oD Drug Policy Forum: Front Line Report - Week of July 26, 2010

We lead this week's report with the Economist's cover story on the US prison system, a scathing indictment of the so-called Land of the Free. Never in the civilised world have so many been locked up for so little.
Charles Shaw
26 July 2010

We lead this week with a refreshingly honest, albeit, infuriating feature in The Economist on the US prison system. Not known for hyperbole, The Economist's opening salvo is a credible, scathing indictment of the so-called "Land of the Free": Never in the civilised world have so many been locked up for so little. 

America is described, aptly, as having a "love affair with the lock and key." This torrid and reckless affair has been the proverbial home-wrecker, devastating millions of American families. Yet, it perseveres and remains politically intransigent because its' also the breadwinner for millions more families. The US Criminal Justice system consumes $212 billion a year and employs 2.4 million people more than Wal-Mart and McDonald's combined, America's two largest private employers. 

The US prison system, and the drug war relentlessly feeding it, are literal quagmires. Every attempt to reform the system results in deeper entrenchment. Case in point, the US District Court ordered 40,000 nonviolent low-level offenders released from the California Department of Corrections because overcrowding has reached such crisis levels that conditions have become inhumane even by prison standards and medical care is not available to most inmates. One of the largest prison systems in the world (Texas is bigger, but only slightly), the CDC's inmate population stands at 165,000, twice what the system was designed for. The CDC is renown for its violence, corruption, and human rights abuses, and nowhere (except perhaps Texas) is reform needed more. But the CDC is also known for its incredible clout; the prison guards union is the most powerful political lobby in the state. 


In response to the Federal court order, politicians and media began saturating the public with dire warnings about hordes of "dangerous felons" (political speak for "nonviolent drug user") roaming the streets in wild packs. The same thing happened earlier this year in Illinois when Governor Pat Quinn proposed releasing a mere 1000 low-level nonviolent offenders to mitigate Illinois' budget crisis. Listening to the histrionics of the politicians and the abject fear-mongering of the media, you would think that they were planning on emptying Death Row and giving each murderer a map to your house.

Using the California debt crisis as a smoke screen, Governor Schwarzenegger (I still can't believe it every time I type that name) tried to privatize the CDC in order to take it off the books and effectively end the reign of the prison guards union, who would not survive privatization. He shamelessly spun the issue to the California electorate, claiming the move was intended to put more (nonexistent) money into education. Thankfully, the public saw right through that.

When that ploy failed, the state assembly tried to pass a bill that would have those 40,000 offenders "released" by transferring them to local and county jails. That too was roundly rejected, so Schwarzenegger appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, claiming, "The order to reduce the prison population will interfere with the state's operation of its criminal justice system and severely constrain California's ability to set and fund political priorities during these difficult economic times." The statement is patently absurd and contradicts everything the Governator previously said about needing to get rid of the prison system to save the budget. Between the lines you can see the influence of the CDC; the issue is jobs, period. Even unsustainable ones.

SCOTUS has agreed to hear the case, and odds are they will overturn the US District Court ruling (why else would they agree to hear the case?) If the ruling is upheld it will set a strong precedent that will assuredly kick off a chain reaction around the country. If the ruling is overturned, beyond the further damage it will do to what is perhaps the most controversial Supreme Court in American history, the incredible momentum that has been building to reform the national criminal justice system will slam into a brick wall and leave the movement reeling. And of course, it will be business as usual in the prison archipelago known as the California Department of Corrections. 


Like I said, quagmire. 

~ CS

Justice is harsher in America than in any other rich country. Between 2.3m and 2.4m Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. If those on parole or probation are included, one adult in 31 is under “correctional” supervision. As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan. Overcrowding is the norm. Federal prisons house 60% more inmates than they were designed for. State lock-ups are only slightly less stuffed.

The system has three big flaws, say criminologists. First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalises acts that need not be criminalised. Third, it is unpredictable. Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them.

