Friday, August 28, 2009

"Just keep grinnin' - We're winnin'!": Prosecutors debate the drug war

Texas prosecutors on a comment string titled "Just keep grinnin' - We're winnnin'!" have been engaged in one of the more frank discussions I've seen among working law enforcement types about the efficacy of the war on drugs. The string was begun with just a couple of comments in 2004, but then updated recently (new comments bring a thread up to the top of their user system) when Mexico acted recently to decriminalize small amounts of drugs.

Unsurprisingly, some prosecutors see Mexico's actions as waving a "white flag"; one of them suggesting that "this is a poor tribute to the hundreds of Mexican police and army members who have lost their lives in the fight to save their country."

But I was more interested to read the earliest comment on the sting from a Tarrant County prosecutor writing five years ago who lamented:
Sometimes it happens this way: I'm scratching out a plea on a case or revocation of one more dope defendant and the fear takes me. We are losing the "war on drugs." More than a decade ago, my father, a former prosecutor himself, told me that my job was to identify the truly bad actors and quarantine them from their prey. As to the rest? Keep them dogies rollin'. I'm not smart enough to know how to handle the drug problem but I can recognize what doesn't work and this is it. We cannot fill our prisons with dopers and allow the predators to roam free. In my view we shouldn't fill the prisons with dopers. And the small voice whispers,"If we did win the war on drugs what would you do all day?"
Nobody but Colorado County's Ken Sparks took the bait back in 2004. He replied:
When space is a problem, we all want to fill our prisons with violent offenders and not dopers. We have a mandated probation and treatment program for state jail possession cases. When they do not participate faithfully in treatment programs, what do you do? Sanctions with jail time, etc. should be employed. When violations continue, what then? One solution is to build more prisons. Perhaps the real solution (more money, again) is to have drug courts in every county. But it appears that drug courts are turning judges into glorified probation officers. I don't know the answer.
The more recent responses to Mexico's decriminalization of small drug amounts in 2009 drew some fairly predictable themes. 156th Judicial District Attorney Martha Warner out of Beeville recounted the story of a man in his 20s who sexually assaulted and threatened young kids and also provided them with marijuana. Having established conclusively through this anecdote that marijuana use leads directly to child molestation, Warner pronounces, "
Drugs are very dangerous for our children!!!!!" Another commenter agreed, citing the case of a "rolling pharmacist" who it turned out had been "molesting his OWN daughter for the past 5-6 years."

An Assistant District Attorney out of Abilene pointed out the obvious fallacy in that reasoning: "
I think the pedophiles in the examples above would use alcohol or other substances to groom their victims, if drugs weren't available." She further suggests:
We clearly are not going to win the War on Drugs, although we've created a multi-billion dollar bureaucracy.

I'd like to see California decriminalize and tax marijuana, so we could watch and see what happens to their economy. I've heard and read that marijuana is their largest cash crop.

Obviously, some drugs are horrible, and European countries have tried to register and legally dispense those which are terribly addictive.

Good luck to all of you who are criminal prosecutors, and doing the best you can. ...

Also, if we had taxes from drug users, we might actually be making money back from some of those who cost us all so much and now contribute nothing. (Pretty bleak outlook.)
Other prosecutors rejected the prospect of legalizing marijuana or any other presently illegal drug, including the DA Association's lobbyist Shannon Edmonds who thinks that "Full decriminalization will never happen here, IMO, so it's a waste of time talking about its merits/faults."

Check out the whole string for more prosecutors debating the drug war. I thought it was an interesting discussion.

RELATED: Making 'Hamsterdam' an option.


gravyrug said...

"Full decriminalization will never happen here, IMO, so it's a waste of time talking about its merits/faults."

Well, of course it'll never happen if we don't "waste" time talking about it.

The drug war has done more harm than good overall.

Anonymous said...

It may be a poor tribute to the hundred's that have lost their lives; However it is a lasting policy to preserve the THOUSANDS that decriminalization will spare. Noone ever looks forward they always look back.

Anonymous said...

I suppose using Marcy Warner's logic, I could make the case that marijuana causes sex since I like to get frisky after smoking a hooter.

Anonymous said...

Both sides waste time when they lump marijuana in with the other drugs. No one robs anyone to buy a bag of weed (or cookies to go with the weed), but cocaine, heroin and meth cause people to do things far outside their normal behavior. I've known plenty of functioning potheads, including many working at the courthouse, but never a functioning crackhead or junkie.

The facts just don't support lumping all "drugs" together. Neither law enforcement nor should decriminalization proponents so quickly want to discount these differences as they do harm to the credibility of both positions.


Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly our constitution says that our laws are made for the greater good of the whole. I find it quite selfish of many who want these drugs legalized to fit their own selfish needs, and damn the truth about their destrustion to children, families and society as a whole. Its all fun until your family is destroyed. Now to those who would say thats not true, just ask yourself if you personally know someone whos life is being negetivly affected by any type of drug and or alcohol use. I am afraid we all do if we are honest, but what the heck I'm not my brothers keeper am I? or am I? I smoked for 16 years so you cant lie to me about its affects - or that it is a gateway drug. I am one of those that now picks up the pieces of the lives torn apart by this "choice and freedom,,,man. A wise man sees danger coming and turns from it, while a fool goes headlong into his own demise. Just because the foolish complain on and on is no reason to give in and let our country be further destroyed. We are not winning the war on Murder, breaking and entering, assault or spousal abuse either, so does that mean we should legalize and tax it? stupid is as stupid does. I for one will keep up the good fight, and continue picking up the pieces.....See you soon:)We are suppose to look out for each other not just ourselves, thats the American way! we pledge our lives fortunes and sacred honor to this task as Americans.

Independent Accountant said...

I have favored legalizing drugs, all drugs, heroin included for decades. This would force the police and prosecutors to fight real cime: murder, rape, robbery, arson, major frauds etc., as opposed to making mindless summary arrests for drug possession and sales. I have seen many people's lives ruined by drugs, particularly cocaine. So? I have seen more lives ruined by the drug war.

Lynn said...

Anny at 4:27, so you "smoked for 16years" and are now "[picking] up the pieces of the lives torn apart by this 'choice and freedom'". Okay, so assuming you're talking about an illegal drug here, the fact that it was illegal didn't stop you, and clearly doesn't stop millions of others, so what part of decriminalizing it makes you think it would change this? People who want to do drugs are going to do it period. I think most people who want to do drugs are already doing them. OTOH, I know people who wouldn't smoke pot even if the government mailed it to their house each month. As evidenced by the failure of the drug war to stop drug use, we've learned that you just can't control everything people do in their homes and put into their bodies. So, let's divert our limited resources to where it's possible to make real a difference.

Anonymous said...

I would urge reading this report

Interesting analysis of how criminal "Wars" came about and what the newest war concerns. When will we stop wasting money and treat problems? Sorry I need to remain anonymous.

Anonymous said...

I have worked in prisons and criminal justice related fields for about 40 years and have studied the drug problem extensively. We lock up too many people for drug defined crimes (possession, use, sales, distribution). This amounts to about 60% of the Federal prison population and between 28% and 50% of state prison populations.

In 2007 there were 1.8 million drug arrests with 900,00 for marijana (80% of which were for possession).

It is estimated that the combined annual cost of the War on Drugs (federal, state, local) is $70 to $90 billion/yr. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist, estimates that about $42 bil./yr could be saved if drugs were legalized and regulated. Arthur Benavie in are recent economic analysis of the War on Drugs concluded "...there are no benefits to the War on Drugs, only costs."

Over time the long term trends are that uses rates for marijuana have gone up substantially, while use rates for other drugs have remained relatively stabile. Assertions that the WOD has produced steady declines (use, availability, potency) is not born out by the evidence (see Robinson & Scherlen, Benevie, and other research based academic books that have looked carefully at this issue). See also UN reports, Monitoring the Future annual reports, and SAMSHA detailed data.

The typical user does not support their use by commiting crimes. ONDCP reports that 77% of current users (use in last 30 days) were fully employed and buy their drugs with legal earnings. The criminal user is the one who comes to the attention of police -- so we should not be surprised that drug use is high among those arrested or convicted.

Millions of hidden users remain hidden for decades, pay taxes, hold jobs, raise families, and work as lawyers, judges, police officers, doctors, nurses, stock brokers, teachers, or school principles. They do not appear in the official data.

I use beer, scotch, and caffeine. The only difference between their use pattern and mine is that my drugs of choice happen to be legal despite alcohol being highly addictive and more destructive than all illegal drugs. The difference is the legal status of the drugs used, not the use pattern.

The opinions expressed on the prosecutors blog demonstrate a lack of insight or knowledge about the nature and scope of the substance abuse problem. They assume that the laws are valid and confuse opinion with knowledge, annecdote with valid evidence and based on ideological belief.

The history of drug laws is revealing for it shows that were formed deceitfully. It has never been about the drugs but something else - preserving jobs for Anglos (1875), trade advantages (1914), using a race/ethicity based drug threat for political gain (1875, 1919, 1937), organizational survival (1937) and political advantage (1969/1970).

Americans have been mislead so long on this issue that many assume prohibition policies honestly developed when they were not. Drug control policies are based on instrumental lies used to attain other ends and now drug control policy is trapped by the rhetoric used to demonize drugs, users and frame it as a morale issue. We cannot recognize that it is health issue and back down from the WOD as that would represent "capitulation" to prohibition advocates.

Yet, it is not the drugs that are harming our society so grievously -- it is the War on Drugs.

Mexico and Argentina have taken appropriate, but insufficient steps forward to reduce the harms caused by drug enforcement. It will do nothing to threaten the cartels because they will still control of production, distribution, and retain their profits.

Legalization and regulation to allow legal access to adults would largely remove the criminal element. Then we can focus on the real problem --- dealing with the health impacts of drugs use.

David C said...

There's a lot of middle ground between what we're currently doing and legalization of drugs. Simply reducing sentences for drug probation violations from 5 years to 5 days and replacing occasional drug testing with mandatory randomized drug testing would be a gigantic improvement over the current system.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 10:54

Well said, and I agree.


R. Shackelford said...

I read the string linked above, and I gotta say that people who are so woefully uninformed about mj have no business litigating this. The only guy who had any clue at all was the guy who mentioned 'cookies'. Let's face it: Marijuana just flat isn't that bad for you. It's all media generated hysteria and revenue garnering bullsh*t. So many people smoke mj, for so many reasons, that I believe it's only a matter of time before it becomes legalized for personal use. People who get their collective panties in a bunch over mj simply haven't done their homework.

Anonymous said...

So, some ADA's want to continue with their War on Reality, ie, "drugs." What's new. It's job security.

Anonymous said...

No clear data will ever exist concerning the war on drugs. Studies to try and determine the true cost will never account for the astronomical associated cost, much less ever begin to determine the negative economic and social impact on all of society.

The WOD is and always has been a war of political manipulation, and as I have said before our Justice System stands divided by economic status, so the poor and middle class continue to be the ones most affected.

To anon 04:27:00pm, concerning our Constitution:

The Constitution begins with We the people and we the people are about 300 million. The ones who are making these decisions with our money are 100 senators, 435 congressmen, and 1 president, 536 people who should be governing by the standards of “we the people”, and not by political manipulation. Blogs like this one and the sheer existence of the internet are still in the infancy stages but continue to spread information in a manner never before known. I for one would not be surprised if the internet itself does not become the next political manipulation to silence the voices of “we the people”.

What is abundantly clear for anyone who gives an ounce of thoughtful consideration to this subject is that prohibition has never been a choice and its disastrous failure continues to promote its own failure.

These 536 people continue to fuel a black market enterprise that grows and grows and grows.

Have you ever once, even once given thought to why?

How can something so insidious infiltrate society in such a way and affect the lives of so many, without a massive revolt in an effort to track down these killers?

These same 536 people have absolutely no problem with hosting lavish functions and serving glass after glass of mind altering spirits that by far outweigh the detriment to society than the mind altering spirits they choose to “outlaw”.

Your comments are without thought and without merit.

Mind altering spirits have been in existence forever and the only possible choice since they “do exist”, and are never going to go away is education.

Then for those that choose to seek high office and for those that simply hope for a chance at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the American dream is still attainable.

For those that choose to destroy their own lives, (so be it), at least we will know who they are and where they can be found, huddled in masses down at the local bars and the local drug emporiums.

You speak of the greater good and how lives have been destroyed. It is as if you hold no regard whatsoever for those whose lives and the lives of their families for generations have been totally destroyed and will continue in the same circle of events for nothing more than some politicians idealistic notion, the things they mull over while having a drink with fat cats who imply that this is something I think you as my friend should try to get done for me. Selfish interests hold far greater weight when backed by power and influence.

Anonymous said...

"Full decriminalization will never happen here, IMO, so it's a waste of time talking about its merits/faults."

Full decriminalization was essentially our nation's policy for most of its history. People forget - or they never learned - that our great-grandparents could walk into a pharmacy and buy bags of opiates, coca and hemp without a prescription. There were no crack gangs and no international drug cartels tearing up the fabric of societies.

In 1914 the US declared war on dried vegetable products with passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act. We've had 95 years of experience and countless studies, and the results are in. Anyone who can rub two brain cells together can see that the drug war is a massive, counterproductive failure. We cannot repeal the laws of supply and demand, and we cannot incarcerate our way out of this mess.

Decriminalization is only a matter of time.

Suggested reading: Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed: A Judicial Indictment Of War On Drugs (2001) by the Honorable James Gray.

Bill Fason
Houston TX said...

There are many persuasive arguments on why America should legalize marijuana, and the reasons are sound, but despite the fact that many millions of Americans have used pot has not translated into real political pressure on the people who can change the laws. One of the problems inhibiting legalization is that people that smoke a glass pipe are not considered serious or mature. It is This stigma that scares many pot users into hiding that they smoke pot. Therefore the Reality of who smokes pot and how much the smoke is very different than it seems. The last three presidents were admitted pot users and by my Understanding the same is probably true of the first three presidents as well. Marijuana Legislation is very serious and has everything with how we define what it means to be American. What credence do we as Americans give the rights of the individual to the pursuit of happiness as well as a right to privacy? In the end it is up to us to be public about our choices and to Voice our opinions to the ones that ultimately decide what the rules are. Every hand written Letter that makes it to a representative is considered to be the voice of a thousand people who did not take the time to write. Send an email, send a letter make a phone call and get counted.