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4 Reasons Why The U.S. Needs To Decriminalize Drugs—And Why We’re Closer Than You Think

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

Half of all adults in the U.S. have used an illegal drug at some point.   If this was your loved one, family member or friend, would they deserve to be arrested, jailed, and face a lifetime of punishment and discrimination?

Ending criminal penalties for drug possession, often referred to as decriminalization, means nobody gets arrested, goes to jail or prison, or faces criminal punishment for possessing a small amount of a drug for personal use. As detailed in a new Drug Policy Alliance report, there’s an emerging public, political, and scientific consensus that otherwise-law-abiding people should not be arrested, let alone locked in cages, simply for using or possessing a drug.

This is a pivotal moment.  Our retrograde federal administration is ramping up the war on drugs – despite widespread public support for ending it and instead focusing our limited resources on health-based approaches to drug addiction and overdose deaths.

Since most drug enforcement is carried out at the local and state levels, not the federal level, jurisdictions across the U.S. are responding to Trump and Sessions by moving drug policy reforms forward with increasing urgency.

Here’s why the U.S. needs to decriminalize drugs – and why we’re actually closer than you might think.

1. Decriminalization benefits public safety and health.

Decades of empirical evidence from around the world shows that reducing and eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession does not increase rates of drug use or crime – while drastically reducing addiction, overdose and HIV/AIDS.

Today, as overdose deaths skyrocket all over the U.S., people who need drug treatment or medical assistance may avoid it in order to hide their drug use.  If we decriminalize drugs, people can come out of the shadows and get help.

More than a million people are arrested each year in the U.S. for drug possession, but this has done nothing to reduce the purity or availability of drugs, or the harms they can cause.  What we’re doing doesn’t work – and actually makes things worse.

Our current policies are diverting law enforcement resources from serious public safety issues.  Hundreds of thousands of rape kits go unprocessed at the same time we’re spending billions of dollars arresting and punishing people for drug possession. Our limited public resources would be better spent on expanding access to effective drug treatment and other health services.

2. Drug possession arrests fuel mass incarceration and mass criminalization – not to mention institutionalized racism and economic inequality.

Criminalizing drug use hurts families and communities, compounds social and economic inequalities, and unfairly denies millions of people the opportunity to support themselves and their families.

U.S. law enforcement arrests about 1.5 million people each year for drug law violations – and more than 80% of those arrests are for simple drug possession. On any given night, there are at least 133,000 people behind bars in U.S. prisons and jails for drug possession – and 63,000 of these people are held pre-trial, which means they’re locked up simply because they’re too poor to post bail.

Discriminatory enforcement of drug possession laws has produced profound racial and ethnic disparities at all levels of the criminal justice system. Black people comprise just 13% of the U.S. population and use drugs at similar rates as other groups – but they comprise 29% of those arrested for drug law violations and 35% of those incarcerated in state prison for drug possession.

Drug criminalization also fuels mass detentions and deportations.  For noncitizens, including legal permanent residents – many of whom have been in the U.S. for decades and have jobs and families – possession of any amount of any drug (except first-time possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana) can trigger automatic detention and deportation, often without the possibility of return.  From 2007 to 2012, 266,000 people were deported for drug law violations, of whom 38 percent – more than 100,000 people – were deported simply for drug possession.

3. Other countries have successfully decriminalized drugs – and the U.S. is moving in the right direction, despite Trump.

Most drug laws exist on a spectrum between criminalization and decriminalization. Some countries have eliminated penalties for possession of all drugs, while some countries and U.S. jurisdictions have eliminated penalties only for marijuana possession. Still other countries and U.S. jurisdictions have taken steps in the right direction by reducing criminal penalties without eliminating them entirely.

Some of these efforts in the U.S. include “defelonizing” drug possession by reducing it to a misdemeanor (which the Oregon legislature just approved last week), decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana possession, establishing pre-arrest diversion programs such as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), and enacting 911 Good Samaritan laws, which allow for limited decriminalization at the scene of an overdose for people who are witnesses and call for emergency medical assistance. But more ambitious efforts are needed.

Several countries have successful experience with decriminalization, most notably Portugal.  In 2001, Portugal enacted one of the most extensive drug law reforms in the world when it decriminalized low-level possession and use of all illegal drugs.  Today in Portugal, no one is arrested or incarcerated for drug possession, many more people are receiving treatment, and addiction, HIV/AIDS and drug overdose have drastically decreased.