“The founders viewed the criminal sanction as a last resort, reserved for serious offences, clearly defined, so ordinary citizens would know whether they were violating the law. Yet over the last 40 years, an unholy alliance of big-business-hating liberals and tough-on-crime conservatives has made criminalisation the first line of attack—a way to demonstrate seriousness about the social problem of the month, whether it’s corporate scandals or e-mail spam,” writes Gene Healy, a libertarian scholar. “You can serve federal time for interstate transport of water hyacinths, trafficking in unlicensed dentures, or misappropriating the likeness of Woodsy Owl.”

Read the full article on The Economist. No really, read it. 


The biggest crime in the U.S. criminal justice system is that it is a race-based  institution where African-Americans are directly targeted and punished in a much  more aggressive way than white people. Saying the US criminal system is racist may be politically controversial in some  circles.  But the facts are overwhelming.  No real debate about that.  The question is – are these facts the mistakes of an otherwise good system, or  are they evidence that the racist criminal justice system is working exactly as  intended?  Is the US criminal justice system operated to marginalize and control  millions of African Americans?

Information on race is available for each step of the criminal justice system -- from the use of drugs, police stops, arrests, getting out on bail, legal  representation, jury selection, trial, sentencing, prison, parole and freedom.   Look what these facts show.

Read the 14 facts here:

(Source: Alternet)


OREGON EXPANDED ITS PRISON system dramatically during the 1990s, partly because of national trends toward stricter sentencing and partly because of the state’s defining tough-on-crime law, Measure 11, which passed in 1994 and established mandatory minimum sentences for violent criminals. Since 1990, Oregon has built seven correctional facilities and more than tripled the budget of the Department of Corrections (DOC). Oregon already spends a larger percentage of its general fund on prisons than any other state, and that expense could grow as voters this fall consider stiffer new sentencing laws that could again swell the prison population.

During the prison boom of the 1990s, the DOC was able to overcome local resistance by touting the economic benefits to municipalities struggling to recover from the downfall of Oregon’s natural resources economy. For those communities, a prison where the median wage is $3,849 per month is seen as a prize rather than a burden.

But recent research shows that prisons are not effective tools of rural economic development. A phalanx of researchers from the University of Colorado at Denver, Pennsylvania State University, Washington State University, Ohio State University and the Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization The Sentencing Group analyzed data from across rural America and concluded that prisons do not significantly improve employment rates, poverty rates or median incomes. No studies have focused solely on Oregon, but based on economic statistics from Umatilla and Malheur counties, the Oregon counties that rely most heavily on prisons, these conclusions hold true there as well.

Continue reading on OregonBusiness.com.

REPORT: U.S. Justice Center - "Prisons do not significantly boost the economies of the rural counties that host them"


Stephen Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst at Transform UK, argues that we need to end the criminalisation of drugs and instead set up regulatory models that will control drug markets and reduce the health and social harms caused by current policy.

Moves towards legal regulation of drug markets depend on negotiating the substantial institutional and political obstacles presented by the international drug control system (the UN drug conventions). They would also need to be phased in cautiously over several years, with close evaluation and monitoring of effects and any unintended negative consequences. 

Rather than a universal model, a flexible range of regulatory tools would be available with the more restrictive controls used for more risky products and less restrictive controls for lower risk products. Such differential application of regulatory controls could additionally help create a risk-availability gradient. This holds the potential to not only reduce harms associated with illicit supply and current patterns of consumption but, in the longer term, to progressively encourage use of safer products, behaviours, and environments. Understanding of such processes is emerging from "route transition" interventions aimed at encouraging injecting users to move to lower risk non-injecting modes of administration by, for example, providing foil for smoking.23This process is the opposite of what has happened under prohibition, where a profit driven dynamic has tended to tilt the market towards ever more potent (but profitable) drugs and drug preparations, as well as encouraging riskier behaviours in high risk environments. 

