What an Amazing Week for Drug Policy Reform!

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August 16, 2013 - By Ethan Nadelmann

What a week! It’s the sort of news that makes those of us in drug policy reform feel proud.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s CNN special Sunday night on marijuana was extraordinary, not just because of the quality of the show and the way he framed the issue, but also because of his public apologia a couple days before. All sorts of people who pay little attention to drug policy have mentioned it to me over the past few days. One can always get down on people for not having seen the light sooner, but the fact that Dr. Gupta had the guts to say that “We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that” is truly significant, not least because he was President Obama’s first pick to be Surgeon General of the United States.

The front pages of Monday’s New York Times and Washington Post both highlighted a speech that Attorney General Holder gave on Monday announcing significant changes to federal sentencing practices that could at last reduce the number of people getting locked up in federal prisons, especially for low-level drug law violations. There’s no good reason, of course, why the Obama administration couldn’t have done something like this during his first term and tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Americans have suffered unjustly as a result of their delay. But that said, President Obama and Attorney General Holder deserve credit for stepping out now, and for doing so in a fairly decisive way.

And, later on Monday morning, federal Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practices are unconstitutional, that the city had “adopted a policy of indirect racial profiling” and that “the city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner.” Judge Scheindlin is appointing a federal monitor to ensure that the NYPD changes its ways. This issue has always gone hand-in-hand with the unreasonably high rates of marijuana arrests -- especially of young black men -- in the city. It’s good to see police departments being held accountable for unconstitutional practices that do nothing to protect public safety but much to suck all too many young people into the grips of the criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, an incredible series of investigative reports last week by a talented Reuters reporter, John Shiffman, detailing extensive and systemic illegal behavior by DEA agents has raised eyebrows -- at last -- on Capitol Hill. I think this story is going to really take off soon, and you’ll be reading and hearing more about it.

And then, Monday evening, just before I headed home, I get a call from a top official in New York City’s Office of the Comptroller.  “I’m a huge fan of your work at the Drug Policy Alliance,” he says, and then asks if we’d like to be involved in releasing a forthcoming report on the fiscal impact for NYC of legalizing and taxing marijuana.  “Sure,” I say, so Wednesday morning DPA collaborated with the NYC Comptroller in publicizing an economic report that estimates the city would take in $400 million annually in revenue and save a minimum of $31 million a year in law enforcement and court costs.  The new revenue, Comptroller John Liu proposes, could be used to halve tuition at the City University of New York.  It’s a new world we’re living in.

Trying to reform our country’s system of mass incarceration and reverse direction is like trying to turn around an ocean liner. It feels now like we’re headed in a new direction, just not quick enough. This week’s successes build on the work of DPA and our allies over recent years.

Tomorrow’s successes will come all the faster if we can step up our efforts. Help us do it by donating today.

I’d welcome your thoughts and suggestions.

Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

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