The Top Ten Domestic US Drug Policy Stories of 2011
We can put 2011 to bed now, but not before looking back one last time at the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was a year of rising hopes and crushing defeats, of gaining incremental victories and fending off old, failed policies. And it was a year in which the collapse of the prohibitionist consensus grew ever more pronounced. Let's look at some of the big stories:
Progress on Marijuana Legalization
Last year saw considerable progress in the fight for marijuana legalization, beginning in January, when Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) got President Obama to say that legalization (in general) is "an entirely legitimate topic for debate," and that while he does not favor it, he does believe in "a public health-oriented approach" to illicit drugs. Before the LEAP intervention, which was made via a YouTube contest, legalization was "not in the president's vocabulary." While we're glad the president learned a new word, we would be more impressed if his actions matched his words. Later in the year, in response to "We the People" internet petitions, the Obama White House clarified that, yes, it still opposes marijuana legalization.
In June, Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) made history by introducing the first ever bill in Congress to end federal marijuana prohibition, H.R. 2306. It hasn't been scheduled for a hearing or otherwise advanced in the legislative process, but it has garnered 20 cosponsors so far. Sadly, its lead sponsors are both retiring after this term.
Throughout the year, there were indications that marijuana legalization is on the cusp of winning majority supportamong the electorate. An August Angus Reid poll had support at 55%, while an October Gallup poll had it at 50%, the first time support legalization has gone that high since Gallup started polling the issue. A November CBS News poll was the downside outlier, showing support at only 40%, down slightly from earlier CBS polls. But both the Angus Reid and the Gallup polls disagreed with CBS, showing support for legalization trending steadily upward in recent years.
Legalization is also polling reasonably -- if not comfortably -- well in Colorado and Washington, the two states almost certain to vote on initiatives in November. In December, Public Policy Polling had legalization leading 49% to 40% in Colorado, but that was down slightly from an August poll by the same group that had legalization leading 51% to 38%.
In Washington, a similar situation prevails. A January KING5/SurveyUSA poll had 56% saying legalization would be a good idea and 54% saying they supported marijuana being sold at state-run liquor stores (similar to what the I-502 initiative proposes), while a July Elway poll had 54% either definitely supporting legalization or inclined to support it. But by September, the Strategies 360 Washington Voter Survey had public opinion evenly split, with 46% supporting pot legalization and 46% opposed.
The polling numbers in Colorado and Washington demonstrate that victory at the polls in November is in reach, but that it will be a tough fight and is by no means a sure thing. "Stoners Against Proposition 19"-style opposition in both states isn't going to help matters, either.
Oh, and Connecticut became the 14th decriminalization state.
Medical Marijuana Advances…
In May, Delaware became the 16th state to enact a medical marijuana law. Under the law, patients with qualifying conditions can legally possess up to six ounces of marijuana, but they cannot grow their own. Instead, they must purchase it from a state-licensed compassion center. That law will go into effect this year.
Meanwhile, New Jersey and Washington, DC, continue their achingly slow progress toward actually implementing existing medical marijuana laws. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie (R) finally got out of the way and okayed plans for up to six dispensaries, but early efforts to set them up are running into NIMBY-style opposition. In DC, a medical marijuana program approved by voters in 1998 (!) but thwarted by Congress until 2009 is nearly at the stage of selecting dispensary operators. One of these months or years, patients in New Jersey and DC may actually get their medicine.
And late in the year, after the federal government rejected a nine-year-old petition seeking to reschedule marijuana, the governors of Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington formally asked the Obama administration to reschedule it so that states could regulate its medical use without fear of federal interference. As the year came to an end, Colorado joined in the request for rescheduling.
…But the Empire Strikes Back
Last year saw the Obama administration recalibrate its posture toward medical marijuana, and not for the better. Throughout the year, US Attorneys across the country sent ominous signals that states attempting to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries could face problems, including letters to state governors not quite stating that state employees involved in regulation of the medical marijuana industry could face prosecution. That intimidated public officials who were willing to be intimidated, leading, for example, to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) delaying his state's medical marijuana program, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) to kill plans for dispensaries there, and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) to veto key parts of a bill there that would have regulated dispensaries.
Then the feds hit hard at Montana, raiding dispensaries and growers there, even as the state law was under attack by conservative Republican legislators. Now, Montana medical marijuana providers are heading to federal prison, and the state law has been restricted. What was once a booming industry in Montana has been significantly stifled.
