War on Drugs

  • August 1, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Atiba R. Ellis, Associate Professor, West Virginia University College of Law

    *Noting the 50th anniversaries of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ACSblog is hosting a symposium including posts and interviews from some of the nation’s leading scholars and civil rights activists.

    As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Summer protest, it is well worth reflecting on the how the movement challenged us to not only establish formal legal equality, but also to address enduring poverty. The Civil Rights Movement sought to persuade America that all Americans are equal. The Freedom Summer riders (and the many, many more who pressed for civil rights) sought to expose the inequality and oppression in the segregated south of 1964.

    The passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, still impact us today.  These enactments represent significant progress towards the goal of fostering equality. Moreover, with the contemporary tide of referenda and judicial rulings on marriage equality, the Civil Rights Movement continues to evolve to protect many people who fifty years ago weren’t deemed deserving of civil rights.

    Though we think of Martin Luther King, Jr., Freedom Summer, and formal legal equality when we think about the Civil Rights Movement, we should also remember that the struggle is really, as historian Jacqueline Dowd Hall explained, a “long civil rights movement.”  Hall’s work locates the genesis of the twentieth century movement in the 1930s with the social transformations that occurred due to economic disruption of the Great Depression.  Moreover, the long arc of legal transformation to foster equality began with the Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments.  The civil rights struggle began with confronting the subordination and poverty slavery created.

    In this sense, the long civil rights struggle had economic equality of opportunity at its core from the beginning. As Jeremy Leaming discussed on this blog, the question of racial equality in twenty-first century America is at a crossroads in light of retrenchment in civil and voting rights.  Yet racial inequality and poverty walk hand and hand and continue to affect the lived experiences of people of color.

    NPR host Michel Martin recently wrote an article in the National Journal, discussing the key obstacles that women of color continue to face in the twenty-first century.  In discussing this article on NPR’s All Things Considered (where she called her essay her own “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”) she explained how poverty creates an enduring problem for racial minorities:

    People of color particularly — but not exclusively blacks and Latinos — are connected to poverty and to disadvantage in ways that often our white colleagues don't understand. That causes you to have to think about things that they aren't thinking about. And that's the kind of thing that I really feel a need to call attention to.

    Martin’s words -- especially as they reflect her own experience navigating the intersection of race and class-- remind us that poverty daily affects the lives of people of color, no matter how affluent.  Indeed, it is a yet-to-be-fulfilled civil rights issue of the long civil rights movement.

  • July 29, 2014

    by Ellery Weil

    The Burlington Free Press reports on the death of Cheryl Hanna, who was the Vice President for External Relations and Professor of Law at Vermont Law School professor. A noted legal analyst, Professor Hanna was also the faculty adviser to the ACS Student Chapter at Vermont Law School. ACS extends its condolences to her family and friends.

    The New York Times Editorial Board continues its series calling for an end to the government’s failed war on marijuana. In “The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests,” the board states what many legal scholars and others have noted for a long time – arrests for marijuana possession target black men and ruin too many of their lives. The newspaper’s editorial board states:

    The sheer volume of law enforcement resources devoted to marijuana is bad enough. What makes the situation far worse is racial disparity. Whites and blacks use marijuana at roughly the same rates; on average, however, blacks are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession, according to a comprehensive 2013 report by the ACLU.

    Emma Green of The Atlantic discusses the new same-sex marriage ruling in Virginia, and how it differs from other pro-marriage equality rulings in the past.

    Writing for The Constitutional Accountability Center, Doug Kendall praises the Senate’s “nuclear option” to prevent filibusters in federal judicial confirmation hearings, particularly in light of the recent Senate confirmation of Pamela Harris.

    In a piece for the ACLU, Alex Sinha discusses what Edward Snowden’s reports on government surveillance mean for the law, and the new measures lawyers must take to ensure attorney-client privilege remains unbroken.

  • September 26, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    If you are in prison today, you are likely a minority and poor, as Southern Center for Human Rights leader Stephen Bright noted in an interview with ACSblog highlighted earlier this week.

    Many are also imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes. A report from the Brennan Center notes that nearly “half the people in state prisons are there for drug crimes. Almost half the people in federal prisons are there for drug crimes. Only 7.6 percent of federal cocaine prosecutions and 1.8 percent of federal crack cocaine prosecutions are for high level trafficking.”

    While the Department of Justice recently announced that prosecutors should not seek mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases, Professor Alex Kreit notes that there are “many moving parts” to the nation’s costly war on drugs, which have developed over several decades. The drug war and its impact will not be erased overnight.

    In an interview with ACSblog, Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for the Open Society Foundations, takes note of the lengthy war on drugs and its devastating impact on minority communities.

    Taifa said, “Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, by mass incarceration.” And even with some progress, such as the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act, the statistics “remain staggering.”

    She continued, “It is daunting to know that one in three young black men are under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system on any given day, at any given time; whether in prison, whether in jail, whether on probation, whether on parole.”

    Taifa concluded that the situation has greatly harmed generations of minorities. “This absolutely must stop."

    Watch the entire interview here or below.

  • September 26, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Alex Kreit, Associate Professor of Law, Director, Center for Law & Social Justice, Co-Director, Criminal Law Fellowship Program, Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Kreit is also author of the ACS Issue Brief, “Toward a Public Health Approach to Drug Policy.”

    When Gil Kerlikowske took office as drug czar four years ago, he said he was going to retire the concept of the war on drugs. During Obama’s first term, however, his policies did not live up to the bold rhetoric.  There were a handful of reforms -- perhaps most notably, a reduction (though not elimination) of the disparity between crack and powder cocaine. But at its core, federal drug policy remained almost entirely unchanged between 2009 and 2012.

    In recent weeks, the Obama administration has turned its words into action by tackling one of the most significant and criticized features of the drug war: mandatory minimum sentencing.

    Enacted in the 1980s, the mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws were the embodiment of the “war on drugs” mentality.  Indeed, it’s difficult to think of another federal law or policy as closely linked to the drug war. 

    Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new charging policy, instructing federal prosecutors not to seek mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases that met certain criteria.  With some of the criteria left open to interpretation, I wrote last month that only time would tell the policy’s true impact. Will the Department of Justice closely monitor local prosecutors to ensure compliance and consistent interpretation of the policy?  Or, will federal prosecutors be given the leeway to circumvent or narrowly apply the new policy?

    While it will take at least a few more months to know the answers to these questions, last week Attorney General Holder issued a second memo that provides reason for optimism. Holder’s most recent memo expands the new policy by applying it to defendants who have already been charged and encouraging prosecutors to follow the guidance even in cases where the defendant has already pled guilty and is awaiting sentencing, where it is “legally and practically feasible.”

    This development is a hopeful sign that the Department of Justice is serious about its new policy. 

  • August 30, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Alex Kreit, Associate Professor of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego. Kreit is author of the casebook, Controlled Substances: Crime, Regulation, and Policy and the ACS Issue Brief, “Toward a Public Health Approach to Drug Policy.”

    Yesterday, after months of anticipation, the Department of Justice announced its response to marijuana legalization ballot measures passed by voters in Washington and Colorado last November.  The DOJ said it does not plan to sue Washington and Colorado to block the new laws.  The agency also released new prosecutorial guidance that indicates it may limit the enforcement of federal drug laws in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational or medical purposes.

    If you felt a sense of déjà vu reading that paragraph, there’s a good reason. 

    In 2009, The New York Times ran a front-page article about a different DOJ memo under the headline U.S. Won’t Prosecute in States That Allow Medical Marijuana.  The 2009 Times article reported that “[p]eople who use marijuana for medical purposes and those who distribute it to them should not face federal prosecution, provided they act according to state law, the Justice Department said Monday in a directive with far-reaching political and legal implications.”

    By early 2012, however, Rolling Stone ran a story titled Obama’s War on Pot in which writer Tim Dickinson forlornly told the story of how “over the past year, the Obama administration ha[d] quietly unleashed a multiagency crackdown on medical cannabis that goes far beyond anything undertaken by George W. Bush.”

    Will the DOJ’s new marijuana policy live up to the hype?  Or, will we see a replay of what happened following the 2009 memo?  Policy advocates seem to be split so far, with some calling it a historic turning point for U.S. drug policy and others taking a wait-and-see approach.

    Only time will provide a definitive answer to this question.  But comparing yesterday’s memo with 2009’s can help us understand what to watch for in the months to come.  A few points are worth particular attention.