally, refused to leave. The police, ignoring the right to petition at the polls, took the side of the church employees and demanded that the petitioners leave.
FMR director Toni Leeman told The Week Online, "The petitioners showed up at the polling place and began to set up their table. As soon as they pulled out the sign indicating that they were collecting signatures for medical marijuana, representatives of the church came over and told them that they were not permitted to distribute marijuana-related information on their premises.
"When the petitioners refused to leave, citing their right to be there under state and federal election law, one man who worked for the church lunged at one of the petitioners across the table. The representative of the Supervisor of Elections, who is required to be at the polling place for just this kind of situation, did absolutely nothing. Finally, the people from the church called the police, who showed up and told the petitioners that they could either leave or face arrest. It was a blatant violation of our rights. It was a dereliction of duty by both the election supervisor and the police. How could either party not have known that you cannot disallow political speech based on its content? The petitioners were operating wholly within the guidelines for petitioning at a poll. It's simply unimaginable."
A formal complaint has been filed with Sheriff Nathaniel Glover, requesting that the office adopt a written policy and training program to assure that such violations do not occur in the future. A complaint filed with the Supervisor of Elections alleges violations of the rights of petitioners, as well as failure to maintain good order at the polling place. It also demands that the church be removed from the list of polling places in future elections. The Jacksonville Sheriff's Department did not return calls for comment on this story.
(Floridians for Medical Rights is online at http://www.medicalrights.org.)
Defense attorneys in Portland, Oregon are furious this week in the wake of information indicating that local police have conducted an ongoing "phone trap" of all incoming calls to American Agriculture, a greenhouse supply store. The trap allows the police to monitor the numbers and addresses of those who called the store, without actually listening in or recording the calls themselves.
Such traps require warrants, and it appears that the police have them, although the defense bar claims that they were obtained illegally. State law says that a trap can stay in place for 30 days, with an additional 30 allowable with a judge's okay. The warrants in this case appear to have been renewed over and over again, perhaps for years. In addition, the trap failed to target an individual, but rather anyone and everyone who called the store.
Police have apparently used the information obtained via the trap to go to people's homes and conduct "knock and talk" investigations, seeking evidence of marijuana cultivation.
A 70-page report to be released this week by the Lords Science and Technology Committee will call for a change in British law to allow marijuana to be made available medicinally. The report is certain to raise the call for cannabis law reform in the UK, which has gained enormous support recently from British health authorities, in the media and even inside the government, to new heights. Labour MP Paul Flynn called the report "a major breakthrough."
The British Medical Association weighed in on the issue last year, pointing our that there was "good evidence" of the effectiveness of marijuana for certain conditions "in which other treatments are not fully adequate."
The Lords Committee, a large percentage of whose members are retired scientists, spent eight months on the inquiry, which included extensive interviews with expert witnesses.
Otto Schily, the Social-Democratic minister for Internal Affairs, told the German newspaper Der Spiegel this week that the government, in coalition with the Green party, is considering moving toward the legalization of soft drugs such as cannabis. It appears at this point that the coalition will authorize a government study of the issue before pressing further. The Social-Democrats are said to have been internally divided on the issue, while the Greens have long called for cannabis law reform. The new government has already announced plans for some drug policy reforms, including expansion of methadone treatment and an opiate maintenance trial.
"I mean, for goodness sake, we have Stillwater State Penitentiary here and we can't keep drugs out of there, and these people are locked up 24 hours a day. If you're going to fight the war on drugs, you have to fight it on the demand side. And I don't believe that government should be invading the privacy of our own homes, and I also believe that you shouldn't be legislating stupidity. If there are stupid people out there doing stupid things, it's not the government's job to try to make them smarter. We live in a land of freedom. And again, if we can't keep the drugs out of the state penitentiary, how on earth are we going to do it out on the street corner?"
Minnesota Governor-elect Jesse Ventura, 11/8/98, Meet the Press
This past Wednesday, November 11, marked Veterans Day in the US. It is a day on which wreathes are laid, and soldiers mourned, and the memories of fallen Americans, lost to war, are honored. It is a day to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice, and perhaps, at its best, a day to consider the price to be paid, thereby tempering our patriotic zeal with grim comprehension, when we as a nation consider sending our citizens to war.
Over the past twenty-five years, Veterans Day has indeed brought up difficult questions, as many, perhaps a majority of Americans ponder the reality of more than 58,000 killed in Vietnam with the understanding that they should never have been sent. We were America, we were strong, and we were confident in the moral authority of our leadership. And so they went. And fought. And died.
And today, with the hard-to-swallow but dangerous-to-ignore lessons of history floating in our collective memory, Vietnam stands as a stark symbol of the horror and the waste and cultural divisiveness inherent in making the wrong decision. And all that we can do is promise ourselves, and promise our dead, that we will not make the same mistake again.
But this week, even as veterans and families and friends paid tribute, another war was being fought. It is a lower-intensity conflict than they saw in Vietnam, but it is no less a war. Fought with guns and surveillance, backed up with prison camps and the curtailing of liberties, the Drug War has its own vets, its own dead, and its own legacy. It is primarily a domestic war, but our soldiers also serve and fight in Colombia, Bolivia, Panama, and countless other outposts. And they are armed. And they kill. And they are killed.
Police, federal agents, members of the military, civilians, all are represented among the casualties. They are no less dead than those who fell in Vietnam. And, to the dishonor of the memory of those who fell in Nam, the war they died in is no less pointless.
Decades into the Drug War, after all of the billions spent, and the lives wasted, and the millions jailed, we are no closer to a "drug free America" than South Vietnam was to free-market capitalism when the last Marines, clinging to the landing gear, took off from the roof of the American embassy. Our kids, the generation in whose name we fight, have better access to drugs today than did the high school students who marched to end the last war, before they too could be sent to shed pointless blood, at a time when the current war was just getting underway in earnest.
This week America remembered its fallen, and, in the case of the veterans of our last foreign war, dishonored them as well. Once again, we have engaged in a conflict with no foreseeable endpoint. Once again, we have misjudged the nature of both the terrain and the enemy. Once again we are saddled with a national leadership who have staked reputations and careers on a struggle they cannot win. And once again we continue to put American lives at risk long after the futility of our strategy has become apparent.
There are always lessons in history, perhaps none so important as those that come from our gravest mistakes. 58,000 men and women in uniform lost their lives in service to a lesson that we ignored this week, even as we laid flowers on their graves. Perhaps next year we will remember. Perhaps one day we will never forget. But for today, the fighting continues. There is no greater tragedy than a pointless war.
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