On a roll 

Working against the War on Drugs — all across America

Last week marked the 41st anniversary of President Nixon's declaration of the War on Drugs — a policy so bad that not only has it failed, it has helped create thriving international crime syndicates. So it was very encouraging to hear about the upcoming Caravan for Peace, which will seek an end to prohibitionist policies in Mexico and the United States, and draw attention to related violence on both sides of the border. 

Led by Mexican poet and journalist Javier Sicilia, the caravan includes Mexicans who have lost a family member to the drug war. They will leave from San Diego on Aug. 12, traveling to events in 25 cities in the South, finally landing in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10. Those family members won't be hard to find. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon went to war with the drug cartels in late 2006, more than 50,000 Mexicans have been killed (Sicilia puts the number at 70,000) and another 10,000 disappeared. Sicilia's son was among a group of people killed last year by members of a drug gang. In response to the tragedy, Sicilia founded the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity to work for an end to organized-crime violence. He has led similar caravans in Mexico, and now his mission will take him across the United States along with representatives from about a dozen other organizations, including the NAACP.

The caravan "fits in line well with NAACP policy that was enacted last year and highlights why the War on Drugs has been a failure," says Dr. Niaz Kazravi, the organization's senior manager for law enforcement accountability. "Policies should be changed to rehabilitation and treatment programs. We're not condoning drug use, but drug problems should be addressed as a treatable illness. ... This caravan highlights the human impact of the drug war both in Mexico and the United States."

Part of that impact in the U.S. has been the arrest or imprisonment (or both) of large numbers of African-American and Latino youths for small, nonviolent drug crimes. Saddled with criminal records, these young people find themselves ineligible for such programs as federal housing or education assistance, and have a particularly difficult time getting jobs.

Many who get that smear on their record fall into a cycle of poverty and crime that they cannot break out of. Although blacks and Latinos use drugs at about the same rate as whites, they are arrested for drug offenses at much higher rates than whites.

That's the reason New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently called on the state Legislature to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Cuomo said the stop-and-frisk law that leads to many arrests was applied against "disproportionately black and Hispanic youth." The legislation was shelved due to resistance from Republicans in the state Senate.

"In New York, our state leadership was in support of Cuomo's bill to decriminalize marijuana," Kazravi says. "It didn't pass this year, but it's still active, and the NAACP views it as a step in the right direction. It's still active, and they're still pushing for it for next year."

Regarding Detroit's impending bid to decriminalize possession and use of small amounts of marijuana on private property, Kazravi sees that as a small step in the right direction. "Whatever we can do helps, even if it has to be in increments of stopping the funneling of nonviolent drug offenders into our prisons and jails where they don't belong."

Bigger steps: Though the November ballot in Detroit is a big deal here, there are bigger steps contemplated elsewhere. Colorado and Washington state voters will be making the call on legalizing and regulating their marijuana markets in November. A Rasmussen poll earlier this month found 61 percent of Coloradans in support of Amendment 64, which would legalize and regulate marijuana — only 27 percent opposed it. In Washington, a recent Public Policy Poll found support for Initiative 502 at 50 percent. That's a questionable level of support for a petition initiative on a ballot, but the opposition came in at only 37 percent. That left the 13 percent undecided bloc to be targeted by both sides.

In Michigan things look bad for the petition drive to put the question of amending the state Constitution to legalize marijuana on the ballot this fall. A recent news report put the amount of signatures collected at 40,000. That puts the Coalition for a Safer Michigan well short of the 300,000-plus signatures it needs as the deadline to be on the November ballot nears.

A most interesting petition drive is taking place in Oregon. The Oregon Cannabis Tax Act effort needs 87,213 valid signatures to get on the fall ballot. OCTA turned in 108,000 signatures at the end of May. Generally, about 30 percent of signatures are declared invalid in petition drives. However, this week the Oregon Secretary of State office declared that OTCA had only 55,869 qualifying signatures — slightly less than 50 percent were thrown out. Fortunately for OTCA, they continued collecting signatures and have another 40,000 on hand. If 50 percent of those get thrown out, the initiative would not make the ballot, but they have until July 6 to turn in the final batch. 

The initiative got a big boost last week when the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 555, Oregon's largest union, representing 19,000 members in the state, endorsed the OCTA and is putting resources into the petition drive. That could easily put the petition drive over the top.

A different petition drive to amend the Oregon Constitution met a similar fate at the secretary of state office. That drive, the Oregon Marijuana Policy Initiative, needs more signatures than OCTA because it amends the state constitution, and things aren't looking good for that effort.

The public mood about marijuana in Oregon was tapped recently in that state's Democratic primary for attorney general. Retired judge Ellen Rosenblum easily won the race against former U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton. During the campaign, Rosenblum said that she would make "marijuana enforcement a low priority, and protect the rights of medical marijuana patients." Last year, as an Oregon U.S. Attorney, Holton sent out letters to owners, operators and landlords of dispensaries threatening them with prosecution. A little less than one-third of Rosenblum's contributions came from marijuana legalization supporters. Republicans have not fielded a candidate for attorney general, so the Democratic candidate is the presumptive winner. Apparently openly supporting marijuana is no longer political suicide. 

"Politicians are coming out of the cannabis closet," says Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project. "Not only will they not be hurt by supporting marijuana reform, but it might be advantageous to their re-election efforts."

The OTCA is a bit different than proposed laws in other states because it puts hemp production front and center in the debate. Hemp is the low-THC strain of cannabis used in making rope and numerous other products, from fuel to car parts. It gets its play in the other states, but Oregon has really focused on the industrial potential of the plant's sturdy fibers.

While Colorado and Washington have been getting the headlines, Oregon just might be the dark horse candidate to legalize it before any other state — if you give them enough rope. 

Larry Gabriel is a musician, writer and former Metro Times editor. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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