Recreational Use of Marijuana…

Voters in Colorado and Washington have just approved the recreational use of marijuana. Both states have taken the bold step to regulate marijuana like tobacco and alcohol. It should be remembered that eighteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. There are several other states considering medical marijuana laws. It is readily apparent that acceptance of marijuana use is a growing trend in the United States.

It will be interesting to see how things play out in Colorado and Washington. And it will be interesting to see if other states follow their lead.

Stolen Valor Act – Unconstitutional…

In 2006, it became illegal in this country to lie about your military service.

The Stolen Valor Act made it a federal misdemeanor to falsely represent oneself as having received any U.S. military decoration or medal. If convicted, a person faced imprisonment in a federal prison for up to six months. If the decoration lied about was the Medal of Honor, imprisonment could have been up to one year.

This week, the United States Supreme Court, in United States v. Alvarez, ruled that the Stolen Valor Act was an unconstitutional abridgment of the freedom of speech under the First Amendment, striking down the law in a 6 to 3 decision.

Another stupid law bites the dust.

No Country for Innocent Men…

Timothy Brian Cole was 26 years old when he was wrongfully convicted of rape in a Lubbock, Texas, courtroom in 1986. At the time of the rape, he was a student at Texas Tech University – Texas Tech had an enrollment of approximately 22,000 students – About 500 were African-American. Timothy was one of the 500.

Timothy died in a Texas prison on December 2, 1999, while suffering an asthma attack. At the time of his death, he had served 13 years of a 25 year sentence for a crime he did not commit. He was 39. He was finally exonerated in February of 2009. DNA evidence showed him to be innocent. He was pardoned posthumously in March of 2010.

Beth Schwartzapfel wrote a wonderful article entitled “No Country for Innocent Men” about this tragic failure of the Texas Criminal Justice System. It appears in Mother Jones. This is a must read.

To read more about Timothy’s case see The Innocence Project.

Texas Ranks Third in Exonerations…

According to a recent article in The Texas Tribune, the state of Texas comes in third behind Illinois and New York in the number of exonerations in the United States since 1989. This is according to data compiled by Mother Jones. You should read the full Texas Tribune article.

You should also read the story in Mother Jones to see how Texas Governor Rick Perry was forced to pardon an innocent man years after he had died in a Texas prison. The story of Timothy Cole and his struggles with the Texas criminal justice system is tragic indeed.

War on Drugs – Too Big to Fail…

I recommend reading Drug War has grown “too big to fail” — Scott Henson’s July 4 post on his blog Grits for Breakfast.

I found the following quite interesting:

  • The National Drug Intelligence Center recently issued a report entitled “The Economic Impact of Illicit Drug Use on American Society.” According to their analysis, illicit drug use cost more than $193 billion in 2007. Of that number, $113 billion was spent on the criminal justice system at all levels of government.
  • In 2010, the State Department estimated that the annual gross revenue of international drug trafficking organizations from the sale of illegal drugs in the United States ranges between $15 billion and $30 billion. It seems that the economic cost of the criminal justice system’s response to illegal drugs is far greater than drug cartel profits.
  • The criminal justice system’s response to illegal drugs – locking up drug users and sellers – is big business in and of itself. The $113 billion number is roughly the same as Bank of America’s 2010 gross revenue ($111 billion according to its annual report). Henson concludes that if Bank of America is “too big to fail,” then so too is the War on Drugs.

Asset Forfeiture – The Big Money Grab

In recent years, confiscating “drug money” has become an ever-increasing priority of the Texas Department of Public Safety. According to a recent two-part series in the Amarillo Globe-News, between January 1, 2005, and June 30, 2010, about $14.6 million in U.S. currency was seized by the Highway Patrol on the 178 mile stretch of Interstate-40 that runs through Texas.

The articles are a great read and give some insight into asset forfeiture and the big money grab.

Cashing In: Who Benefits Most from Seized Currency?

Cashing In: Sheriffs’ Offices Join the War on Drugs

The Never-Ending War on Drugs…

With an eye on the brutal drug wars in Mexico, Newsweek published a great report on the “never-ending war on drugs.” The report noted the futility of drug supply enforcement as a means to control drug availability in the United States.

According to Robert Bonner, the former head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the Mexican cartels are now the most powerful drug-trafficking organizations in the world. Once, mere smugglers for the Columbian cartels, they gradually took control of all aspects of supplying and delivering cocaine–the drug trade’s No. 1 cash cow–into the U.S.–the world’s most lucrative drug market.

The United States’ forty year War on Drugs has played a significant role in pushing drug cartels from Peru and Bolivia into Columbia and then into our own backyard. With progress in Mexico, problem areas are popping up in Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica. It appears the U.S. government has recognized what many have been saying for decades, the War on Drugs is not winnable. When progress is made in one area of the world, the power center moves elsewhere–and the flow of drugs continue. As reported in Newsweek, the new U.S. policy is now one of “managing the drug problem”:

American officials have moved away from the lofty and nebulous credo of the past–winning the war on drugs–to focus on more modest and concrete aims: reducing corruption and bolstering institutions, to make sure drug traffickers cannot threaten the rule of law.

