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June 20, 2008

(Too) little coverage of JEC hearing on US drug policy

Especially with Senator Jim Webb generating buzz as a VP possibility, I am surprised there was not more media coverage of the hearing he conducted yesterday on US drug policy.  Fortunately, this local story, headlined "Webb urges fresh look at the war on drugs: The senator says billions spent on locking people up hasn't reduced the flow of drugs," provides an effective review of the event:

Virginia Sen. Jim Webb began building a public case Thursday to change the nation's drug laws to stress treatment over incarceration for nonviolent offenders. The freshman Democrat held a hearing of the Joint Economic Committee to solicit testimony from prosecutors and scholars who argued that the decades-long emphasis on incarceration has been costly and ineffective.

Armed with statistics showing soaring incarceration rates and drug seizures, Webb argued — and his witnesses agreed — that authorities have failed to reduce the supply of drugs appreciably. "Despite the number of people we have arrested, the illegal drug industry and the flow of drugs to our citizens remain undiminished," Webb said....

"The time has come to stop locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana," Webb wrote in his new book, "A Time to Fight." He added in the book: "Drug addiction is not in and of itself a criminal act. It is a medical condition, indeed a disease, just as alcoholism is, and we don't lock people up for being alcoholics."

Webb was not quite as blunt at Thursday's hearing, however, and said he was not pursuing any specific legislation at the moment. "We're just trying to get the facts out," he said.

Joining Webb for the joint Senate-House hearing was Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, D-Newport News, a longtime critic of prison-focused crime policies. Scott, chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, said prevention programs such as prenatal care, early-childhood education, summer jobs and access to college would prove more cost effective than spending $65 billion a year to lock people up, as the United States does today.

In a sign of the political stalemate over crime policy on Capitol Hill, however, no Republicans attended Thursday's hearing.

Some recent related posts:

June 20, 2008 at 09:17 AM | Permalink


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Pete Guither at http://www.drugwarrant.com has links to all the documents from the JEC hearings. I believe that most politicians are very fearful to address the War on Drugs because they are not clear about where their constituents stand on the subject. Indeed it is not a consensus issue.

I tend to think that the public is willing to overhaul our drug laws. There is much reluctance on the part of law enforcement and also the treatment industry. These two forces will continue to tussle over where the money goes.

Posted by: beth curtis | Jun 20, 2008 10:19:38 AM

Sorry, I hadn't noticed you'd already posted all the links.

Posted by: beth curtis | Jun 20, 2008 10:26:32 AM

Thanks for the detail.

Posted by: anwalt fuer erbrecht | Jun 20, 2008 11:05:57 AM

"The time has come to stop locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana."

I was not able to readily find in the linked materials how many people actually are incarcerated for possession of marijuana for personal use. Anybody know that?

Unfortunately, Sen. Webb engages in the all-too-common rhetorical device of saying drug "users" shouldn't be locked up and then in the next breath talking about how many drug "offenders" actually are locked up. Anyone not listening carefully (i.e., 99% of those listening) gets the impression that most of those locked up are merely users rather than traffickers.

One can make the argument that drug sellers, at least at the lower levels, shouldn't be locked up either, but a person who wants to make that argument should make it candidly and not blur the distinction between use and sale.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 20, 2008 12:27:36 PM

I am willing to concede that we can reduce the incarceration rate around the "fringes" but the old canard that most of the incarcerated are mere "drug users" needs to be dismissed. So too with the proposition that non-violent crime should never be met with a term of incarceration. Non-violent does not mean non-serious.

Posted by: mjs | Jun 20, 2008 12:52:57 PM

In many jurisdictions all dug offenses are combined under drugs. For some data sets in my jurisdiction (Iowa) it is broken out into drug possession, drug trafficking and other drug but there can be overlap between possession and trafficking depending on the amount and kind of drug.

For purposes of this discussion I would use 90% drug trafficking and 8% possession and 2% other drug as the distribution for people in Iowa prisons with drugs as the most serious offense. The BJS did a study about ten years ago that indicated 90% trafficking and 10% possession for federal prisoners.

The threshold amounts of drug needed for presumption of trafficking covers a very wide range from a few grams of meth to 10 or more pounds of marijuana and it is possible that some persons are charged with trafficking when possession is the proper charge. Possession with intent to deliver may be difficult to prove so it is possible that some possession charges are really trafficking.

The use of marijuana is part of the criminal lifestyle and drug screening data at admission to prison shows that a high percentage of those admitted to prison use marijuana. In comparing marijuana use by prison admits with the general population age should be taken into account because prisoners are much younger than the general population and I think there is an age dependence to marijuana use.

It is easy to avoid arrest for possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use. In my county we call it "breathing on a police officer" because in most such arrests the cop smells the dope during a traffic stop and starts looking around and asking questions and a warning for a burned out taillight (for example) becomes a serious misdemeanor drug possession charge. The penalty for such stupidity is a $1,000 fine plus a big surcharge and court costs. If the cop books them the jail signs them out so they are in jail less than an hour.

There is nobody in an Iowa prison on a serious misdemeanor drug charge.

Posted by: John Neff | Jun 20, 2008 2:17:55 PM

Non-violent does not mean non-serious.

I agree entirely, and I would add that it is easy to speak in platitudes about the need to help "non-violent" offenders, but sometimes more difficult to define that class of criminals. My experience in federal court is that most criminal defendants plead out, and most of those who plead do so pursuant to a plea agreement, which often obligates the government to dismiss certain counts of the indictment, including, often enough, gun counts. Even though a drug offender may not be convicted of a felony involving a firearm, he often will have his sentence enhanced as a result thereof--is he considered a "non-violent" offender?

Posted by: Steve | Jun 20, 2008 2:32:15 PM

Seems to me that if they did not use the gun in a violent crime they are non-violent offenders.

Posted by: beth curtis | Jun 20, 2008 4:29:01 PM

I caught the opening half hour or so and pulled these fact bites from Webb's opening statement:

"Congressman Jim Webb in his opening statement declared that marijuana is now California's most lucrative cash crop, surpassing even winemakers' profits, and that 4/5 of illegal marijuana fields in California are owned by Mexican drug cartels.

"Webb said 86% of US high school students said it is "very easy" or "fairly easy" to buy marijuana, even though the number of people in custody on drug charges increased 13-fold in the last 25 years."

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jun 20, 2008 7:02:06 PM

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