The Portuguese experience demonstrates that ending drug criminalization – alongside a serious investment in treatment and harm reduction services – can significantly improve public safety and health.

4. The American public – as well as leading governmental, medical, public health, and human rights groups – already support drug decriminalization.

Polls of presidential primary voters last year found that substantial majorities support ending arrests for drug use and possession in Maine (64%), New Hampshire (66%) and even South Carolina (59%).  In 2016, the first state-level decriminalization bill was introduced in Maryland and a similar version was reintroduced in 2017. The Hawaii legislature, meanwhile, overwhelmingly approved a bill last year creating a commission to study decriminalization.

Just last month, the United Nations and World Health Organization released a joint statement calling for repeal of laws that criminalize drug use and possession. They join an impressive group of national and international organizations who have endorsed drug decriminalization that includes the International Red Cross, Organization of American States, Movement for Black Lives, NAACP, and American Public Health Association, among many others.

To learn more, check out DPA’s new report, It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession, which lays out a roadmap for how U.S. jurisdictions can move toward ending the criminalization of people who use drugs.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.

Jag Davies is director of communications strategy for the Drug Policy Alliance.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

Shocking Conduct In South Dakota’s Drug War

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

The state of South Dakota is practicing a form of drug war excess tantamount to torture or sexual assault, according to a pair of federal lawsuits filed by the ACLU on June 28. One suit charges that law enforcement and medical personnel subject drug suspects to forcible catheterization if they refuse to submit to a drug test.

The second suit charges even more outrageous conduct: State social workers and medical personnel subjecting a screaming toddler to the same treatment, in a fruitless bid to bring a child abuse or neglect charge against his mother.

Let’s be clear here: We are talking about a person having a plastic tube painfully inserted in his penis without his consent and with the use of whatever physical force is necessary by agents of the state. In the name of enforcing drug laws.

Law enforcement has an incentive to coerce people into consenting to warrantless drug tests–with the realistic threat of forced catheterization–because its state laws punish not just possession of drugs, but having used them. Under the state’s “internal possession” or “unlawful ingestion” statutes, testing positive for illicit drugs is a criminal offense.

“Forcible catheterization is painful, physically and emotionally damaging, and deeply degrading,” said ACLU of South Dakota executive director Heather Smith in a statement announcing the filings. “Catheterization isn’t the best way to obtain evidence, but it is absolutely the most humiliating. The authorities ordered the catheterization of our clients to satisfy their own sadistic and authoritarian desires to punish. Subjecting anyone to forcible catheterization, especially a toddler, to collect evidence when there are less intrusive means available, is unconscionable.”

In the case of the toddler, the ACLU is suing on behalf of Kirsten Hunter of Pierre and her thee-year-old son. According to the complaint, their ordeal began on February 23, when police arrived to arrest her live-in boyfriend for failing a probationary drug test. Accompanying the cops was Department of Social Services (DSS) caseworker Matt Opbroeck, who informed Hunter that she and her children would have to take drug tests, and that if she failed to agree, her two kids would be seized on the spot.

Under such coercion, Hunter agreed to take herself and her kids to St. Mary’s Avera (SMA) Hospital to be tested the next day. Here, in the dry language of the legal filing is what happened to her three-year-old, identified as “A.Q.:”

Ms. Hunter was met by [SMA medical staff] and told that she and her children needed to urinate in cups on orders of DSS.

At the time, A.Q., was not toilet-trained and could not produce a sample in a cup.

Even though other methods, such as placing a bag over his penis, would have yielded a urine sample, [SMA medical staff] immediately began to hold him down and to catheterize him.

At the time, [they] did not inform Ms. Hunter of altemative methods of getting a urine sample or explain the risks associated with catheterizing a child.

Ms. Hunter did not know that she could object nor was she given any opportunity to object. Ms. Hunter did not speak with or see a doctor.

A.Q. was catheterized and screamed during the entire procedure.

On information and belief, A.Q. was catheterized with an adult-sized catheter.

Ms. Hunter was humiliated and upset about A.Q.’s catheterization.

A.Q. was injured physically and emotionally.

In the aftermath of the state-sanctioned assault, A.Q. had to be taken to a hospital emergency room in Huron for constipation and pain and discomfort in his penis three days later, and make another emergency room visit to ASM two days after that, when he was diagnosed with a staph infection in his penis.

