5 Reasons Why This Week Was Historic for Ending America's War on Drugs and Cruel Incarceration Policies

It happened at a dizzying pace. One big victory for the drug and prison reform community after another. The Attorney General addressed our massive prison problem, the DEA continues to be scrutinized for its shady law enforcement tactics, a federal judge ruled the NYPD's stop-and-frisk tactic unconstitutional, a major media personality admitted he was wrong about marijuana's health risks, and New York City's Comptroller released a report explaining why marijuana should be legalized.

All of this is great news for advocates of sensible drug policy, civil rights, privacy rights, and prison reform.

1. Eric Holder Gets "Smarter On Crime"

On Monday, US Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech at the American Bar Association's annual meeting in which he announced a major shift in criminal justice policy aimed at addressing unfairness in the justice system. Although the US has only 5 percent of the world's population, it has 25 percent of its prisoners. Almost half of federal inmates are serving time on drug charges. "The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old," Holder told NPR earlier this month. "There has been a lot of unintended consequences. There's been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color."

The Justice Department sent a policy memorandum to all US attorney offices on Monday instructing federal prosecutors to exclude mention of specific quantities of illegal substances in their indictments for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no significant criminal history or ties to large-scale gangs or cartels. Additional new policies include increasing use of drug treatment programs as alternatives to incarceration and expanding a "compassionate release" program for inmates facing "extraordinary circumstances" like old age or poor health who have served a significant part of their sentences and pose no threat to society. "We must face the reality that our system is, in too many ways, broken," he said in his speech. "And with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to deter and to rehabilitate—not merely to warehouse and to forget." 

These new approaches, which Holder calls the "Smart On Crime" initiative, aim to ease overcrowding in federal prisons and alleviate the cost to taxpayers. The attorney general cited the success of 17 states that have experimented with programs aimed at reducing recidivism—such as diverting drug offenders into treatment programs and expanding job training—instead of toward prison construction. States like Texas, Arkansas and Kentucky have experimented with ways to incarcerate fewer low-level drug offenders, saving hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. "While the federal prison system has continued to slowly expand, significant state-level reductions have led to three consecutive years of decline in America's overall prison population—including, in 2012, the largest drop ever experienced in a single year," Holder said. "Clearly, these strategies can work." (This bold reversal of the government's tough-on-crime rhetoric was featured on the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post on the day of Holder's speech.) 

2. NYPD Stop-and-Frisk Ruled Unconstitutional

Later on Monday morning, a federal judge ruled that the New York Police Department's use of stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional, violating the rights of minorities in New York City. Judge Shira Scheindlin's ruling is a blow to the crime fighting legacy of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police commissioner Ray Kelly, who credit police stops with reducing major crime in the city to historic lows. But according to Scheindlin, the crime-fighting efficacy of the policy is irrelevant. "Many police practices may be useful for fighting crime…but because they are unconstitutional, they cannot be used, no matter how effective," she wrote in her 195-page decision. She concluded that stop-and-frisk demonstrates an institutional disregard for the Fourth Amendment—which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government—as well as the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment.

The judge accused the NYPD of institutionalizing a "policy of indirect racial profiling" under which police routinely stop innocent "blacks and Hispanics who would not have been stopped if they were white." Though she claimed she was "not ordering an end to the practice of stop-and-frisk," she called for a number of reforms to be made, including the use of cameras worn on patrol officers to record street encounters across the city. The judge also ordered the appointment of the police department's first-ever independent monitor to oversee broad changes to its policies, naming private attorney Peter Zimroth, who was the city's top lawyer in the late '80s, to monitor the constitutionality of the NYPD's practices. "No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves home to go about the activities of daily life," Scheindlin wrote in her decision, citing the "demeaning and humiliating experience" that defines the "human toll of unconstitutional stops," according to testimony of individuals who describe being stopped.

Though blacks and Hispanics account for a little over 50 percent of the city's population, they are involved in about 83 percent of the 4.4 million police stops that occurred between 2004 and 2012. And most of them are not criminals. "Nearly 90 percent of the people stopped are released without the officer finding any basis for a summons or an arrest," Scheindlin countered in reference to Bloomberg and Kelly's claim that the stops reflect the disproportionate percentage of crimes committed by minorities. Mayor Bloomberg said Scheindlin had misinterpreted what the Constitution allowed and announced that the city will file a notice of appeal today (Friday). The mayor said he hoped stop-and-frisk will continue through the end of his term, because he "wouldn't want to be responsible for a lot of people dying," and said it would be irresponsible of the next mayor to stop the appeal.

3. Revealing the DEA's Shady Business

The Internet and Capitol Hill have been abuzz about the recent revelation earlier this month about the US Drug Enforcement Administration's special intelligence project that has riled privacy advocates. According to a series of Reuters investigative reports, the DEA has been sending information gathered via "intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records" to local law enforcement authorities across the US to help launch criminal investigations of Americans. 

The unit responsible for this practice is the DEA's Special Operations Division, (SOD). Documents reviewed by Reuters detail the SOD's practices, much of which is classified. Based on their intelligence, the SOD sends a tip to local law enforcement to, for example, look for a certain vehicle at a certain time and location, and to find an excuse to stop the vehicle. After an arrest is made, authorities are instructed to pretend that their investigation began with the traffic stop, not the SOD tip. This process is referred to as "parallel construction," according to the DEA documents. These law enforcement agents are directed to conceal the SOD's involvement from investigative reports, affidavits, discussions with prosecutors and courtroom testimony—withholding this information from not just defense lawyers, but prosecutors and judges as well. 

These cases rarely involve national security issues, but rather common criminals, primarily drug dealers. Critics say this tactic violates a defendant's constitutional right to a fair trial and that the SOD has gone too far. "It is one thing to create special rules for national security," Nancy Gertner, a Harvard Law School professor who served as a federal judge from 1994 to 2011, told Reuters. "It sounds like they are phonying up investigations." Former federal prosecutor Henry Hockeimer Jr. told Reuters, "These are drug crimes, not national security cases. If you don't draw the line here, where do you draw it?"

4. Sanjay Gupta Changes His Mind About "Weed"

A new documentary called Weed premiered on CNN on Sunday night. The film follows the reversal of CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta's stance on marijuana. Leading up to the premiere of Weed, Gupta came out with a public apology for misleading the public about marijuana. "We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that," Gupta—who authored "Why I would Vote No on Pot" for Time magazine in 2009—wrote in his apology. Weed follows the doctor's reversal on marijuana. It profiles a diverse group of people who have benefited from the plant, including Charlotte Figi, a 5-year-old girl with a severe form of epilepsy. As a toddler, she suffered up to 300 seizures a week. Desperate for some relief, her parents turned to medical marijuana, which has reduced the frequency of her seizures to two or three per month.

Another highlight of Weed is Gupta's coverage of medical marijuana research in Israel, home to 10,000 medical marijuana patients who are licensed under the country's Ministry of Health. Israel has been at the forefront of medical marijuana research for decades now, being the first to isolate THC and CBD. More than a dozen studies have been approved by the Ministry of Health to research marijuana's effect on illnesses like PTSD, pain, Crohn's disease, and cancer. Gupta also visited a nursing home where some residents, including an octogenarian Holocaust survivor, use medical marijuana to treat a range of ailments including pain, loss of appetite, Parkinson's disease and dementia.

5. NYC Comptroller Proposes Marijuana Legalization

New York City Comptroller and mayoral candidate John Liu released a report on Wednesday proposing the legalization and taxation of marijuana. The report commissioned by Liu revealed that the city's pot users make up a $1.65 billion marijuana market. Liu says legalization would bring in $400 million in tax revenue, saving $31 million annually in the cost of enforcing marijuana policy. He proposed that marijuana tax revenue be used toward cutting CUNY tuition in half for native New Yorkers. "We'd be investing in young people instead of ruining their lives," he said. 

"We have to recognize that the prohibition of marijuana failed and its enforcement has damaged too many lives, especially in minority communities," said the mayoral candidate, chastising the Bloomberg administration for the disproportionate impact of rising marijuana arrests on black and Hispanic New Yorkers over the past decade. "It is economically and socially just to tax it," Liu told AP. "We can eliminate some of the criminal nature that surrounds the drug and obtain revenue from it." 

Liu's proposal calls for allowing adults to possess up to one ounce of marijuana for recreational use. The state would oversee private pot-selling businesses, and using marijuana in public or while driving would be prohibited. A law would have to be passed in the state legislature and signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo for marijuana to be legalized in New York, so there is some way to go. 

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