The oversight and enforcement of new regulations would largely fall within the remit of existing public health, regulatory, and enforcement agencies. Activities that take place outside the regulatory framework would naturally remain prohibited and subject to civil or criminal sanctions.

Regulation is no silver bullet. In the short term it can only seek to reduce the problems that stem from prohibition and the illicit trade it has created. It cannot tackle the underlying drivers of problematic drug use such as inequality and social deprivation. But by promoting a more pragmatic public health model and freeing up resources for evidence based social policy and public health based interventions it would create a more conducive environment for doing so. The costs of developing and implementing a new regulatory infrastructure would represent only a fraction of the ever increasing resources currently directed into efforts to control supply. There would also be potential for translating a proportion of existing criminal profits into legitimate tax revenue.

Different social environments will require different approaches in response to the specific challenges they face. Transform’s blueprint does not seek to provide all the answers but to move the debate beyond whether we should end the war on drugs to what the world could look like after the war on drugs. It is a debate that the medical and public health sectors have failed to engage with for far too long.

(Source: British Medical Journal)


Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance weighs in on the destructive consequences of the New York Police Department's "Stop-and-Frisk" policy.

The number of stop-and-frisks by NYPD have exploded over the past decade, increasing from less than 100,000 in 2002 to 581,000 in 2009. The NYPD's own numbers show that 90% of the people stopped are non-white and that 85% of those stopped are not charged with any crime. Despite their innocence, police enter personal information about all of those stopped into their police database system.

Civil liberties groups like the NYCLU and Center for Constitutional Rights have criticized the practice and have called on the NYPD to end this practice.

But there's another destructive consequence of the stop-and-frisk policy that has not received enough attention: it has made New York City the marijuana arrest capital of the world. While the police justify stop-and-frisks as a way to find guns, what is most often found is a small amount of marijuana. Although marijuana was decriminalized in New York State in 1977, Bloomberg's police arrested more than 46,000 people last year on marijuana possession — 10% of all arrests in the city, up from 1% in the mid-1990s.

If possession of marijuana is supposed to be decriminalized in New York, how does this happen? Often because, in the course of interacting with the police, individuals may be asked to empty their pockets, which results in the pot being "open to public view" — which is, technically, a crime. And because blacks and Latinos are the ones most often stopped, they make up 87% of low-level marijuana arrests, even though they are no more likely than whites to use or sell it. These arrests produce permanent criminal records that disqualify people for jobs, housing, schooling and student loans.

(Source: Change.org)


  • Journal of Psychopharmacology publishes MAPS-sponsored U.S. MDMA/PTSD pilot study
  • The Journal of Psychopharmacology published a paper about the MAPS-sponsored U.S. MDMA/PTSD pilot study.The paper is titled, "The safety and efficacy of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted psychotherapy in subjects with chronic, treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder: the first randomized controlled pilot study," and is authored by Michael Mithoefer, M.D., Mark Wagner, Ph.D., Ann Mithoefer, B.S.N., Lisa Jerome, Ph.D. and Rick Doblin, Ph.D.

    MAPS is in the midst of a 10 year - $10 million plan to make MDMA into a government-approved prescription medicine. For-profit pharmaceutical companies are not interested in developing MDMA into a medicine, because the patent for MDMA has expired. Companies cannot profit off of MDMA because it is only administered a limited number of times, unlike most medications for mental illnesses that are taken on a daily basis. Consequently MAPS is the only organization funding clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in the world.

    MAPS is studying whether MDMA-assisted psychotherapy has the potential to heal traumas caused by sexual assault, war, violent crime, and other causes.

    Download the paper.

    (Source: MAPS.org)


    In what was previously an impossible scenario, the US Military is seriously looking at MDMA therapy for returning veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

    (Note: Military.com incorrectly refers to MDMA as "Ecstasy." MDMA and "Ecstasy" are not always the same even though they have been synonymous from the beginning of the drug's popularity. MDMA exists as a pure crystal salt. Most so-called "Ecstasy" tablets or pressed pills can contain several other similar compounds, and often have no MDMA at all)

    The drug Ecstasy shows positive results in the majority of patients when used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a report coming out Monday in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

    The study, which focuses on 20 patients for whom previous drug and psychotherapy treatments were unsuccessful, is the first of its kind and a stepping stone for a follow-up that will focus entirely on U.S. military veterans, said Rick Doblin, who founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies – a group that analyzes the use of psychedelic drugs in mental health treatment.