Over the past 18 months there has been an unprecedented shift among U.S. policymakers away from focusing on mostly drugs in one country or another to a comprehensive, regionwide strategy to strengthen law enforcement, the judiciary, and prison systems. “You’ll always have drug smuggling in this world,” a senior State Department official told NEWSWEEK. “The question is how do you make that manageable so it doesn’t threaten the state?”

We will see what happens in the next forty years.

In The News / Waking Up After a 27-Year Nightmare

Michael Anthony Green is a free man. After spending 27 years in a Texas prison for a crime he did not commit, he was released last week after DNA evidence cleared him of the crime. He was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to 75 years in prison back in 1983, when he was 18 years old. He is now 45.

Mr. Green can thank Pat Lykos, the Houston County District Attorney, for his release. After Ms. Lykos was elected in 2008, she formed the Post-Conviction Review Section in her office and it chose Green’s case as one of the first to look at. The review team found the only remaining evidence in the case–the clothing worn by the victim during the rape–and had it tested. The results excluded Green. Law enforcement authorities were able to determine the identity of the four men who committed the crime by use of the DNA evidence–however, they cannot be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations.

The Houston Chronicle ran the following related stories on August 2, 2010:

Absurd East Texas Sentence

Texas is facing about an $18 billion deficit in its budget. There has been much talk of closing some Texas prisons to ease the budget shortfall. However, as long as Texas judges and juries continue to hand out large sentences in non-violent cases, closing some prisons might be a little difficult.

The following is from Grits for Breakfast – March 7, 2010 (the author is from Tyler, Texas). This story is not rare–it happens all over Texas. The Amarillo area is no exception.

Absurdist 35-year pot sentence a home town embarrassment

This absurdist sentence from my hometown embodies much of what’s wrong with today’s justice system, even if I partially disagree with this writer’s diagnosis at the Houston Press’ Hairballs blog of the offender’s biggest error.

“Smith County (East Texas) judges and juries have long had a reputation of meting out severe, some might say ridiculous, punishment for drug convictions. And Henry Wooten’s case is no exception: the 54-year-old Tyler man was sentenced Thursday to 35 years in prison for possessing slightly more than four ounces of pot. Wooten actually got off easy — the prosecutor asked the jury to give him 99 years. (We just hope TDCJ can free up room for this menace to society; maybe the state can release a child molester or serial arsonist to find a cell for Wooten.)”

While the sentence may be asinine, we can’t help but feel Wooten brought much of this upon himself — mostly by choosing to be both a pothead and live in Tyler, when clearly that calls for an either/or scenario.

Hard to know what these people are thinking: Next time you read in the newspaper that a violent offender was released from TDCJ and immediately began committing serious crimes, think of this case and Mr. Wooten filling a prison cell needed for actually dangerous people. And since he’s 54, TDCJ is getting him just when (according to averages) his health care costs are about to go up dramatically. This whole war on marijuana is really working out well, don’t you think?

One also notes that this ridiculous sentence resulted from yet another blowhard prosecutor demanding to a jury that they send a message, arguing for a 99-year max sentence in the case for 4.6 ounces of marijuana (just over a quarter-pound) on the grounds that,”Every decision made by a jury sets a precedent.” I suppose that’s true, in a sense, if he meant establishing the precedent of Smith County being considered a laughingstock full of hypocritical, hyperpunitive jurors and prosecutors who almost seem to perform parody versions of their roles.

I can only add that, if my experience growing up in Tyler was any indication, there’d be a lot more white youth from the city’s south side filling up TDCJ beds if that kind of sentence were routinely applied across the board. I haven’t seen a photo of Mr. Wooten, but I don’t need to in order to tell you he’s almost certainly black. The sentence and the charging decisions that led to it tell you that much. In that sense, Hairballs was only partially right about Wooten’s geographic error: This is north Tyler justice, such as it is – a precedent that was set a long time ago. What an embarrassment.

The Failure of US Drug Policy…

The following is an excellent article written by Martha Mendoza for the Associated Press:

MEXICO CITY — After 40 years, the United States’ war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.

Even U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske concedes the strategy hasn’t worked.

“In the grand scheme, it has not been successful,” Kerlikowske told The Associated Press. “Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”

This week President Obama promised to “reduce drug use and the great damage it causes” with a new national policy that he said treats drug use more as a public health issue and focuses on prevention and treatment.

Nevertheless, his administration has increased spending on interdiction and law enforcement to record levels both in dollars and in percentage terms; this year, they account for $10 billion of his $15.5 billion drug-control budget.

