Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What do Ron Paul, Jimmy Carter and Barney Frank have in common? Drugs!

In the days of divided American politics in which we find ourselves living, it is a rare issue that brings politicians on opposite ends of the political spectrum together to co-sponsor legislation. Somewhat surprisingly, federal control over marijuana happens to be just such an issue.

Last week, former President Jimmy Carter wrote a insightful Op-Ed piece in the New York Times urging the administration to call off the American led war on drugs launched under the the Nixon administration and reaffirmed by President Reagan. President Carter made reference to the "courageous and profoundly important recommendations" made by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes as its members former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, former US Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, entrepreneur and Virgin founder Richard Branson, and former Presidents Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico), César Gaviria (Colombia), and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil). At its core, the Commission concluded that the "global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world." While the finding is harsh, it is indeed hard to conclude otherwise.

The principal recommendation made by the Commission is that governments "end the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others." This is a sensible recommendation that should be adopted. The escalation in rates of incarceration for non violent drug offenders is absurd. When President Carter left office in 1980, about a half million prisoners inhabited American jails. Today, nearly five times as many people are incarcerated and according to President Carter, the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses has increasing more than twelvefold since he left office.

I recall a conversation I had with my judge, the Hon. Benson Everett Legg, United States District Judge for the District of Maryland, about a few policy issues related to drug sentencing. Judge Legg, who had seen many federal drug cases by the time I clerked with him in 2000 and has undoubtedly seen many more, shared his frustrations regarding the effectiveness of federal drug prosecutions. According to the judge, as soon as federal or state prosecutors cleared one Baltimore street corner of a drug dealer, another would surely pop up nearby. The inner city simply lacked opportunities for the young (and predominantly African American) men who were being convicted of selling drugs to the suburban (and predominantly white) consumers of those drugs. Supply and Demand 101: where there is demand, a supply will be available. These were not the musings of a liberal Democrat but rather a moderate to conservative jurist who had once been prominent in the Maryland Republican party. Judge Legg's views are hardly unique, however. Many federal judges are frustrated with drug policy and sentencing in the United States. (See generally articles in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Sentencing Project and

Judge Legg's observations about Federal drug prosecutions on the streets of Baltimore back in 2000 are mirrored in the Commission's findings that "apparent victories in eliminating one source or trafficking organization are negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers." The futility of the war on drugs on the streets of the US and the amazing surge in the number of people in U.S. prisons and the phenomenal incarceration costs thereof represent the tip of the drug policy iceberg. As President Carter and the Commission note, a growing number of Latin American countries have witnessed an appalling surge in drug-related violence, corruption and gross violations of human rights as a result of the US led and funded war on drugs.

Against this backdrop, Reps. Barney Frank (D), a Massachusetts liberal, and Ron Paul (R), a Texas libertarian, who are often not on the same page on policy matters, will introduce a bill in the House today that would effectively end most federal control over marijuana by deferring to individual states on such matters and only invoking federal authority in cases involving cross-border or inter-state smuggling. If passed, the bill would allow individuals to grow, use or sell marijuana in states where it is legal. While the bill is not a legalization measure, it represents a solid and wise first step in the rationalization of federal drug policy.

I have long endorsed liberalization of drug policy, especially with regard to cannabis, and I welcome this most recent, even if long-shot attempt to do just that. To sign a petition to your member of Congress urging his or her support for the Frank/Paul legislation, please click here.

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