BESIDES choosing lawmakers, on November 4th voters in three American states and the District of Columbia considered measures to liberalise the cannabis trade. Alaska and Oregon, where it is legal to provide “medical marijuana” to registered patients, voted to go further and let the drug be sold and taken for recreational purposes, as Colorado and Washington state already allow. In DC, a measure to legalise the possession of small amounts for personal use was passed. A majority of voters in Florida opted to join the lengthening list of places where people can seek a doctor’s note that lets them take the drug. However, the measure fell just short of the 60% needed to change the state constitution. Even so, that such a big state in the conservative South came so close to liberalising shows how America’s attitude to criminalising pot has changed.
All that imprisoning millions of people for nonviolent drug offenses has done is bankrupt us financially and morally, turning people with debilitating addictions into people with debilitating convictions.
The United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, largely due to misguided drug laws and mandatory sentencing requirements. Since the 1970s, drug war practices have led to the conviction and marginalization of millions of Americans – disproportionately poor people and people of color – while failing utterly to reduce problematic drug use, drug-related disease transmission or overdose deaths. The Drug Policy Alliance is committed to identifying and promoting health-centered alternatives to harmful, punitive drug laws. We are working to stem the tide of low-level drug arrests, to reverse draconian sentencing practices that cultivate discrimination, and to eliminate life-long barriers faced by people with even a minor drug conviction.
If we want to solve our nation’s drug problems, we need to focus less on obtaining convictions and more on preventing addictions. We should be treating people with addictions, not handcuffing them.
The United States is home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners, in part because of the overly harsh consequences of a drug conviction. Many of the 2.3 million people behind bars (and 5 million under criminal justice supervision) in this country are being punished for a drug offense. If every American who has ever possessed illicit drugs were punished for it, nearly half of the U.S. population would have drug violations on their records.
Over 1.6 million people are arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated, placed under criminal justice supervision and/or deported each year for a drug law violation. Yet instead of reducing problematic drug use, drug-related disease transmission or overdose deaths, the drug war has actually done more harm than problematic drug use itself, by breaking up families, putting millions of people behind bars, burdening even more people with a life-long criminal record, worsening the health prospects for people who use drugs and significantly compromising public health.
The consequences of any drug conviction are life-long and severe, and are not experienced equally. Despite comparable drug use and selling rates across racial groups, African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately punished for drug law violations. Drug violations are an easy solution for police officers pressed for high arrest quotas, resulting in thousands of wrongful arrests that overwhelmingly victimize communities of color.
The Drug Policy Alliance is focused on reducing the number of people swept into the criminal justice system (or deported) for drug law violations, while promoting policies that improve individual and public health. We are guided by the principle that no one should be punished for what they put in their own body, absent harm to others.
Exposing and combating the racism of the drug war is an important part of DPA’s agenda. We work with civil rights and social justice organizations, formerly incarcerated people and other allies to end discriminatory policies and practices that unjustly target and penalize people of color and to advance an equitable health-centered approach to drugs.
The drug war has produced profoundly unequal outcomes across racial groups, manifested through racial discrimination by law enforcement and disproportionate drug war misery suffered by communities of color. Although rates of drug use and selling are comparable across racial lines, people of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations than are whites. Higher arrest and incarceration rates for African Americans and Latinos are not reflective of increased prevalence of drug use or sales in these communities, but rather of a law enforcement focus on urban areas, on lower-income communities and on communities of color as well as inequitable treatment by the criminal justice system. We believe that the mass criminalization of people of color, particularly young African American men, is as profound a system of racial control as the Jim Crow laws were in this country until the mid-1960s.
The Drug Policy Alliance is committed to exposing disproportionate arrest rates and the systems that perpetuate them. We work to eliminate policies that result in disproportionate incarceration rates by rolling back harsh mandatory minimum sentences that unfairly affect urban populations and by repealing sentencing disparities. Crack cocaine sentencing presents a particularly egregious case. Since the 1980s, federal penalties for crack were 100 times harsher than those for powder cocaine, with African Americans disproportionately sentenced to much lengthier terms. But, in 2010, DPA played a key role in reducing the crack/powder sentencing disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, and we are committed to passing legislation that would eliminate the disparity entirely.
The life-long penalties and exclusions that follow a drug conviction have created a permanent second-class status for millions of Americans, who may be prohibited from voting, being licensed, accessing public assistance and any number of other activities and opportunities. The drug war’s racist enforcement means that all of these exclusions fall more heavily on people and communities of color. DPA is committed to ending these highly discriminatory policies and to combating the stigma attached to drug use and drug convictions.
Two-thirds of women doing time in federal prison are behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses, and the vast majority of them have children they can’t even see. That’s not family values.
The perceived targets of drug law enforcement are men, but many of its victims are women. Women, and particularly women of color, are disproportionately affected by social stigma, by laws that punish those unable or unwilling to inform on others, by regulations that bar people with a drug conviction from obtaining (or that require a drug test to receive) public assistance, and by a drug treatment system designed for men.
Largely as a result of draconian drug laws, women are now a fast growing segment of the U.S. prison population. More than three quarters of women behind bars are mothers, many of them sole caregivers.
Conspiracy offenses represent one of the most egregious examples of the drug war’s inequitable treatment of women. Although conspiracy laws were designed to target members of illicit drug organizations, they have swept up many women for being guilty of nothing more than living with a husband or boyfriend involved in some level of drug sales. Harsh mandatory minimum sentencing may keep them behind bars for 20 years, 30 years, or even life.
The drug war punishes women, particularly mothers, not just for drug law violations but also, it appears, for failing to be “good” women. This translates into a system whereby women who are responsible for childrearing are too readily separated from their children, temporarily or permanently. Even women who do not use drugs may be punished, for example, by welfare regulations that require recipients to submit to invasive and embarrassing monitored drug testing in order to obtain public assistance.
Removing a parent (perhaps the only parent) from the household is immediately destabilizing, and over the long-term it’s devastating. Parents, once released from prison, may be barred from public assistance and housing and face significantly diminished employment opportunities. Children with a parent in prison are several times more likely than other children to end up in foster care, to drop out of school and to become involved in the criminal justice system.
Pregnant women are uniquely vulnerable to criminal justice involvement. Prosecutors across the country have targeted pregnant women accused of drug use, supposedly in the interest of protecting their fetuses. The criminalization of pregnant women is not only an affront to women’s rights; it puts both mother and fetus at greater risk by erecting barriers to drug treatment and prenatal care.
The Drug Policy Alliance is committed to safeguarding a woman’s right to sovereignty over her own body, and we have been involved in several legal challenges in cases in which women were charged with child abuse, assault, homicide or other offenses because they allegedly used drugs while pregnant. We are also working to increase opportunities for families to remain together while parents (or children) address problematic drug use and to reform draconian conspiracy laws that result in harsh prison sentences for women.
Despite these advancements, we still have a ways to go. Until we attain a fair, sustainable food system for all, eating according to your values can cost a pretty penny. Organic produce, for example, tends to cost more than its pesticide-doused counterpart. The good news is, thanks to organizations like the Environmental Working Group (EWG), we know that some non-organic fruits and veggies are safer than others to eat. If purchasing organic food is too expensive for your family, go for these fruits and veggies next time you hit up the produce aisle.
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