    We want most of the veterans [in the next study] to come from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Doblin told Military.com in an exclusive interview July 15. “But we want some Vietnam veterans as well because we want to see if we can help people who have had these [PTSD] patterns for decades.”

    (Source: Military.com)


    The United States has been trying to suppress Colombian coca production and cocaine trafficking since at least the time of Ronald Reagan, but the contemporary phase of US intervention in Colombia in the name of the war on drugs celebrated its 10th anniversary this week. As Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) security analyst Adam Isaacson pointed out Wednesday in a cogent essay, "Colombia: Don't Call It A Model," it was on July 13, 2000, that President Bill Clinton signed into law a $1.3 billion package of mainly military assistance known as Plan Colombia.


    Plan Colombia was supposed to cut Colombian cocaine production in half by mid-decade, and while total US expenditures on it have now risen to $7.3 billion, that goal was clearly not met. But, a decade down the road, there has been some "progress." The leftist peasant guerrillas of the FARC have been seriously weakened and are operating at half the strength they were 10 years ago. Violence has steadily decreased, as has criminality. The Colombian state has been strengthened -- especially its military, which has nearly doubled in size.

    Still, as Isaacson notes, those gains have come at a tremendous cost. Thousands have been killed at the hands of rightist paramilitary groups aligned with powerful landowners and political elites, and while those paramilitaries officially disbanded several years ago, they appear to be reconstituting themselves. The seemingly endless "parapolitics" scandals linking the paramilitaries to high government actors demonstrate that the price of "progress" in Colombia has been corruption, impunity and human rights abuses.

    Continue reading here.

    (Source: Drug War Chronicle)


    Drug War Chronicle Book Review: Ruben Aguilar and Jorge Castaneda, "El Narco: La Guerra Fallida [The Failed War] (2009, Punto de lectura, 140 pp., $10.00 PB); George W. Grayson, "Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?" (2010, Transaction Publishers, 339 pp., $35.95 HB); Tim Grayson, "Midnight on the Line: The Secret Life of the US-Mexico Border (2010, St. Martin's Press, 304 pp., $25.95 HB)

    On the streets of Mexican cities, a deadly, multi-sided war, complete with horrific exemplary violence -- among competing drug cartels, between the cartels and the Mexican state, and sometimes between different elements of the Mexican state -- rages on, the body count rising by the day, if not the hour. The cartels -- Frankenstein monsters birthed by drug prohibition, swollen with profits from supplying our insatiable demand for their forbidden goods -- not only fight the Mexican state, but also insinuate their way into it, and into Mexican society at large, buying with their immense wealth what they cannot command with their bullets.

    This is commanding attention not only in Mexico, but also here north of the border, where the drugs are consumed and the cash handed over, where the fear looms that the violence will leak across the border. Despite the hyperventilating cries of some paranoid nativists, that has mostly not been the case, but if the violence hasn't arrived it's not because the cartels haven't extended their tentacles into Gringolandia. They are here, from San Antonio to Sacramento to Sioux Falls, doing business, and business is -- as always -- good.


    George Grayson's "Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?" is an extremely thorough and comprehensive history and analysis of the rise of the cartels in the context of the weaknesses of the Mexican state. If you can't tell your Carillo Fuentes from your Arellano Felix, if you're not sure if it's the Gulf Cartel or the Zetas, if you keep getting "La Barbie" mixed up with "El Chapo," Grayson will save you. He's got all the cartel players and all their nicknames -- and they all have them -- he's got all the busts and the shootouts, he's got what is so far the definitive history of the cartels and Mexico's response to them.



