war on drugs

via Elsa Oloffson / Flickr and Wikimedia Commons

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) released a new proposal on Wednesday to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.

The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act would decriminalize marijuana federally and regulate it like alcohol and tobacco. The wide-ranging proposal has elements that are designed to appeal to both Democrats and Republicans.

The proposal has provisions that are crucial to progressives. It expunges all federal non-violent cannabis offenses and offers grant programs to help those who've been hurt by the war on drugs. States that want to be eligible for grant funding must also create an automatic expungement program for prior cannabis offenses.

The bill also caters to Republicans by promoting states' rights. It allows them to make their own independent cannabis laws, even if that means prohibiting possession and production.

Currently, 18 states have full weed legalization, and 37 allow for medical use.

The rules would also make it easier for cannabis companies to run a legitimate business by allowing them to access the banking system, apply for loans, and get listed on stock exchanges.

The proposed legislation looks to regulate and tax an industry that is projected to be worth over $100 billion in annual sales by 2030. Legislators propose an introductory 10% tax on products that would rise to 25% after five years.

"By ending the failed federal prohibition of cannabis, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act will ensure that Americans—especially Black and Brown Americans—no longer have to fear arrest or be barred from public housing or federal financial aid for higher education for using cannabis in states where it's legal," the senators write in the draft.

"State-compliant cannabis businesses will finally be treated like other businesses and allowed access to essential financial services, like bank accounts and loans. Medical research will no longer be stifled," the statement continued.

via Lindsay Fox / Flickr

The proposal shouldn't have any problems gaining the support of the average American. A Pew Research poll from 2019 found that 67% of Americans support legalizing marijuana. However, that sentiment isn't mirrored in the Republican Senate.

Senators Steve Daines (R-MT) oand Mike Rounds (R-SD) are opposed to federal legalization although their states have legalized weed for recreational use. Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Kevin Cramer (R-ND) are open to federal decriminalization if it allows states to choose their own policies.

Going forward, Schumer, Wyden, and Booker's offices are openly looking for comments from the public, lawmakers, the cannabis industry, and law enforcement agencies, until September 1.

"We'd certainly listen to some suggestions if that'll bring more people on board," Schumer said in a statement. "That is not to say we're going to throw overboard things like expungement of records — very important to us — and other things like that, just 'cause some people don't like it."

Ryan Hampton was a year into recovery when he learned a difficult lesson: silence kills.

While his professional and personal relationships were both improving, the former heroin addict was still actively avoiding awkward conversations about his decade-long battle with opioid addiction.

But after three friends died from addiction in a matter months, Hampton knew he had to speak up — about his own struggles and the addiction problems spreading across the entire United States.

"In an epidemic that’s taking 78 lives every day to opioid overdoses, only 10 percent of Americans who seek help for their substance use disorder actually get it," he wrote in a White House blog post. "This number is mind-blowing, and it’s unacceptable."

Ryan Hampton. Image via Facing Addiction/YouTube.

So Hampton packed his bags and took a road trip​ from Pasadena to Philadelphia to connect with those who were struggling with heroin addiction.

Hampton's newfound sobriety had enabled him to pursue his lifelong interest in politics, and he had been selected as an official delegate for the Democratic National Convention in July 2016. He and his best friend from his treatment program drove across the country to the convention, chronicling the stories of people they met along the way.

They visited small towns and cities alike, meeting with families who'd lost loved ones to substance abuse and individuals living through long-term recovery. Along the way, they witnessed firsthand the hope that proper health care could bring to those afflicted with addiction and also the harsh realities of underfunded rehab programs.

But one place stood out on his journey: Virginia's Chesterfield County Jail.

By February 2016, the heroin problem in Chesterfield County had reached an all-time high, with overdoses increasing by 80% from the previous year.

As the prison cells started filling up with more addicts than ever before, Sheriff Karl Leonard realized that a new approach was needed. "We needed to think outside the box to create workable solutions," the sheriff told Progress Index. "Instead of institutionalizing these guys in the criminal justice system, why not approach this from a medical standpoint?"

With help from the McShin Recovery Resource Foundation, the county jail launched the Heroin Addiction Recovery Program (HARP).

The program is revolutionary for a prison. It offers medical treatment, clinical peer-to-peer counseling, and mental services for inmates struggling with addiction. The HARP program also provides assistance in finding professional care after their release from prison — a coping strategy that actually addresses the disease of addiction in the long term instead of trapping people in an endless cycle of detox, crime, and relapse.

