Assuming that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse can break away from his all-white country club, the Senate Judiciary Committee should have full attendance today for its hearing about crack cocaine sentencing. As the Washington Post informs us, today’s hearing will center on the Biden Administration’s proposal to lower the cost of doing business for crack dealers by reducing their sentences and, as an extra bonus, making the reductions retroactive. This will assure earlier release for this particular cohort of drug traffickers, a large percentage of whom will recidivate within five years, according to Sentencing Commission figures. (The number is actually higher than Commission reports, first because yet more dealers recidivate after the five year window, and second because drug trafficking is a notoriously under-reported crime in any event).
Crack sentencing has been a hot topic for years, going back at least to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, co-sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin and a man I’m proud to call a friend, then-Senator and later Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Back then, that self-same Washington Post had some sound observations on crack sentencing, observations Congress would do well to heed today.
This country has been having a seemingly endless debate about drugs. Although there are gradations in between, there seem to be two mostly opposing camps, to wit, those who would treat drugs as a law enforcement problem, and those who would treat them as a public health problem.
I spent four years as Counselor to the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Drugs are both a law enforcement and a public health problem, and we aren’t going to solve it either by dismissing law enforcement as mere latter day Puritanism, nor by dismissing the opportunity for treatment as mere mush-minded coddling. But what’s getting overlooked is that no part of the system can be the foundation for a solution. The foundation for overcoming drugs, as with so much else, is the individual’s understanding that he is responsible for his life and behavior, and his determination to own that responsibility every minute of every day. This post is about the story of one young lady, Ginny Burton, who resurrected her life with the indispensable help of law enforcement, incarceration, and coming to terms with her failings — and then, wonderfully, her potential.
Many of the cities that have progressive District Attorneys are experiencing high spikes in crimes and criminal behavior encouraged by policy changes that have reduced the consequences for crimes. The Baltimore Sun has this story on the response of many business owners to the lack of action being taken by city officials to address unacceptable levels of crime. “More than 30 business and restaurant owners in Fells Point are threatening to withhold taxes if city leaders do not address crime, trash and other issues they say are plaguing the waterfront neighborhood.” These issues include drug sales out in the open areas of the city and public drinking. The business owners have stated in a letter to the city that there needs to be more regulation and consequences for the crimes being committed.
Politico has this story on the proposal for California to provide on-site medical care for individuals injecting illicit drugs, including, but not limited to heroin. The goal of SB 57 (Wiener, D San Francisco) is also to obtain immunity from federal enforcement for the professionals running the program and the drug-users. The most recent proposal awaiting legislative approval is for the California cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles to open and run these injection sites for five years to “test” the model.
Senate Bill 519 reads as follows:
This bill would make lawful the possession for personal use, as described, and the social sharing, as defined, of psilocybin, psilocyn, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ibogaine, mescaline, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), ketamine, and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), by and with persons 21 years of age or older. The bill would provide penalties for possession of these substance on school grounds, or possession by, or sharing with, persons under 21 years of age. The bill would also provide for the dismissal and sealing of pending and prior convictions for offenses that would be made lawful by the passage of this bill, as specified. The bill would require the Department of Justice to identify those records and provide them to local jurisdictions to initiate the required proceedings.
Yesterday Senator Melissa Melendez presented Senate Bill 350 to the California Senate Public Safety Committee in hopes it would be met with support. However, that was not the case for the majority of democrats on the committee. As defined in the article written yesterday by Katy Grimes of the California Globe, “[This bill] would require a court to issue an advisory to individuals convicted of selling or distributing controlled substances, to serve as a warning that if their action result in another person’s death, they could be charged with murder.” The goal of this bill in California is to address the high rise in Fentanyl-related deaths by holding the drug dealers accountable to the same degree the People v. Watson holds a drunk driver responsible under ‘implied malice’ (see last week’s blog post for more detail).
A growing body of scientific studies suggest that marijuana use increases the risk of developing psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia. There is an ongoing debate among scientists regarding the exact nature of the risk, including whether the risk is largely confined to those who are already genetically predisposed to these illnesses. But many scientists have raised the concern whether legalization of marijuana might lead to increases in these illnesses.
Which leads me to the current issue of JAMA Psychiatry, with the viewpoint article Balancing the Public Health Costs of Psychosis vs Mass Incarceration With the Legalization of Cannabis. In essence, the article argues that marijuana prohibition is a unique risk factor for the development of psychotic illness. How so, you may ask? Let’s take a look.
First the authors make the observation that legalization of marijuana is a trend among the states. They then make the very reasonable claim that marijuana use is associated with an increased risk of psychotic illness. Then the authors state:
The US has the world’s highest incarceration rate, at 655 per 100 000 adults (followed by El Salvador at 590 per 100 000) and the world’s largest total prison population, at 2 121 600 (followed by China at 1 700 000), according to the World Prison Brief database. The criminalization of cannabis is a significant contributor with approximately 8 million cannabis-related arrests between 2001 and 2010, most owing to possession. Cannabis possession accounts for 36.8% of all drug use arrests in the US according to 2018 US Federal Bureau of Investigation data.
So, as written, the reader is to believe that many marijuana users are languishing in jail for mere possession. If we dig into the some of the latest DOJ data, however, we learn that about 14% of the state prison population are serving time for drug offenses — and that includes both possession and distribution offenses. To be sure, it is a nontrivial number of citizens, but anyone who works in the trenches knows that personal possession of small amounts of marijuana does not lead to a lengthy (if any) prison sentence.
Which matters as the authors then state:
Although psychosis is not the only form of psychological distress that may result from incarceration, it is worth considering the consequences of incarceration as a potential trauma or stressor that may contribute to the onset or exacerbation of psychosis given that psychosis risk is a primary argument raised against the legalization of cannabis.
An article by Joe Nelson of The Press-Enterprise from last week, highlights a few of the policy responses by California counties in regards to fentanyl-related overdoses. Mike Hestrin, district attorney of Riverside County explained, “In the last five years, the number of fentanyl deaths has doubled every year.” This increase is alarming, and is cause for immediate action to punish the drug dealers that are selling this lethal drug with the knowledge that it is deadly. “During a Feb. 22 press conference, Hestrin announced Riverside County’s first Fentanyl-related murder charge…[for a man] who in October allegedly sold Fentanyl-spiked drugs to [an] 18 year old.” Hestrin is responding to the spike in deaths by attempting to deter the sale of drugs containing Fentanyl by charging the sellers with murder if an individual has a fatal overdose due to the ingestion of the drug.
Deseret News has this op-ed collectively written by The Other Side Academy.
We are a group of former longtime felons and drug addicts. Collectively we have been arrested over 400 times. Between us, we’ve been incarcerated for well over 150 years. And that was the best thing you could have done for us. Continue reading . . .