Kerlikowske, who coordinates all federal anti-drug policies, says it will take time for the spending to match the rhetoric.

“Nothing happens overnight,” he said. “We’ve never worked the drug problem holistically. We’ll arrest the drug dealer, but we leave the addiction.”

His predecessor, John P. Walters, takes issue with that.

Walters insists society would be far worse today if there had been no War on Drugs. Drug abuse peaked nationally in 1979 and, despite fluctuations, remains below those levels, he says. Judging the drug war is complicated: Records indicate marijuana and prescription drug abuse are climbing, while cocaine use is way down. Seizures are up, but so is availability.

“To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven’t made any difference is ridiculous,” Walters said. “It destroys everything we’ve done. It’s saying all the people involved in law enforcment, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It’s saying all these people’s work is misguided.”


In 1970, hippies were smoking pot and dropping acid. Soldiers were coming home from Vietnam hooked on heroin. Embattled President Richard M. Nixon seized on a new war he thought he could win.

“This nation faces a major crisis in terms of the increasing use of drugs, particularly among our young people,” Nixon said as he signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. The following year, he said: “Public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.”

His first drug-fighting budget was $100 million. Now it’s $15.1 billion, 31 times Nixon’s amount even when adjusted for inflation.

Using Freedom of Information Act requests, archival records, federal budgets and dozens of interviews with leaders and analysts, the AP tracked where that money went, and found that the United States repeatedly increased budgets for programs that did little to stop the flow of drugs. In 40 years, taxpayers spent more than:

_ $20 billion to fight the drug gangs in their home countries. In Colombia, for example, the United States spent more than $6 billion, while coca cultivation increased and trafficking moved to Mexico — and the violence along with it.

_ $33 billion in marketing “Just Say No”-style messages to America’s youth and other prevention programs. High school students report the same rates of illegal drug use as they did in 1970, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug overdoses have “risen steadily” since the early 1970s to more than 20,000 last year.

_ $49 billion for law enforcement along America’s borders to cut off the flow of illegal drugs. This year, 25 million Americans will snort, swallow, inject and smoke illicit drugs, about 10 million more than in 1970, with the bulk of those drugs imported from Mexico.

_ $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, about 10 million of them for possession of marijuana. Studies show that jail time tends to increase drug abuse.

_ $450 billion to lock those people up in federal prisons alone. Last year, half of all federal prisoners in the U.S. were serving sentences for drug offenses.

At the same time, drug abuse is costing the nation in other ways. The Justice Department estimates the consequences of drug abuse — “an overburdened justice system, a strained health care system, lost productivity, and environmental destruction” — cost the United States $215 billion a year.

Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron says the only sure thing taxpayers get for more spending on police and soldiers is more homicides.

“Current policy is not having an effect of reducing drug use,” Miron said, “but it’s costing the public a fortune.”


From the beginning, lawmakers debated fiercely whether law enforcement — no matter how well funded and well trained — could ever defeat the drug problem.

Then-Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, who had his doubts, has since watched his worst fears come to pass.

“Look what happened. It’s an ongoing tragedy that has cost us a trillion dollars. It has loaded our jails and it has destabilized countries like Mexico and Colombia,” he said.

In 1970, proponents said beefed-up law enforcement could effectively seal the southern U.S. border and stop drugs from coming in. Since then, the U.S. used patrols, checkpoints, sniffer dogs, cameras, motion detectors, heat sensors, drone aircraft — and even put up more than 1,000 miles of steel beam, concrete walls and heavy mesh stretching from California to Texas.

None of that has stopped the drugs. The Office of National Drug Control Policy says about 330 tons of cocaine, 20 tons of heroin and 110 tons of methamphetamine are sold in the United States every year — almost all of it brought in across the borders. Even more marijuana is sold, but it’s hard to know how much of that is grown domestically, including vast fields run by Mexican drug cartels in U.S. national parks.

The dealers who are caught have overwhelmed justice systems in the United States and elsewhere. U.S. prosecutors declined to file charges in 7,482 drug cases last year, most because they simply didn’t have the time. That’s about one out of every four drug cases.

The United States has in recent years rounded up thousands of suspected associates of Mexican drug gangs, then turned some of the cases over to local prosecutors who can’t make the charges stick for lack of evidence. The suspects are then sometimes released, deported or acquitted. The U.S. Justice Department doesn’t even keep track of what happens to all of them.

In Mexico, traffickers exploit a broken justice system. Investigators often fail to collect convincing evidence — and are sometimes assassinated when they do. Confessions are beaten out of suspects by frustrated, underpaid police. Judges who no longer turn a blind eye to such abuse release the suspects in exasperation.

In prison, in the U.S. or Mexico, traffickers continue to operate, ordering assassinations and arranging distribution of their product even from solitary confinement in Texas and California. In Mexico, prisoners can sometimes even buy their way out.

The violence spans Mexico. In Ciudad Juarez, the epicenter of drug violence in Mexico, 2,600 people were killed last year in cartel-related violence, making the city of 1 million across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, one of the world’s deadliest. Not a single person was prosecuted for homicide related to organized crime.

And then there’s the money.

The $320 billion annual global drug industry now accounts for 1 percent of all commerce on the planet.

A full 10 percent of Mexico’s economy is built on drug proceeds — $25 billion smuggled in from the United States every year, of which 25 cents of each $100 smuggled is seized at the border. Thus there’s no incentive for the kind of financial reform that could tame the cartels.

“For every drug dealer you put in jail or kill, there’s a line up to replace him because the money is just so good,” says Walter McCay, who heads the non-profit Center for Professional Police Certification in Mexico City.

McCay is one of the 13,000 members of Medford, Mass.-based Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of cops, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens and others who want to legalize and regulate all drugs.

A decade ago, no politician who wanted to keep his job would breathe a word about legalization, but a consensus is growing across the country that at least marijuana will someday be regulated and sold like tobacco and alcohol.

California voters decide in November whether to legalize marijuana, and South Dakota will vote this fall on whether to allow medical uses of marijuana, already permitted in California and 13 other states. The Obama administration says it won’t target marijuana dispensaries if they comply with state laws.


Mexican President Felipe Calderon says if America wants to fix the drug problem, it needs to do something about Americans’ unquenching thirst for illegal drugs.

Kerlikowske agrees, and Obama has committed to doing just that.

And yet both countries continue to spend the bulk of their drug budgets on law enforcement rather than treatment and prevention.

“President Obama’s newly released drug war budget is essentially the same as Bush’s, with roughly twice as much money going to the criminal justice system as to treatment and prevention,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the non-profit Drug Policy Alliance. “This despite Obama’s statements on the campaign trail that drug use should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue.”

Obama is requesting a record $15.5 billion for the drug war for 2011, about two thirds of it for law enforcement at the front lines of the battle: police, military and border patrol agents struggling to seize drugs and arrest traffickers and users.

About $5.6 billion would be spent on prevention and treatment.

“For the first time ever, the nation has before it an administration that views the drug issue first and foremost through the lens of the public health mandate,” said economist and drug policy expert John Carnevale, who served three administrations and four drug czars. “Yet … it appears that this historic policy stride has some problems with its supporting budget.”

Carnevale said the administration continues to substantially over-allocate funds to areas that research shows are least effective — interdiction and source-country programs — while under-allocating funds for treatment and prevention.

Kerlikowske, who wishes people would stop calling it a “war” on drugs, frequently talks about one of the most valuable tools they’ve found, in which doctors screen for drug abuse during routine medical examinations. That program would get a mere $7.2 million under Obama’s budget.

“People will say that’s not enough. They’ll say the drug budget hasn’t shifted as much as it should have, and granted I don’t disagree with that,” Kerlikowske said. “We would like to do more in that direction.”

Fifteen years ago, when the government began telling doctors to ask their patients about their drug use during routine medical exams, it described the program as one of the most proven ways to intervene early with would-be addicts.

“Nothing happens overnight,” Kerlikowske said.


Until 100 years ago, drugs were simply a commodity. Then Western cultural shifts made them immoral and deviant, according to London School of Economics professor Fernanda Mena.

Religious movements led the crusades against drugs: In 1904, an Episcopal bishop returning from a mission in the Far East argued for banning opium after observing “the natives’ moral degeneration.” In 1914, The New York Times reported that cocaine caused blacks to commit “violent crimes,” and that it made them resistant to police bullets. In the decades that followed, Mena said, drugs became synonymous with evil.

Nixon drew on those emotions when he pressed for his War on Drugs.

“Narcotics addiction is a problem which afflicts both the body and the soul of America,” he said in a special 1971 message to Congress. “It comes quietly into homes and destroys children, it moves into neighborhoods and breaks the fiber of community which makes neighbors. We must try to better understand the confusion and disillusion and despair that bring people, particularly young people, to the use of narcotics and dangerous drugs.”

Just a few years later, a young Barack Obama was one of those young users, a teenager smoking pot and trying “a little blow when you could afford it,” as he wrote in “Dreams From My Father.” When asked during his campaign if he had inhaled the pot, he replied: “That was the point.”

So why persist with costly programs that don’t work?

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, sitting down with the AP at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, paused for a moment at the question.

“Look,” she says, starting slowly. “This is something that is worth fighting for because drug addiction is about fighting for somebody’s life, a young child’s life, a teenager’s life, their ability to be a successful and productive adult.

“If you think about it in those terms, that they are fighting for lives — and in Mexico they are literally fighting for lives as well from the violence standpoint — you realize the stakes are too high to let go.”