Rethinking the ‘war on drugs’

Updated
United States Attorney Gen. Eric Holder speaks to the American Bar Association Annual Meeting Monday, Aug. 12, 2013, in San Francisco.
United States Attorney Gen. Eric Holder speaks to the American Bar Association Annual Meeting Monday, Aug. 12, 2013, in San Francisco.
Eric Risberg/AP

Monday saw two major legal developments in the so-called “war on drugs.” First, a judge in New York City ruled that the police department’s stop-and-frisk policy violated the Constitution in targeting a disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics. Then, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the end of mandatory federal prison sentences for low-level, non-violent drug crimes. Changes in these policies will come as a reprieve for the groups that are negatively affected by them the most.
In Judge Shira Scheindlin’s 198-page ruling on stop-and-frisk Monday, she noted that 80% of the 4.4 million times the tactic had been used between 2004 and 2012, the suspect was black or Hispanic. ”The city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner,” Scheindlin wrote. As for non-violent, low-level drug crimes, the data has long pointed to a racial bias. In the war on marijuana specifically, black Americans are four times as likely to be arrested for possession, according to a recent report by the ACLU.
Nicholas Peart, one of the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit that challenges the procedure as racially charged, wrote about his multiple experiences of being stopped and frisked in a New York Times op-ed piece.

“These experiences changed the way I felt about the police. After the third incident I worried when police cars drove by; I was afraid I would be stopped and searched or that something worse would happen. I dress better if I go downtown. I don’t hang out with friends outside my neighborhood in Harlem as much as I used to. Essentially, I incorporated into my daily life the sense that I might find myself up against a wall or on the ground with an officer’s gun at my head.”

It’s appropriate to single out marijuana arrests because they dwarf those of other drugs. According to a report released by the FBI, a marijuana related drug arrest happened every 42 seconds in the United States in 2011, totaling 750,000 arrests for the year. That number decreased by about half in 2012, but the 354,023 marijuana-related arrests still trump cocaine’s 36,001 and crystal meth’s 3,898.
Though marijuana is legal in Washington state and Colorado, it is still considered a Schedule I drug by the Justice Department, along with heroin and MDMA. This means that even in states where it is legal (for medical or recreational use) marijuana is subject to seizure by the Drug Enforcement Administration, and its legal users and sellers are subject to arrest. Just two weeks ago, DEA officials raided several medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington state, seizing thousands of dollars-worth of the drug.
Mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes–marijuana possession in particular–contribute disproportionately to the country’s overcrowded prison system. As Eric Holder lamented in a speech to the American Bar Association Monday, these sentences, “have had a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color. ” To counteract this trend, Holder has proposed a way to leave sentencing up to the judge in question’s discretion.
The disproportionate number of marijuana arrests, and the disproportionate number of black American men being arrested for marijuana possession, comes to head on the streets of New York City. In 2011, NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly issued a memorandum to his officers that prohibited them from arresting people with small amounts of marijuana, unless the drug was in public display. When someone is picked out for a stop-and-frisk, however, they often have to turn out their pockets, potentially forcing a display concealed marijuana and making them subject to arrest under the law.
“I would say as much as 40% of these cases stem from illegal searches, illegal stops of our clients, and the mischarging of our clients where clients are charged with the misdemeanor of possessing marijuana in public view where they only actually possessed it in their pocket,” Scott Levy of the Bronx Defenders told NPR early last year, coming off a 2011 of 50,700 arrests for low-level marijuana possession.
Given the racially biased numbers of stop-and-frisk program, it’s no surprise that between 2002 and 2010, 87% of those arrested for marijuana possession were black or Hispanic. In fact, the ratios are just about equal.
In her ruling, Judge Scheindlin didn’t dismantle the stop-and-frist program completely, but she did appoint a monitor to ensure that officers stop racial profiling. Attorney general Holder didn’t decriminalize marijuana federally, but his actions will likely result in less incarceration and shorter prison terms for low-level drug offenders. Both policy changes are moderate but meaningful steps toward the end of a racially biased and  wildly counterproductive war on drugs.
Peart spoke with msnbc’s Lawrence O’Donnell to discuss how the police tactic was ruled “unconstitutional.” Watch his interview below.

Rethinking the 'war on drugs'

Updated