There have also been raids directed at providers in Colorado, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington, but California has been the primary target of federal attention in the latter half of the year. Since a joint offensive by federal prosecutors in the state got underway in October, with threat letters being sent to numerous dispensaries and their landlords, a great chill has settled over the land. Dispensary numbers are dropping by the day, the number of lost jobs number in the thousands, and the amount of tax revenues lost to local jurisdictions and the state is in the millions. That's not to mention the patients who are losing safe access to their medicine.
It's unclear whether the impetus for the crackdown originated in the Dept. of Justice headquarters in Washington or with individual US Attorneys in the states. Advocates hope it will stay limited mainly to states that are not effectively regulating the industry, and a coalition in California has filed a ballot initiative for 2012 that would do just that. Either way there is plenty of pain ahead, for patients and for providers who took the president's and attorney general's earlier words on the subject at face value.
Last year, Congress and state and local governments across the land set their sights on new synthetic drugs, especially synthetic cannabinoids ("fake marijuana") and a number of methcathinone derivatives ("bath salts") marketed for their stimulating effects similar to amphetamines or cocaine. Confronted with these new substances, politicians resorted to reflex prohibitionism, banning them as fast as they could.
Some 40 states and countless cities and counties have imposed bans on fake weed or bath salts or both, most of them acting this year.
At the federal level, the DEA enacted emergency bans on fake weed -- after first being temporarily blocked by retailers -- and then bath salts until Congress could act. It did so at the end of the year, passing the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011. The bill makes both sets of substances Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, which will pose substantial impediments to researching them. Under the bill, prison sentences of up to 20 years could be imposed for the distribution of even small quantities of the new synthetics.
But the prohibitionists have a problem: Synthetic drug makers are responding to the bans by bringing new, slightly different formulations of their products to market. Prosecutors are finding their cases evaporating when the find the drugs seized are not the ones already criminalized, and retailers are eager to continue to profit from the sales of the new drugs. As always, the drug law enforcers are playing catch-up and the new drug-producing chemists are way ahead of them.
The Drug War on Autopilot: Arrests Hold Steady, But Prisoners Decline Slightly
Last year saw more evidence that drug law enforcement has hit a plateau, as 2010 drug arrests held steady, but the number of prisoners and people under correctional supervision declined slightly.
More than 1.6 million people were arrested for drug offenses in the US in 2010, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report 2010, and more than half of them were for marijuana. That's a drug arrest every 19 seconds, 24 hours a day, every day last year. The numbers suggest that despite "no more war on drugs" rhetoric emanating from Washington, the drug war juggernaut is rolling along on cruise control.
Overall, 1,638,846 were arrested on drug charges in 2010, up very slightly from the 1,633,582 arrested in 2009. But while the number of drug arrests appears to be stabilizing, they are stabilizing at historically high levels. Overall drug arrests are up 8.3% from a decade ago.
Marijuana arrests last year stood at 853,838, down very slightly from 2009's 858,408. But for the second year in a row, pot busts accounted for more arrests than all other drugs combined, constituting 52% of all drug arrests in 2010. Nearly eight million people have been arrested on pot charges since 2000.
The vast majority (88%) off marijuana arrests were for simple possession, with more than three-quarters of a million (750,591) busted in small-time arrests. Another 103,247 people were charged with sale or manufacture, a category that includes everything from massive marijuana smuggling operations to persons growing a single plant in their bedroom closets.
An analysis of the Uniform Crime Report data by the University of Maryland's Center for Substance Abuse Research added further substance to the notion that drug enforcement is flattening. The center found that the arrest rate for drug violations has decreased for the last four years, but still remains more than twice as high as rates in the early 1980s. The all-time peak was in 2006.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that for the first time since 1972, the US prison population in 2010 had fallen from the previous year and that for the second year in a row, the number of people under the supervision of adult correctional authorities had also declined.
In its report Prisoners in 2010, BJS reported that the overall US prison population at the end of 2010 was 1,605,127, a decrease of 9,228 prisoners or 0.6% from year end 2009. The number of state prisoners declined by 0.8% (10,881 prisoners), while the number of federal prisoners increased by 0.8% (1.653 prisoners). Drug offenders accounted for 18% of state prison populations in 2009, the last year for which that data is available. That's down from 22% in 2001. Violent offenders made up 53% of the state prison population, property offenders accounted for 19%, and public order or other offenders accounted for 9%.
In the federal prison population, drug offenders made up a whopping 51% of all prisoners, with public order offenders (mainly weapons and immigration violations) accounting for an additional 35%. Only about 10% of federal prisoners were doing time for violent offenses. Overall, somewhere between 350,000 and 400,000 people were doing prison time for drug offenses last year.
Similarly, in its report Correctional Population in the US 2010, BJS reported that the number of people under adult correctional supervision declined 1.3% last year, the second consecutive year of declines. The last two years are the only years to see this figure decline since 1980.
At the end of 2010, about 7.1 million people, or one in 33 adults, were either in prison or on probation or parole. About 1.4 million were in state prisons, 200,000 in federal prison, and 700,000 in jail, for a total imprisoned population of about 2.3 million. Nearly 4.9 million people were on probation or parole.
America's experiment with mass incarceration may have peaked, exhausted by its huge costs, but change is coming very slowly, and we are still the world's unchallenged leader in imprisoning our own citizens.
Federal Crack Prisoners Start Coming Home
Hundreds of federal crack cocaine prisoners began walking out prison in November, the first beneficiaries of a US Sentencing Commission decision to apply retroactive sentencing reductions to people already serving time on federal crack charges. As many as 1,800 federal crack prisoners were eligible for immediate release and up to 12,000 crack prisoners will be eligible for sentence reductions that will shorten their stays behind bars.
The releases come after Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in August 2010, which shrank the much criticized disparity between mandatory minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. After Congress acted, the Sentencing Commission then moved to make those changes retroactive, resulting in the early releases beginning this week.
Despite the joyous reunions taking place across the country, the drug war juggernaut keeps on rolling, and there is much work remaining to be done. Not all prisoners who are eligible for sentence reductions are guaranteed to receive one, and retroactivity won't do anything to help people still beneath their mandatory minimum sentences. A bill with bipartisan support in Congress, H.R. 2316, the Fair Sentencing Clarification Act, would make Fair Sentencing Act changes to mandatory minimum sentences retroactive as well, so that crack offenders left behind by the act as is would gain its benefits.
And the Fair Sentencing Act itself, while an absolute advance from the 100:1 disparity embodied in the crack laws, still retains a scientifically unsupportable 18:1 disparity. For justice to obtain, legislation needs to advance that treats cocaine as cocaine, no matter the form it takes.
But even those sorts of reforms are reforms at the back end, after someone has already been investigated, arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced. Radical reform that will cut the air supply to the drug war incarceration complex requires changes on the front end.
Also in November, the US Supreme Court announced that it will decide whether the Fair Sentencing Act should be applied to those who were convicted, but not sentenced, before it came into effect -- the so-called "pipeline" cases. The decision to take up the issue came after lower courts split on the issue. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue in June.
Drug Testing the Needy
With state budgets strained by years of recession and slow recovery, lawmakers across the country are turning their sights on the poor and the needy. In at least 12 states, bills have been introduced that would require people seeking welfare or unemployment benefits to undergo drug testing and risk losing those benefits if they test positive. Some Republicans in the US Congress want to do the same thing. In a thirteenth state, Michigan, the state health department is leading the charge.
The race to drug test the needy appears to be based largely on anecdotal and apocryphal evidence. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Hailey (R), to take one example, cited reports that a nuclear installation there couldn't fill vacancies because half the applicants failed drug tests, but had to retract that statement because it was nowhere near to being true. In Florida, where welfare drug testing was briefly underway before being halted by a legal challenge, 96% of applicants passed drug tests, while in an Indiana unemployment drug testing program, only 2% failed.
While such legislation appeals to conservative values, it is having a tough time getting passed in most places, partly because of fears that such laws will be found unconstitutional. The federal courts have historically been reluctant to approve involuntary drug testing, allowing it only for certain law enforcement or public safety-related occupations and for some high school students. When Michigan tried to implement a welfare drug testing program more than a decade ago, a federal appeals court ruled that such a program violated welfare recipients' right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
That ruling has served to restrain many lawmakers, but not Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and the Florida legislature. Scott issued an executive order to drug test state employees, but had to put that on hold in the face of threatened legal challenges. The state legislature passed and Scott signed a bill requiring welfare applicants and recipients to undergo drug testing or lose their benefits.
But the ACLU of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute filed suit in federal court to block that law on the grounds it violated the Fourth Amendment. In October, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction preventing the state from implementing it. A final decision from that court and decisions about whether it will be appealed are eagerly awaited.
Marking 40 Years of Failed Drug War
June 17 marked forty years since President Richard Nixon, citing drug abuse as "public enemy No. 1," declared a "war on drugs." A trillion dollars and millions of ruined lives later, a political consensus is emerging that the war on drugs is a counterproductive failure. The Drug Policy Alliance led advocates all across the country in marking the auspicious date with a day of action to raise awareness about the catastrophic failure of drug prohibition and to call for an exit strategy from the failed war on drugs. More than 50 events on the anniversary generated hundreds of local and national stories.
In dozens of cities across the land, activists, drug war victims, and just plain folks gathered to commemorate the day of infamy and call for an end to that failed policy. Messages varied from city to city -- in California, demonstrators focused on prison spending during the budget crisis; in New Orleans, the emphasis was on racial injustice and harsh sentencing -- but the central overarching theme of the day, "No More Drug War!" was heard from sea to shining sea and all the way to Hawaii.
The crowds didn't compare to those who gather for massive marijuana legalization protests and festivals -- or protestivals -- such as the Seattle Hempfest, the Freedom Rally on Boston Commons, or the Ann Arbor Hash Bash, or even the crowds that gather for straightforward pot protests, such as 420 Day or the Global Marijuana March, but that's because the issues are tougher. People have to break a bit more profoundly with drug war orthodoxy to embrace completely ending the war on drugs than they do to support "soft" marijuana. That relatively small groups did so in cities across the land is just the beginning.
Congress Reinstates the Federal Ban on Funding Needle Exchanges
Two years ago, after years of advocacy by public health and harm reduction advocates, the longstanding ban on federal funding for needle exchanges was repealed. Last month, it was restored as the Senate took the final votes to approve the 2012 federal omnibus spending bill.
It was a Democratic-controlled House and Senate that rescinded the ban two years ago, and it was House Republicans who were responsible for reinstating it this year. Three separate appropriations bills contained language banning the use of federal funds, and House negotiators managed to get two of them into the omnibus bill passed Saturday.
A Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill including the ban on domestic use of federal funds for needle exchanges and a State Department bill including a ban on funding for needle exchange access in international programs both made it into the omnibus bill.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Public Health Association, and numerous other scientific bodies have found that syringe exchange programs are highly effective at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Eight federal reports have found that increasing access to sterile syringes saves lives without increasing drug use.
Needle exchange supporters said restoring the ban will result in thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C or other infectious diseases next year alone.
US Drug War Deaths
As far as we know, nobody has ever tried to count the number of people killed in the US because of the war on drugs. We took a crack at it last year, counting only those deaths directly attributable to drug law enforcement activities. The toll was 54, including three law enforcement officers.
Most of those killed were shot by police, many of them while in possession of firearms and some of them while shooting at police. Some were shot in vehicles after police said they tried to run them down (why is it they never were merely trying to get away?). But not all died at the hands of police -- several died of drug overdoses from eating drugs while trying to evade arrest, several more died from choking on bags of drugs they swallowed, one man drowned after jumping into a river to avoid a pot bust, and another died after stepping in front of a speeding semi-trailer while being busted for meth.
People were killed in "routine traffic stops," SWAT-style raids, and undercover operations. Hardly any of those cases made more than a blip in local media, the two exceptions being the case of Jose Guerena, an Iraq war vet gunned down by an Arizona SWAT team as he responded to his wife's cry of intruders in his own home, and the case of Eurie Stamps Sr., a 68-year-old Massachusetts man accidentally shot and killed by a SWAT team member executing a warrant for small-time crack sales.
Our criteria were highly restrictive and absolutely undercount the number of people who are killed by our drug laws. They don't include, for instance, people who overdosed unnecessarily because they didn't know what they were taking or medical marijuana patients who die after being refused organ transplants. Nor do they include cases where people embittered by the drug laws go out in a blaze of glory that wasn't directly drug law-related or cases, like the four men killed last year by Miami SWAT officers during an undercover operation directed at drug house robbers.
The toll of 54 dead, then, is an absolute minimum figure, but it's a start. We will keep track again this year, and look for a report on last year's numbers in the coming weeks.
Last year had its ups and downs, its victories and defeats, but leaves drug reformers and their allies better placed than ever before to whack away at drug prohibition. This year, it looks like voters in Colorado and Washington will have a chance to legalize marijuana, and who know what else the new year will bring. At the least, we can look forward to the continuing erosion of last century's prohibitionist consensus.
- Article from StoptheDrugWar.org.