Perhaps most remarkably,the program took less than a week to implement, and it costs less than $750 per inmate per year. That's a lot less than the cost of jail time for taxpayers, and the money comes entirely from the jail's basic operating fund — meaning the sheriff gets no financial support for the program.

HARP has already seen 47 graduates in its first six months, some of whom even asked for longer stays behind bars in order to ensure that their sobriety sticks.

With permission from the sheriff, Hampton took a Facebook Live video from inside the jail, and inmates shared their inspiring stories with him.

Hundreds of thousands of people tuned in for a rare Facebook Live event broadcast from inside a county jail.

Since the War on Drugs began in the early 1980s, prison populations have increased by almost 600% — and nearly half of those people are serving time on drug-related charges. But most prisons aren't like the Chesterfield County Jail, and incarcerated opioid users often die from withdrawal while they're still behind bars, or they overdose shortly after their release.

Hampton's live-stream gave a voice to often-ignored individuals whose lives had been wrecked by addiction.

He helped to humanize their experiences and showed the world firsthand how bad our country's opioid has gotten.

You can see the video here:

What's up Facebook? It's the inmates at the Chesterfield County Jail's HARP program here. We've taken over Ryan's live from within the walls of the jail - first time EVER that a Facebook live has been done from inside a jail. We have a message for America. So listen up! #WeDoRecover #AddictionXAmerica #PourYourHeartOut

Posted by Ryan Hampton on Thursday, September 22, 2016

Hampton's video serves as a powerful reminder for all of us that people suffering from addiction don't deserve to be treated like villainous pariahs.

Addiction is a clinical disease, and folks who are struggling deserve understanding and compassion. They deserve help, and a cure.

According to one study, the U.S. economy could also save nearly $13 billion per year by simply providing comprehensive drug addiction treatment and recovery services to people, instead of throwing them in jail. That doesn't even include the lives that would be saved and the emotional distress that would be avoided by the reduction in crime and loved ones dying from overdoses.

The opioid epidemic is on the rise, and it's not something we can jail our way out of. But maybe with a little empathy, we can channel Hampton and actually save some lives and improve our communities along the way, too.

Amid the endless debate over the effectiveness of the War on Drugs, author and journalist Dan Baum just dropped a bombshell.

Writing in Harper's Magazine, Baum recalled a brutally honest interview with former Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman in 1994 about origins of the drug war.

John Ehrlichman. Photo by Oliver F. Atkins/National Archives and Records Administration.

Here's the money quote(emphasis mine):

"At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. 'You want to know what this was really all about?' he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. 'The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.'"

It's a stunning admission that appears to confirm the worst fears of opponents of the War on Drugs.

To hear someone suggest that America's drug enforcement policy was, in fact, born not of efficacy, but of naked racism and petty politics — and to know that person was actually responsible for crafting the policy — it's hard not to take them at their word (though some who have studied Nixon's administration have pushed back on Ehrlichman's claim).

Regardless, the drug war has fundamentally changed America — and the Western Hemisphere — since it began.

A detachment of Colombia's FARC guerilla group. Photo by Luis Acosta/Getty Images.

The change has been substantial and, it's hard not to argue, mostly for the worse, as many of Ehrlichman's predictions have largely come true:

We've put lots and lots and lots of people in jail — and too many of them are black.

Since the drug war began, the rate of incarceration has increased over 500%, from around 110 per 100,000 people in the early '70s to 707 per 100,000 in 2012. A Brookings Institution report found that, between 1993 and 2009, drug crimes were the predominant reason for new admission to prison.

Black Americans, meanwhile, were six times more likely to be incarcerated than white Americans in 2010, an increase from 50 years earlier, before not only the War on Drugs, but the civil rights movement.

We've incited bloodshed in Latin America.

Despite decades of draconian penalties for drug use and sales, the United States remains the world's largest drug market. This market is largely supplied by Latin American cartels, and attempting to combat them has exacted a devastating toll on their home countries.

Colombia's drug war has dragged on for nearly 50 years. Mexico's brutal conflict against cartels has seen over 150,000 killed since 2007, according to some estimates. Drug trade-related gang violence continues to plague Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, leading to a massive outflow of migrants and refugees in recent years.

We've disenfranchised thousands of mostly black and other non-white voters in states across the U.S.

A 2010 study put the number of convicted felons who are ineligible to vote under state law at nearly 6 million — a group that's disproportionally African-American — many for drug or drug-related crimes.