    Of course, all those Mexican-controlled drugs have to get here somehow, which means they have to cross the US-Mexican border, and Reuters reporter Tim Gaynor's "Midnight on the Line" has got that covered. This is a fast-paced, entertaining, and insightful look at the contraband traffic -- both drugs and people -- across the border and the people who try to stop it. Gaynor works both sides of the border, talking to coyotes in Tijuana, showing up in a dusty Sonora border town and following the illegal immigrant's harrowing journey through the searing deserts of Arizona, and interviewing all kinds of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol folks, as well as other officials on this side.

    (Source: Drug War Chronicle)


    A weekly feature by the Drug War Chronicle.

    July 18, 1956: The Narcotics Control Act/Daniel Act is passed, establishing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.

    July 17, 1980: Financed by wealthy ranchers and drug lords under Roberto Suarez Gomez, the "Cocaine Generals" of the Bolivian "cocaine coup" seize power. Within months it is learned that Pierluigi Pagliai and Stefano Delle Chiaie were right-wing Propaganda Due (P-2) terrorists with suspected kills on three continents and Klaus Altmann was none other than fugitive Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyons. Barbie, who had sent hundreds of Jews to their deaths, had avoided prosecution when Americans in occupied Germany recruited him as an informer in 1947 and engineered his escape.

    July 17, 1984: The Drug War and Cold War collide when the Washington Times runs a story detailing DEA informant Barry Seal's successful infiltration of the Medellin cartel's operations in Panama. The story was leaked by Oliver North and purported to show the Nicaraguan Sandinistas' involvement in the drug trade. Ten days later, Carlos Lehder, Pablo Escobar, Jorge Ochoa, and José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha are indicted by a Miami Federal grand jury based on evidence obtained by Seal. In February 1986, Seal is assassinated in Baton Rouge, LA, by gunmen hired by the cartel.

    July 20, 1995: The total number of US marijuana arrests since 1965 passes the 10,000,000 mark, according to an estimate by NORML.

    July 22, 1997: Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey says, "In the view of the nation's scientific and medical community, marijuana has a high potential for abuse and no generally accepted therapeutic value." He says this despite an editorial from the January 30, 1997 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that states, "Federal authorities should rescind their prohibition of the medicinal use of marijuana for seriously ill patients and allow physicians to decide which patients to treat."

    July 17, 2001: Madison, Wisconsin's Mayor Sue Bauman speaks out about the drug war in her State of the City address. She says: "As a city and as a society, we need to put more monies into prevention programs and thus fewer into policing and the criminal justice system... It is time that the nation, the state, the county and the City view drug and alcohol abuse as a public health problem. Unfortunately, the emphasis for years has been on a war on drugs -- an attempt to end drug usage and alcohol abuse by punishing the users/abusers. This is a failed strategy."

    July 19, 2001: The Washington Post reports that a confidential informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration compromised dozens of prosecutions across the United States by falsely testifying under oath and concealing his own arrest record, but the DEA continued to employ him for 16 years despite detailed knowledge of his wrongdoing, according to interviews, court records and an internal report by the agency.

    July 19, 2001: In conjunction with a two-day NIDA-directed Ecstasy conference, Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), introduces the "Ecstasy Prevention Act of 2001." An initial analysis by the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (CCLE) shows that this new bill, while giving lip-service to generating more scientific data about the health consequences of MDMA (Ecstasy), directs over 22 million dollars to increased law enforcement, media propaganda, and the creation of a new MDMA drug test.

    July 16, 2003: Philippine President Gloria Arroyo orders weekly public burnings of illegal drugs seized by the police, as well as the publication of mug shots of arrested drug dealers. "Let us put a face and identity to these people and get the public involved in hunting them down," says Arroyo.

    July 21, 2004: The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Prof. Lyle Craker, and Valerie Corral file lawsuits against the DEA, HHS, NIH, and NIDA for obstructing medical marijuana research.




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