Friday, November 17, 2006

National conversation on drug laws occurring under radar

I've noticed lately several references to folks speaking up who you don't automatically expect to support reforming drug laws:
And I'll bet, if you asked them, you could add a country & western singer or two to the list. Have you noticed any unlikely drug law reformers speaking up recently?

It seems like there's a national conversation occurring on the subject, but under the radar - despite, not because of the country's leadership.

In a post-election wrap up, the Drug Policy Alliance's Bill Piper noted that Republicans are some of the "strongest champions" in state legislatures supporting drug law reform, although the opposite is true in Congress. That's been true in Texas, where the GOP Chairman of the House Corrections Committee Jerry Madden wrote last year:
Instead of sending non-violent people to prison, Texas could closely monitor them and provide job training, effective drug and alcohol rehabilitation and mental health treatment using other community resources — a hand up, not a hand out. That way, Texas could concentrate its criminal justice spending on the more dangerous people.
Governor Perry vetoed the bill he was writing about, but said he supported the concept, and his Department of Criminal Justice has been implementing some of the ideas anyway, as they can. Madden and Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire plan to bring it back up next spring, and with a few key changes he identified in his veto message, most folks expect the Governor to support it. In 2003 Gov. Perry signed legislation to require judges to sentence low-level drug offenders to probation and treatment instead of incarceration on the first offense.

Ironically, given these dynamics, I think Texas could be a leader in the nation's move away from draconian drug laws, despite its "tuff" persona. That's in part because we've incarcerated more of our citizens than other states and nations, so the problems that come with overincarceration affect us more seriously.

It's too early to tell, and perhaps it's wishful thinking, but I see in the statements linked above and other developments the outlines of a potential consensus on these hot button subjects, one that wouldn't have been politically possible 5-10 years ago. Even if there's not complete agreement on what to do instead, very few people, it seems, think our current approach to the "drug war" is working.

What do you think, am I pissing in the wind or do these disparate threads really constitute a trend? And if so, can it happen in Texas?

6 comments:

Jamie said...

I think that time will win out in this area. The recent data coming out of states that have "liberalized" their drug laws has not backed up the dire predictions made by the opponents of this type of legislation. You don't see the ONDCP airing reports of increased use or abuse in states that have switched to treatment (and job training, counseling, etc) or have legalized marijuana for medicinal use because just the opposite has been found (Attorney General report in California found teen use decreasing since medical passed). As more and more states, counties, and cities switch to more economically sensible, humane, and logical drug legislation I feel that the studies looking into the effects of that legislation will continue the current trend; that they save money, help rehabilitate abusers, and better society in general. In addition, with an ever increasing mountain of research to back up these progressive new laws, you’ll begin to see more and more politicians backing them up because they can now begin to deflect “soft on crime” / “pro-druggie” attacks.

For decades strict prohibitionists have held the moral high ground but thanks to those brave enough to go forward with groundbreaking legislation, I think that you’re right… a new trend is emerging in which prohibition & incarceration will be seen as an inhumane, ineffective, and economically failed doctrine.

Catonya said...

hoping too.

While rehab is a much better alternative in some cases, we need to be careful of blanket enactment.

The tendency to label every user as an addict in need of rehab will create it's own problems. Most current outpatient probation "rehabs" require close to 40 hrs per week attendance. This results in job loss, and starts a downhill domino effect.

Either/or will require careful consideration of what's best per individual - probation or rehab?

Bill Piper said...

thanks for the plug, Scott!

In terms of unlikely voices speaking out, I would point people towards the American Enterprise Insitute. AEI is one of the most conservative think tanks in DC (they're significantly repsonsible for getting us into Iraq); but they released a ground-breaking book in support of drug reform last year, "An Analytic Assessment of U.S. Drug Policy". It's a must read. And every conservative legislator in the country (and for that matter liberals and moderates) should be forced to read it. You can download a pdf version of the book here: http://www.aei.org/books/bookID.812/book_detail.asp

rothmatisseko said...

Not pissing in the wind at all, Scott. I hope that the debate heats up in the spring, and that serious drug reform can pass now that Perry doesn't have to campaign (for now). A serious letter-writing campaign could do some good, imho.

800 pound gorilla said...

They haven't legalized medicinal marijuana. That would mean that a legal source of marijuana was available on the free market. That would also mean that someone would be mass marketing asthma style marijuana inhalers and vaporizors.
The only plus that the DEA has in a debate with mainstream reformers is that the reform movement hasn't actually legalized anything or even proposed legalizing anything. They proposed decriminalizing possession of marijuana - but that marijuana would still be in the hands of criminals [by definition]. The argument about the "secret agenda" of the reform movement resonates because of this "oversight".
If reformers would focus on the obvious lack of standards in drug prohibition and propose actual standards for prohibition it would drive a stake through the heart of the drug war. Of course they could mount a legal challenge based on the fact that the drug war is a fraud - like they did with the Marihuana Tax Act. But that just gave us another scam in the Controlled Substances Act.

Unfortunately, this would entail a ballot measure that would necessarily be open ended because all states with initiatives limit the scope of their ballot initiatives. The initiative could not specify the exact scope of such standards - only that the standards be measurable and verifiable using legally produced drugs with quality control and disclosure. The details would be left to legisliars. Such a measure could be a launching pad for reformist candidates however.

AlanBean said...

Scott, the big challenge is to get the issue into the major media. I just returned from a speaking engagement with federal public defenders in Louisiana. My conversations with several dozen attorneys went true to form--everybody I talked to seemed to favor legalization--at the very least they thought the drug war was a failed enterprise. I have never talked to a judge, a DA or a defense attorney who believed the drug war to be winnable (although I have no doubt that such people exist). Legal professionals are skeptical because they have a front row seat in the courtroom. But there is little evidence that jurors (I offer the folks in Tulia as Exhibit A) have gotten the memo. Mainstream America gets its take on drugs from cop and courtroom dramas where only the occasional (and very cautious) criticism of the drug war ever appears. Politicians make the rules and they learned long ago that bashing criminals in general and drug dealers in particular is good politics. Louisiana recently passed a law requiring state felons to serve 85% of their sentences. We have seen some blessed movement in Texas--but I think your work with exceptional people like Ellis, Whitmire and Keel is largely responsible for that. Somehow or other we've got to inject a simple message into the national debate: "the mass incarceration of drug addicts and low-level dealers is making America less safe." Unfortunately, that position is counter-intuitive and defending it requires more than the ten minutes of airtime one usually gets on the evening news. "I hate drugs and I hate drugs dealers" (Tom Coleman's clever media jingle) is much more effective. I refer to the national "debate". Unfortunately, what we've had lately is a national monologue dominated by blathering drug warriors spouting the same old crap that nobody in the know believes.