Hunter and the ACLU are suing DSS caseworker Opbroeck; his bosses, Department of Social Services Secretary Lynn Valenti and DSS Division of Child Protective Services Director Virginia Wieseler; and St. Mary’s Avera, Registered Nurse Katie Rochelle, Nurse Practitioner Teresa Cass, and four unnamed SMA medical employees.

The ACLU argues that forcible catheterization of A.Q. violates the Fourth Amendment’s proscription against warrantless searches, the Fifth Amendment’s right not to be forced to testify against oneself, and the 14th Amendment’s due process clause because “it shocks the conscience, it was not medically necessary, and it was not reviewed by a judge.” The lawsuit seeks monetary relief as well as declaration that the procedure is unconstitutional.

“The Fourth Amendment guarantees people the right to be free from unreasonable government searches,” said Courtney Bowie, ACLU of South Dakota Legal Director. “There is nothing reasonable about forcibly catheterizing a child. The Constitution’s purpose is to protect people from government intrusions exactly like this.”

There is nothing reasonable about forcibly catheterizing drug defendants either—especially when the only drug use suspected is of marijuana—but the second lawsuit filed by the ACLU alleges the practice is widespread among law enforcement agencies in the state, including repeated allegations of forced catheterizations after the victims have agreed to provide urine samples, the sole reason being that police involved could “gratify their sadistic desires,” the complaint says.

“State agents, including law enforcement officers, in multiple cities and counties in South Dakota have conspired to attempt to rationalize, justify, and illegally forcibly catheterize drug suspects, and illegally coerce drug suspects to provide urine samples by threatening them with illegal forcible catheterization if they will not voluntarily provide a urine sample,” the complaint says.

The conspiracy violates the civil rights not only of those subjected to forced catheterization, but those threatened with it, the ACLU argues.

The lawsuit has five plaintiffs, all of whom were subjected to the procedure, and lists 20 unnamed police officers from Pierre, Sisseton, and the Highway Patrol, as well as one named Pierre officer, and the cities of Pierre and Sisseton. The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to stop the practice, as well as “compensatory and punitive damages.”

 

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

Opioid Deaths: Another Drug War Failure

Reprinted with permission from Creators.

Illicit drug use is an old phenomenon, and Jeff Sessions has an old solution: take off the gloves. “We have too much of a tolerance for drug use,” the attorney general complained to an audience of law enforcement officials Wednesday, promising more aggressive policing. “Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad,” he declared. “It will destroy your life.”

That claim will fall on a lot of deaf ears among the 100 million Americans who have used marijuana — most of whom found it did not destroy their lives and some of whom found it made their lives better.

He is right, though, that tolerance is rampant. A Gallup Poll last year showed that 60 percent of Americans think pot should be legalized for recreational use — as eight states and the District of Columbia have done. Medical marijuana is allowed in 28 states and D.C. But in his prepared remarks, Sessions insisted cannabis is “only slightly less awful” than heroin.

Oh, please. The nation is in the midst of an epidemic of overdose deaths involving heroin and other opioids. In 2015, 32,000 Americans died of such overdoses. Compare that with the number of people who died from ingesting an excess of marijuana: zero.

Pot, in fact, appears to be saving lives. A 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that states allowing medical marijuana had 25 percent fewer deaths from prescription drug overdoses than states forbidding it.

People often use opioids to relieve pain. But “individuals with chronic pain and their medical providers may be opting to treat pain entirely or in part with medical marijuana, in states where this is legal,” said Johns Hopkins University professor Colleen Barry, the lead author. Sessions made a point of commenting on this unwelcome scientific data: “Give me a break.”

He paid lip service to “treatment and prevention,” but don’t expect much there. The Affordable Care Act, which the Trump administration and congressional Republicans have vowed to repeal, has been “the largest expansion of drug treatment in U.S. history,” according to Stanford University psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys. If they have their way, we can expect the largest contraction of drug treatment in U.S. history.

Promoting treatment goes against the approach long preferred by hard-line politicians. The most effective remedy for opioid addiction is medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, with drugs like methadone and buprenorphine. But if you’d like to stop shooting heroin, you may search in vain for help.

The Drug Policy Alliance reports that “access to MAT is severely limited by extensive federal and state regulations and restrictions. A scant 12 percent of individuals with opioid dependence receive methadone, and only nine percent of substance abuse treatment facilities in the United States offer specialized treatment of opioid dependence with MAT.”

Among the people who could most benefit from this sort of treatment are prison inmates. But a DPA survey found no state correctional systems that provide it — even though a report last year from the surgeon general compared it to giving insulin to diabetics. Upon release, opioid-prone offenders are particularly susceptible to dying of an overdose, apparently because addicts’ physical tolerance diminishes while they are locked up.

Zealous drug warriors bridle at anything except prohibition and abstinence. Closing down “pill mills,” where physicians allegedly overprescribe opioids, is a favorite option. Such lifesaving measures as facilitating access to sterile syringes and naloxone, which is used to reverse overdoses before they kill, are inherently suspect.

The criminalization of opioid use often has fatal consequences, because it leaves addicts to obtain supplies from street dealers rather than pharmacists. The drugs they get may be surreptitiously laced with fentanyl or other synthetic opioids that are cheaper than prescription meds but much more potent — raising the overdose risk.

Crackdowns have other unhealthy side effects. “When the police shut down a local pill mill, they rarely identify the users and help them get treatment, and heroin and fentanyl dealers are quick to move in to exploit the new business opportunity,” writes New York University professor Mark A.R. Kleiman in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. “In 2014, deaths from overdosing on prescription opioids fell, but deaths from fentanyl overdoses almost doubled.”

It’s often said that drugs are a crutch for those who can’t cope with reality. Give Sessions credit: He needs no artificial substances to disregard truth.

Trump Goes Full Nixon On The Drug War

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

In a sharp break with the Obama administration, which distanced itself from harsh anti-drug rhetoric and emphasized treatment for drug users over punishment, President Trump this week reverted to tough drug war oratory and backed it up with a series of executive orders he said were “designed to restore safety in America.”

“We’re going to stop the drugs from pouring in,” Trump told law enforcement professionals of the Major Cities Chiefs Association on Wednesday. “We’re going to stop those drugs from poisoning our youth, from poisoning our people. We’re going to be ruthless in that fight. We have no choice. And we’re going to take that fight to the drug cartels and work to liberate our communities from their terrible grip of violence.”

Trump also lambasted the Obama administration for one its signature achievements in criminal justice reform, opening the prison doors for more than 1,700 drug war prisoners who had already served sentences longer than they would have under current, revised sentencing guidelines. Obama freed “record numbers of drug traffickers, many of them kingpins,” Trump complained.

And in a sign of a return to the dark days of drug war over-sentencing, he called for harsher mandatory minimum prison sentences for “the most serious” drug offenders, as well as aggressive prosecutions of drug traffickers and cracking down on “shipping loopholes” he claimed allowed drugs to be sent to the U.S. from other countries.

In a New Hampshire campaign speech during the campaign, Trump called for more treatment for drug users and more access to overdose reversal drugs, but there was no sign of that side of the drug policy equation in Wednesday’s speech.

On Thursday, Trump backed up his tough talk with action as, at the Oval Office swearing in of Attorney General Jeff Session, he rolled out three executive orders he said were “designed to restore safety in America,” but which appear to signal an increasingly authoritarian response to crime, drugs, and discontent with policing practices.

The first, which Trump said would “reduce crime and restore public safety,” orders Sessions to create a new Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Policy, which will come up with “strategies to reduce crime, including, in particular, illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and violent crime,” propose legislation to implement them, and submit a report to the president within a year.

The second, regarding “transnational criminal organizations and preventing drug trafficking,” directs various federal law enforcement agencies to “increase intelligence sharing” and orders an already existing inter-agency working group to submit a report to Trump within four months describing progress made in combating the cartels, “along with any recommended actions for dismantling them.”

“I’m directing Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to undertake all necessary and lawful action to break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth and other people,” Trump said Thursday.

The third directs the Justice Department to use federal law to prosecute people who commit crimes against police officers, even though they already face universally severe penalties under existing state laws.

“It’s a shame what’s been happening to our great, truly great law enforcement officers,” Trump said at the signing ceremony. “That’s going to stop as of today.”

The tough talk and the executive orders provoked immediate alarm and pushback from human and civil rights advocates, drug reformers, the Mexican government, and even the law enforcement community. The apparent turn back toward a more law-and-order approach to drugs also runs against the tide of public health and public policy opinion that the war on drugs has been a failure.

In a report released Friday, dozens of senior law enforcement officials warned Trump against a tough crackdown on crime and urged him to instead continue the Obama administration’s efforts to reform the criminal justice system.

The report was co-authored for Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration by former Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who won wide praise for his response after a gun man killed five of his officers last year.

“Decades of experience have convinced us of a sobering reality: Today’s crime policies, which too often rely only on jail and prison, are simply ineffective in preserving public safety,” the report said.

The president’s crime plan would encourage police to focus on general lawbreaking rather than violent crime, the report said. The Justice Department already spends more than $5 billion a year to support local police, much of it spent on “antiquated law enforcement tools, such as dragnet enforcement of lower-level offenses” and Trump’s plan would “repeat this mistake,” the officials wrote. “We cannot fund all crime fighting tactics.”

Drug reformers also sounded the alarm.

“This rhetoric is dangerous, disturbing, and dishonest,” said Bill Piper, senior director for national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We have had a war on drugs. It has failed. Tough talk may look good before the cameras, but history has taught us that cracking down on drugs and building walls will not stop the supply or use of drugs. It mostly causes the death and destruction of innocent lives. Trump must tone down his outrageous rhetoric and threats, and instead reach out to leadership from both parties to enact a humane and sensible health-based approach to drug policies that both reduce overdose and our country’s mass incarceration crisis.”

Indeed, most public health experts argue that the prohibitionist approach to drugs has been a failure. They point to research such as a 2013 study in the British Medical Journal that found that despite billions spent on drug prohibition since 1990, drug prices have only decreased and purity increased, making getting high easier and more affordable than ever before.

“These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing,” the authors conclude.

Public health analysts also point to research showing that between 1991 and 2001, even when the drug war was in full effect, rate of illicit drug use among teens rose sharply, while their cigarette smoking rate fell off a bit and their alcohol use dropped sharply. The substances that are legal for adult use were less likely to see increases than ones that are prohibited, the analysts point out.

Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Luis Videgaray also chimed in to note that there wouldn’t be any Mexican drug cartels without American demand for drugs and to remind Washington that it’s not just what’s being exported from Mexico that is a problem, but what’s being imported, too.

“For years, from the Mexican perspective, people say, ‘OK, the problem with drugs — that it’s creating so many violence, so many deaths of young people in Mexico — is because there’s demand for drugs in the U.S.,'” Videgaray said. “We happen to be neighbors to the largest market for drugs. From the American perspective, it’s just the other way around,” he said, adding that both countries need to get past “the blame game.”

And if the U.S. is serious about helping Mexico disrupt the cartels “business model,” it needs to stop the southbound traffic in cash and guns.

“We need to stop illegal weapons flowing from the U.S. into Mexico,” Videgaray said. “We always think about illegal stuff moving through the border south to north, but people forget that most guns — and we’re not talking small guns, we’re talking heavy weapons — they get to the cartels and create literally small armies out of the cartels.”

Human Rights Watch reacted to a comment from Attorney General Sessions at his swearing in ceremony that crime is a “dangerous permanent trend that places the lives of American people at risk,” by noting that crime is down dramatically by all measures over the past 20 years despite a slight increase in violent crimes between 2014 and 2015. “There is no ‘dangerous permanent trend’ in violent or non-violent crime,” it noted.

And Amnesty International swiftly reacted to the executive order calling for new federal penalties for crimes against police.

“Law enforcement officers face unique hardships and challenges due to the nature of their work,” said Amnesty’s Noor Mir. “Authorities are already able to vigorously prosecute crimes against law enforcement officers, and there is no history to suggest that officers are not fully protected by current laws. This order will not protect anyone, and instead it creates additional penalties that could cause people to be significantly over-prosecuted for offenses including resisting arrest.

There is a better way, said Mir, but that would require going in a radically different direction than where the Trump administration is headed.

“This order does nothing to address real and serious problems in the U.S. criminal justice system,” he said. “Relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve could instead be improved by investing in reform of the criminal justice system and better training for officers. Police already have laws protecting them, but there is no federal standard for the prosecution of officers who unlawfully kill civilians. Implementing a standard for lethal force in line with international standards will protect both police and civilians.”

The Trump administration has outlined an approach to drugs and criminal justice policy with dark Nixonian and Reaganite underpinnings, promising more, more, more heavy-handed policing, more swelling prison populations, and more—not less—distrust and suspicion between police and the communities they are supposed to serve and protect.

And, in typical Trump fashion, his brash, draconian approach to the complex social problems around crime and drugs is creating a rapid backlash. Whether the rising opposition to Trump can rein in his authoritarian impulses and regressive policy approaches to the issue remains to be seen, but a battle to stop the slide backward is brewing.

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

IMAGE: Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly (R) listens to U.S. President Donald Trump during a meeting with cyber security experts in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington January 31, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque