Back at the end of 2006 I posted an item about the need to focus on “winnable” areas of drug law and policy and to push actively for change in those areas. In response, both in the comments to the post and in the comments to an item on Daily Kos that the him of Reload wrote, several folks have helpfully suggested areas that they think need attention. There’s really a range of stuff people mentioned, from legalizing hemp farming to cutting the funding for Plan Columbia to expanding access to clean needles. All of these things strike me as worthwhile.
There are four areas that I, personally, want to try to work on this year. It would have been better, I suppose, if I had planned this out last fall so that the ball was already rolling by now, but better late than never. Here they are:
1. Make some progress on Hinchey-Rohrabacher, the amendment that would cut off federal funding for prosecution of medical marijuana patients. Last year, the amendment lost 259-163. Since then, Congress has seen a pretty big turnover. I’m not sure if it’s realistic to think that we would pick up 20 votes this year, but it doesn’t seem completely out of the question either. In the weeks ahead, I’d like to take a closer look at which legislators’ support we could potentially win and figure out how to start the dialogue with those people and their constituents. Even if we pick up 20 votes, we still lose. But we push the idea further into the mainstream and set the stage for success down the line.
2. Help along the process of reform at the federal level of the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity. As Professor Berman at the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog noted the other day, some very promising hearings that the US Sentencing Commission held on this subject last November seem to have led to a big nothing. The difficulty, or at least one of the difficulties, is that the USSC is a judicial branch agency, which makes it quite removed from the ability of any regular person to affect it politically. But even if it’s just a matter of publishing an op-ed, I think it is better to do something than do nothing.
3. Work to end the bar on federal education funding for people with drug convictions. This is something that Students for Sensible Drug Policy tried to accomplish last year through litigation, which was useful as an advocacy campaign and not very effective from the point of view of actually changing the law. If there was ever a wrongheaded law, though, this is it. So, as with Hinchey-Rohrabacher, the battle comes down to identifying the legislators who might be swayed one way or another and attempting to bring some pressure to bear on them. (Edit: Pete points out in the comments that SSDP’s campaign against this funding law has not been limited to the litigation. Point taken, and I certainly am not trying to diminish the good work that SSDP is doing on this issue.)
4. Fight the backlash against Prop. 36 in California. It’s interesting how the mere force of inertia in America tends to push the media and legislators toward an ever-more-punitive approach to drug policy. It’s just what we’ve been doing for so long that it’s sort of a reflex, even when (as in the case of Prop. 36) the voters have already explicitly rejected the use of prisons and jails to deal with nonviolent drug offenders. As I’ve described quite a bit on this site, there has already been a law passed to add a “flash incarceration” component to Prop. 36, and that change is already being litigated. My guess is that the flash incarceration component might eventually be struck down as unconstitutional. But whatever happens, I guarantee you that “flash incarceration” is just the beginning of what will be an ongoing effort by law enforcement, the media, and opportunistic politicians to dismantle this initiative. As I say, the default position of American politics is to use prisons to solve problems. So if there is not a consistent effort to push back against that type of nonsense, progressive reforms will gradually be eaten away. Already, if you look at the Google News entries on Prop. 36 right now you’ll see awful headlines like “Is Prop. 36 hindering city’s fight against meth?” written by a well meaning reporter who was nevertheless played like a fiddle by law enforcement. And of course there was thatridiculous LA Times piece a few weeks ago talking about “revolving door” jails in LA that quoted only law enforcement and put all the blame for recidivism at the feet of Prop. 36. In short, there needs to be an ongoing effort to counter these perceptions through the dissemination of accurate information and positive stories about the money and lives that progressive laws are saving. This kind of fact sheet from Drug Policy Alliance is a nice model. But it’s three years old, and backlash is definitely winning out at the moment. That needs to end.