The Liberal Lion

“I am working to reduce crime.” In a spare, direct, and intelligent speech, Congressman Barney Frank emphasized, to the rapt Freedom Rally crowd on Boston Common September 15th, how “politicians are continually pressed for ways to lower crime…” and that his efforts to stop prosecution of marijuana usage would do exactly that.

The Congressman is on the mark. With the Federal mandatory guidelines begun in 1973, and expanded in the 1980’s, even minor possession cases face serious penalties–a paradigm that has resulted in dangerous (to both inmates and guards) prison overcrowding, gross imbalance in sentence severity for violent crimes versus victimless offenses, and an egregiously bloated incarceration budget. Impoverished states, struggling to balance budgets while still providing basic services such as food, housing, and medical care, are footing ever increasing bills to corporations such as Corrections Corp of America (CCA) and GEO Group, the leaders in the partnership corrections industry.

This pattern becomes more untenable when racial and class disparities are factored in. Often the difference in how an arrest for possession will proceed depends on whom you know, or what kind of a lawyer you can afford. In “Reefer Madness,” author Eric Schlossman cites multiple cases in which well connected youth received wrist slaps for offenses that could have earned less allied individuals decades of imprisonment.

Consider the case of Mark Young. Young was arrested, then tried and convicted under federal law, in a large quantity Indianapolis case. With no history of trafficking in drugs, or violent crime; as well as no physical evidence, or physical role in the actual sale—simply having introduced the parties who eventually participated in the transaction. His conviction rested solely on the testimony of co-conspirators who were cooperating with government for leniency in their own sentencing. Young, who did not inform, or implicate anyone else, was punitively sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Although Young’s sentence was later reduced on appeal, and he has since been released from prison, his precedent remains germane. As the book wonders: “How does a society come to punish a man more harshly for selling marijuana than for killing someone with a gun?”

Such lopsidedness doesn’t evolve without impetus. While most families and businesses across the nation struggle in this challenging economic climate, and the republican presidential candidate’s running mate is making plans to cut social services immediately after election, the outlook for the 70 Billion dollar business of jailing Americans couldn’t be rosier. The corrections corporations lack any qualms about touting their recession proof nature as they float a proffer of a wide ranging package deal to buy and manage prisons in nearly every state, at a purported cost efficient price. This is where it’s important to define ‘cost.’ One insidious caveat of the deal is the clause that the states must maintain a 90% occupation level for the next 20 years. Think that will influence sentencing? Answer: It already has.

As author and attorney John W. Whitehead notes in an April Huffington Post article: “Between 1900 – 1975 the nation’s incarceration rate remained at about 110 prison inmates for every 100,000 people. In 1973 the first drug laws with mandatory sentencing guidelines were enacted and incarcerations rates climbed immediately, doubling in the 80s and 90s. As of 2010 the rate was 731 per 100,000; among black and Hispanic adult men 4,347 and 1,755 inmates per 100,000. Private prisons have grown from a billion dollar industry in 1984 to over 30 billion in 2010; its forecasts for expansion influenced by 3rd grade reading and math test scores and the passing of 3 strikes laws.”

This provokes the question: Do we want to be a nation where a third grader’s test scores are a predictor of probable future imprisonment for non-violent life style choices?

Ancillary issues are also pertinent in ascertaining the full price of prohibition. Former LAPD officer turned reporter Michael C. Ruppert’s October 1981 articles for the Los Angeles Times prompt serious discussion regarding the players in our national drug trade. And such a plethora of lore purports that incarceration produces more serious and knowledgeable offenders that prisons are referred to as ‘school for criminals.’ Additionally, with the arrest of chemist Annie Dookhan, our state is currently contending with a case of lab malfeasance so extreme that it directly reflects on nearly 34,000 convictions, and produces doubts about the fallibility of procedural methods altogether.

At the rally, Congressman Frank made the point that there were a lot of people present—so many that people were bumping into each other—but that, notably, there were no incidents of violence. He further made the comparison that would not be the case if the gathering were a beer festival. “The cops would have been a lot busier.”

He expanded: “Drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco have a much greater negative impact–physically, socially and economically–than using marijuana. And yet neither of those substances is illegal. I am not calling for prohibition of either of those substances. However, I am making the point that in a free society, citizens should have the right to use a substance that harms nobody. The prohibition of marijuana is based on cultural biases.”

History supports the congressman’s stance, in that prohibition of alcohol not only failed to end its use, but also instead promoted criminal enterprise. So too with the criminalization of marijuana. In “McMafia,” author Misha Glenny details the ways that the war on marijuana strengthens the global black market in hard drugs, weapons, and human trafficking, posing real threats to our nation’s security:

“If a country supports prohibition, it is also guaranteeing that on the supply side all profits will accrue to the underground networks; and on the demand side it is guaranteeing that any social or public health problems associated with drug taking will in the great majority of cases only come to light once they are out of control. If the UN [United Nations] is right and drugs account for 70 percent of organized criminal activity, then the legalization of drugs would administer the deadliest blow possible against transnational organized criminal networks.”

Clearly, cultural bias is expensive. What may seem to be harmless moral distancing, or even a simple prerogative snobbery, in the dismissing of those not on the same life paths, in actuality has incalculable detrimental effects to the quality of life of all.

The custom is further tainted by the means with which we pursue those convictions. Police departments receive federal funding based on arrest numbers, and asset-forfeiture laws are another incentive that commercializes the justice process. This reward structure produces questionable approaches. A system heavily reliant on casual substance users has developed, with problems of wrongful convictions based on fabricated testimony, and worse. ‘The Throwaways,’ a September, 3, 2012 Sarah Stillman New Yorker article, reports on the law enforcement practice of coercing young marijuana users—facing imprisonment for possession charges—into acting as confidential informants in potentially life-threatening circumstances… with no training or legal counsel, and inadequate regard for their safety.

The article states: “Every day, offenders are sent out to perform high-risk police operations with few legal protections. Some are juveniles, as young as fourteen or fifteen.” ‘Rachel’s Law,’ composed by the parents of twenty-three year old graduate student Rachel Hoffman, who was murdered in the course of one such procedure, was enacted in Florida in 2009—but cannot be expected to stop the practice when departments’ relevancy is correlated to quantity, as opposed to quality, arrests.

Why not fund police departments at a stable rate? Said rate equal to current funding, with no fluctuation or dependency on drug arrests. This rate should explicitly engender no reduction in monies for equipment or salary. It is an insult to the intelligence and strength of our peace officers to have marijuana users as a primary target. Isn’t society better served utilizing law enforcement to protect our country from authentic, ever more serious dangers?

To wit, the PBS Frontline 2005 show on Methamphetamine addiction analyzed how the West coast has been ravaged by a plague of this hard drug, with social agencies and the criminal justice system both overwhelmed, and anticipating that the East coast could soon expect the same difficulties. That reportage was close to a decade ago; recently this year there were incidents causing the evacuations of two Eastern seaboard hotels due to individuals running production labs. One of the hotels was a Peabody Holiday Inn. The significant health risks posed from the chemical residue left behind had the labs not been discovered is daunting to contemplate.

The MBTA, for example, though amidst financial woes, is engaged in rigorous training exercises for readiness. Should the police be any less so engaged? Law officers are first responders in any and every calamitous scenario possible. With terrorism, human trafficking, biological contagions, random outbreaks of gun violence and high technology crime changing the landscape of our worldly concerns, the idea that we can afford to continue focusing valuable time, money and justice department energies on the shunning of a medicinal herb becomes plainly irrational.

It is destructive to the fabric of our communities, as well. What happens to neighborhoods when citizens are jailed for non-criminal offenses? How does this impact the lives of the children affected? How much more difficult is it for those who have been incarcerated to subsequently find employment, survive economically, and keep their families intact? These are questions central to the epidemics of poverty and homelessness facing our society now.

Are we rendered helpless by the pull of those billions of dollars? Can we overlook the very heart of this matter?

What does it do to the human soul to be caged?

In 1971 the Stanford Prison Experiment revealed truths about human behavior so shocking that it had to be abruptly terminated just six days in. As the participants were paid only fifteen dollars daily, it is illogical to connect the results to mere monetary reward. Our nation’s development of a prison culture is no experiment. It is a preeminent point of family values of our time. Who can we rely upon to reverse this trend? Only ourselves.

While there have been reductions in funding for day services and the closing of a women’s shelter, our governor has quietly passed a proposal for the allocation of $550 million dollars for the expansion of county jails for women, without public or advocate input or incarceration alternatives. (See families for social justice for a petition against this funding.)

And we’ll need to be strong about it. Opponents of Question 3 on the upcoming ballot have taken to citing the possible effect that a medical marijuana program might have on teen’s perception of the drug. Articles have been published which paint teens as unaware of any social context regarding legislation about drugs, and impressionable beyond repair. The fact is teens’ twitter, social network, instagram and IM information at a speed that could put news organizations out of business. They also have access to a variety of medications—often legally prescribed—so extensive as to be exhaustive to list …the swapping and bartering of which occurs much in the same way as happens with their clothes.

These specious arguments bury in closing paragraphs the fact that no proof exists of any threat of increased usage based on the passage of legislation to alleviate the suffering of patients dealing with often life threatening physical conditions. The articles are hypocritically silent on the legal status of alcohol and tobacco. They often include vague or non-scientific statements by medical professionals who, somehow, never mention recent findings about increased suicide rates in teens taking legally prescribed anti-depressants.

“On this issue, the public is ahead of the politicians. Americans have a history of standing up for freedom; this is your chance to actively engage in that history.” The congressman closed his speech with a call for citizens to be truly American.

Spare Change News talked with Congressman Frank at the rally about some salient points:

SCN: How did you feel about President Obama’s rescinding of the policy, outlined in a letter and sent out by his Attorney General soon after his election, regarding Federal non-pursuit of prosecution in states that had enacted pro marijuana legislation?

CBF: I was disappointed. I told the President personally I thought it was a big mistake. I am planning to see the Attorney General on this.

SCN: What chances does the federal law have of passing?

CBF: There’s a lot of support. Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked me to represent her on this, and to get the U.S. Justice Department to stop harassing people. And [Republican Congressman] Ron Paul is on board now. We hope to have enough support for the law to be enacted within five years.

SCN: If marijuana were legalized, what would this mean for people currently incarcerated for cannabis offenses?

CBF: If the law is done right, it could absolutely mean their release. There is legal doctrine that states that if you are in prison for a crime, and the law changes, that you are to be released.

SCN: How much do you think the state could realize in revenue if marijuana was legalized?

CBF: Hard to say, but it’s a double tap in savings. First, we would stop spending money on arresting and locking people up. Then, we would be receiving revenue from the commerce generated. The net savings possible could be in the tens of millions.

SCN: MASSCANN is promoting a legislative arc of ‘Decrim 2008. Medi 2012. Legal 2016.’ Do you think that timeline is probable?

CBF: If everyone here [at the Freedom Rally] registers and votes, yes.

Congressman Frank has three decades of progressive legislative work assisting families facing foreclosure, protecting the GLBT rights, and holding the banking industry accountable for its role in the 2008 fiscal crisis.

But on the eve of his retirement, this newspaper is paying special tribute to his decade and a half of efforts on the political hot potato of marijuana reclassification. The importance of the legislation introduced by the congressman cannot be overstated. Articles: H.R. 1983: States’ Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act and H.R. 2306: Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011 are pivotal to the social health and security of our state.

Massachusetts has a chance to lead the way on this crucial legislative issue. Who better than a New England state celebrated for its academia and brain trusts? Some see as an obstacle Bostonians renown for, and their very vocal, bias towards the historical. Contemporary thought has a hard time here. However, the populace can take comfort in the knowledge that the Marijuana plant has thousands of years’ history of positive medicinal use. Its vilification is a recent political, and monetary, development. More tacitly, our state is predisposed towards respectability. But here we can relax as well.

There is nothing more respectable than humane intelligence.

–J. Marechal






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