Friday, January 25, 2008

Editorial: Poverty and the Drug Laws

Editorial: Poverty and the Drug Laws

David Borden, Executive Director

Any given week in the drug war, scanning the news about it will reveal a veritable snowstorm of drug war outrages and calamities. Most of them we don't even report about here in Drug War Chronicle, because they're just too commonplace, and we'd need an army of reporters instead just the one we have. But even just looking here, in any given week, it is vividly clear just how many different directions and in how many different ways the drug laws howl against us:

As we fight against the drug war's many currents, it's also important to look to our roots, the basic wrongs, the awful tragedies, that are inherent in drug prohibition itself. One of those tragedies, one which played significantly in my own choice of cause, is the worsening and the sustaining of urban poverty.

The drug laws keep urban neighborhoods in poverty in two particular ways. One is the violence and the disorder that prohibition causes. As alcohol prohibition last century fed the Mafia, today's drug prohibition laws create a large and ever-present underground market. Because people who are breaking the law can't go to the police to complain when other lawbreakers violate their rights, disputes instead are governed by violence or the threat of it. And because they are already criminals, drug selling organizations, instead of advertising, may willingly resort to violence to increase their share of the market instead. Hence the drive-by shootings, the assassinations from deals gone bad, etc. Even when outright violence doesn't break out, illegal drug transactions, whether on the open street, in a hallway or a schoolyard, affect the climate of life and create a sense of disorder. This creates danger for bystanders, drives away legitimate business, and generally makes life hard.

The second most serious way in which our drug laws contribute to poverty, at least in their current form of enforcement, is the mass criminalization -- arrest, incarceration, criminal records -- that has been thrust through intensive policing upon certain groups of people. Research by the Sentencing Project, for example, has found that on any given day, as many as one in three young black males are under some form of correctional control -- prison, jail, probation or parole. This number is not entirely for drug offenses, of course, but as the Sentencing Project has made the case for, the "war on drugs" has been the driving force in a growth in incarceration in this country going far beyond any historical precedent.

The simplistic "if you break the law, you should be punished" argument pales when set beside the massive shredding of community and family ties produced by this malignantly careening government program; or the training for crime these young people get when imprisoned; or the temptation for so many to take the opportunity when offered to make money now and be part of something that sounds more interesting than the typical legal job that's available to them. Plus what happens, even to those who didn't have to do jail time, when their criminal records show up on a potential employer's computer screen? We hear from people facing this situation all the time, and it is a major national problem. Even mere arrest records can show up and thwart someone's best efforts to go the straight and narrow route. What are some of them going to do then? We know the program doesn't work either -- the drugs are still here, after all, and in force.

In a realistic worldview, substance abuse would be viewed as an expected part of the human condition for some people, an issue with which society would seek the best ways to live with, rather than suppress and "fight" through the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the visible agonies of those struggling with addiction, and of those whose actions they most deeply affect, have prevented a widespread understanding from dawning of the vice grip the drug laws exert in fueling poverty, and the obstacles they place in the way of efforts to address it.

By looking back to our intellectual roots, it is clear that this message is one that must be repeated over and over until it is heard by the many and sinks in. When that happens, legalization will be seen as the wiser course, and new hopes built upon solid foundations will emerge.


Friday, January 25, 2008
Fear card used again

No surprise, but still...

The Bush administration announced yesterday that it is seeking $200 million to help cities fight violent crime, citing as one of its reasons, the U.S. Sentencing Commission's decision to give convicted crack cocaine offenders a chance for an earlier release.

Speaking before the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said that "a sudden influx of criminals from federal prison into your communities could lead to a surge in new victims as a tragic, but predictable, result."

Of course, there will be no "sudden influx" (release will be spread over many years and they still have to get a judge to agree for each release, which federal prosecutors have already said they will fight).

But the truth doesn't matter -- all that matters is profiting by making people afraid.

A picture named fear.jpg


Medical Marijuana: Employers Can Fire Users, California Supreme Court Rules

The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that employers may fire workers who use medical marijuana in compliance with California's Compassionate Use Act -- even if they are off duty and even if their use does not affect their job performance. The ruling came in Ross v. Raging Wire Telecommunications.

In that case, Gary Ross, whose doctor recommended medical marijuana for chronic back pain resulting from an injury incurred while serving in the Air Force, was hired by Raging Wire as a systems engineer in 2001 and was required to take a drug test as a condition of employment. He provided the company with a copy of his doctor's recommendation, but the company fired him a week later because of a positive test result.

Ross sued, alleging that the company violated the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) by not accommodating his disability. He also argued that the company fired him in violation of public policy because the Compassionate Use Act legalized medical marijuana in the state.

"All I am asking is to be a productive member of society," Ross said in a written statement. "I was not fired for poor work performance but for an antiquated policy on medical marijuana."

His case was watched with great interest by California medical marijuana users. Hundreds have complained of being fired, threatened with firing, or not being hired as a result of their medical marijuana use.

But in siding with employers, the state high court said the Compassionate Use Act protected users only from criminal prosecution. "Nothing in the text or history of the Compassionate Use Act suggests the voters intended the measure to address the respective rights and duties of employers and employees," wrote Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdeger for the majority. "Under California law, an employer may require pre-employment drug tests and take illegal drug use into consideration in making employment decisions."

Additionally, Werdeger noted, even though medical marijuana is legal under state law it remains illegal under federal law, and "the FEHA does not require employers to accommodate the use of illegal drugs."

Justice Joyce Kennard was scathing in her dissent. The decision was "conspicuously lacking in compassion," she wrote. "The majority's holding disrespects the will of California's voters." The voters "surely never intended that persons who availed themselves" of the medical marijuana act "would thereby disqualify themselves from employment," Kennard said.

Reaction was rapid and only beginning on Thursday evening. The Los Angeles Times reported that Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) announced the same day he would introduce legislation to prevent employers from discriminating against medical marijuana users. "The people of California did not intend that patients be unemployed in order to use medical marijuana," he said.

Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) told the Times the decision was a slap at patients. "The court is claiming tha California voters intended to permit medical use of marijuana, but only if you're willing to be unemployed and on welfare," Mirken said. "That is ridiculous on its face, as well as cruel."

The ability of medical marijuana users to function in society is not just an issue in California. Legislative efforts are afoot in Oregon to explicitly allow employers to fire medical marijuana users. In Montana, the Department of Corrections wants to ban probationers and parolees from using medical marijuana. In some other states, like Rhode Island, protections for users are written into the law. Look for a feature article on this issue next week in the Chronicle.

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