Many criminal justice researchers believe that barriers like this, along with housing and job discrimination, can prevent former prisoners from fully reintegrating into society, which often leads them to commit further crimes.

What hasn't really changed since the War on Drugs began? People are still dying from drug abuse.

A memorial service for Benjamin Comparone of Connecticut, who died of an heroin overdose one year prior. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

While we continue to try to arrest our way out of the problem, our law enforcement-first approach has done little to stave off the massive heroin and opioid epidemic that's led to a 500% increase in deaths between 2001 and 2014.

It's time for an honest accounting of the way we address drug use and addiction.

A marijuana dispensary in Colorado. Photo by Theo Stroomer/Getty Images.

No matter how you slice it, it's hard to deny that we need a new approach.

In his Harper's Magazine piece, Baum argues, persuasively, for full legalization — to be accomplished methodically and carefully by expanding access to social services and treatment first (as Portugal did when it legalized drugs, to mixed results, in 2001).

Perhaps more importantly, he suggests establishing state monopolies over distribution of harder drugs like cocaine and heroin to help discourage consumption by removing the profit motive from sales.

Or, perhaps, it's simply a matter of supporting legislators who support bipartisan criminal justice reform and the decriminalization efforts (in which use is subject to a fine, but most sales are still considered felonies) currently underway in many states.

It might even be as simple as directing law enforcement to emphasize treatment for users over incarceration, like this pilot program in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which is already seeing some success.

Because Ehrlichman was wrong in one crucial respect: The War on Drugs isn't just a problem for black people and hippies — though black people especially, undeniably bore, and continue to bear, the brunt.

Nixon with his advisers. Ehrlichman is seated back left. Photo by Hartmann/National Archives and Records Administration.

The skyrocketing abuse deaths, massive prison population, and guerrilla conflicts make clear — it's an an issue for all of us.

"Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did,"Ehrlichman said. When you add that to the imprisonment, addiction, death, and broken lives left in the wake of trying to stamp them out by force, you get one hell of a problem.

Isn't it time we get serious about solving it?

At a campaign stop in a New Hampshire tavern, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie unloaded some heavy emotional artillery on the subject of drug addiction.

He shared a story about his mom, who started smoking when she was 16 years old.

GIFs via Huffington Post/YouTube.

She did everything she could to quit.

When she eventually developed lung cancer, the solution was obvious: Treat it.

He asked why people who are addicted to drugs don't receive the same compassion as those who get sick from cigarette addiction.

He shared another example to drive his point home. This one was about a friend of his from law school. Things always seemed to go his way. He was the smartest among them, the first to get a job offer, had lots of money and a loving wife and kids.

Then a minor running injury changed it all. His doctor prescribed him painkillers.

He was in and out of rehab for a decade, but his addiction was too strong.

He lost his wife, his kids, his home, his job, and his money. Then came a tragic ending.

Christie says policies shouldn't punish people with addictions. "We need to stop judging," he said, "and start giving them the tools they need to get better."

The speech was a touching break from the usual tussle of election season. But where will Christie stand when the rubber meets the road?

As a prosecutor, Christie built a "tough on crime" reputation. However, he has since acknowledged that the prison-crowding war on drugs was a failure.

Today, half of all federal prisoners are locked up for drug offenses. Christie says they need our help, not our judgment.

Full legend here. GIF via the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

“If we choose to stop treating the victims of addiction as enemies in a war," he said in a campaign speech, "we can end this war."

But here's where things get kinda weird.

If elected president, Christie has vowed to enforce federal cannabis prohibition laws, even in states that legalized medical and recreational use.

If that sounds at odds with what he had to say in that New Hampshire tavern, it's because it is. Walt Hickey of FiveThirtyEight says it's probably all about politics:

"Christie's intention may have been to assure the Republican base that the governor of a blue state with a medical cannabis policy is no friend of the reefer or just to shore up his law-and-order bona fides."

But Christie's stance on drug addiction wasn't the only moment of contrast with his other messaging. In the same speech, he says his pro-life beliefs are the basis for his compassionate views on the issue.

But that doesn't quite fit with his public support of the death penalty.

So is Christie really a "tell it like it is" candidate? That's for voters to decide.

In the meanwhile, prisons are swelling with folks who shouldn't be there, and tens of thousands are dying of drug overdoses every year because they can't get the treatment and opportunities they need.

And we'd all do well to remember that's just a fraction of what's at stake behind the clamor and confusion of politics.

Watch Christie's full speech: