Ending the war on drugs

Jun 21, 2017 at 1:00 am
click to enlarge Ending the war on drugs

Fighting marijuana

prohibition isn't just about marijuana. It's also about fighting police brutality, militarization, and asset forfeiture. It's about reducing a U.S. prison population that is the biggest in the world. It's about civil rights and civil liberties.

The national law enforcement group LEAP connected the dots on much of that last week in announcing the organization's name change from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition to Law Enforcement Action Partnership. Maintaining the same acronym probably saves a little money on letterheads and the like.

Success in the LEAP agenda, however, saves lives.

"LEAP wanted to start focusing beyond just speaking out against the war on drugs and talking about criminal justice reform in general," says Steve Miller, a sergeant retiree from the Canton police department and a spokesman for LEAP. "My philosophy is the war on drugs is central to all of this. If we end the war on drugs we could solve a lot of other areas that are in need of reform in the criminal justice system."

LEAP is officially making a connection that many of its members made long ago. LEAP executive director Neill Franklin, a retired Maryland State Police officer, helped convince the national NAACP board to call for an end to the war on drugs back in 2011. Not that the Detroit chapter seems to have heeded that call.

Attorney Michelle Alexander was also in the working group that helped convince the NAACP to make that choice. Her book The New Jim Crow details how the war on drugs has crippled black communities by labeling marijuana users as criminals.

Despite that, the black community has been slow to come around on marijuana legalization. At least among the local institutions that tend to support or represent African-Americans. After all, they're working on civil rights, not drug user rights. And while there are plenty of black marijuana consumers (and inmates), there are precious few in the new and growing industry. Somewhere around 1 percent.

That's something the Rev. Al Sharpton mentioned in addressing the Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition on Friday, June 16. In a pre-exposition statement told to The Huffington Post, Sharpton said, "I will challenge the cannabis industry and its distributors in states where it is legal to support civil rights movements and ensure that we are not disproportionately excluded from business opportunities."

Sharpton asserts a connection between the marijuana insurgency and civil rights movements here. They are indeed connected.

At a time when the idea of "fake news" is prominent in the national political discourse, the war on drugs stands out as a testament to the government's ability to just make things up and destroy lives from that base. Marijuana prohibition went nationwide in 1937 as a racist attack on Latinos and blacks. When President Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs it was in direct contradiction to the findings of his own Shafer Commission that recommended marijuana possession be decriminalized.

The success of that propaganda has been that even though the war on drugs has obvious detriments to black communities, most "responsible" members of those communities can't see it.

"The misconceptions out there are horrible and they are based on government lies that have been passed on for the past 80 years," says Miller. "The most dangerous part of the drug war is the drug war itself."

Can the government make things up and base life-altering policy on it? You bet it can. That's one reason why fighting marijuana prohibition is intricately tied to larger political struggles.

Here's how Dan K. Morhaim, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, put it in a May Baltimore Sun opinion piece:

"It's a war that has claimed tens of thousands of casualties both at home and abroad, destroyed the lives of countless innocent bystanders, turned neighborhoods — and in some cases whole regions — into killing fields, filled prisons to overflowing with non-violent offenders, poisoned farmlands and forests, undermined police and government agencies, corrupted multinational banks and financial companies, funded overseas enemies and terrorists, and despite the tremendous cost in blood and treasure, has not advanced the cause for which the war was declared. Drug use has not measurably declined since President Nixon started that war in 1970.

"Not only has the war on drugs failed, it continues to make the situation worse. It's turned into a war on people, communities, institutions, and ultimately ourselves. A new strategy is needed."

That is what LEAP seeks. It's not a strategy aimed only at drugs. It's a holistic strategy aimed at what the war on drugs has done to our people, police forces, and our communities. Even the police know we need a new strategy. Unfortunately, they generally don't speak out about it until they have retired. It's their job to enforce the law, not change it.

Miller has totally flipped his script. Since retiring from the police force he has gotten a private investigator's license and works for attorney Mike Komorn, a prominent defender of people charged with marijuana offenses. He's also become a supporter of MI Legalize, part of the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol that is running a petition initiative to get the question of recreational legalization in Michigan on the 2018 ballot. He believes legalizing marijuana will change the way police do their business.

"For one, we're taking a huge thing away from the police to go out and use that aggressive enforcement," says Miller. "Marijuana is an easy target with its smell. It's low-hanging fruit for the police. ... The majority of my career it was get in these crappy neighborhoods and stop every kid that's passing on the street. It's all centralized in the war on drugs — getting people, searching people, get in their car, find drugs. Police go out and use that and create a hostile relationship. If marijuana is legal police can move on and do other things. Drug task forces spend a large amount of time on marijuana."

In 2014, according to FBI data, almost 90 percent of about 700,000 marijuana arrests were for possession alone. It seems that if police didn't have to spend their time chasing people for marijuana possession it would save them a lot of effort and expense, let alone pressure on the courts and jails.

LEAP is on the right path and it would do us well to get with it. Repealing marijuana prohibition will ease a lot of other problems that have grown in the prohibition industry. And maybe if police don't have that adversarial relationship with communities, there could be a lot more Officer Friendly types on the streets.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been making lots of noise about enforcing federal marijuana laws and belittling the idea that the plant has medicinal value. Maybe he should spend a little time studying up on recent science about cannabinoids. However, based on the amount of things he just couldn't remember during recent testimony to the U.S. Senate, information retention isn't one of his strong points.