Director's Message:

Cost of drug war injustice exceeds many state budgets

By Nora Callahan, Executive Director of The November Coalition

Following the federal lead in the 1970's, and in return for additional funding, states adopted harsh sentencing laws for a variety of non-violent drug and other offenses. The 90's, barely behind us, are already remembered notably for the frenzy of prison construction.

Vast prison complexes were built at a rate rivaling no other era in our country, or world. At the close of the most punishing decade on record, the United States was poised to claim the dubious distinction of world's leading jailer. It was the decade in which private prison corporations boasted, If we build it, they will come. The 'build' was about prisons; 'they' were the people destined to fill them.

Law books got fatter while alliances between local, state and federal police solidified to ensure enforcement. Today these merged agencies are called "Regional Drug Task Force," "Street Crimes Unit," or "Special Weapons and Tactics Teams", or SWAT. Tactical operations of these paramilitary teams have names like Operation Hammer, Pressure Point, Clean Sweep, Sting, and Snowball, and they accomplish exactly what their names suggest. Armed with semi-automatic GlocksTM, maneuvering in tanks and behind battering rams, our police wear KevlarTM from head to toe-such awesome hardware visually reminiscent of other police states in distant times and lands.

It has not been a war on drugs, but a war on people-waged harder on those living in dense urban areas, demolished by changing or nonexistent economies. To that mix add myriad social pressures unknown to most middle and upper class individuals; send in extra police, and you get convictions and prisoners who are damned to life-long felony status. The stigma of drug arrest bears no honor, and reads lousy on a job application.

As Supreme Court justices around this land are telling police that it is illegal for them to stop cars just because the drivers are dark skinned, they need to go the next logical step. People on the street shouldn't be stopped and searched just because they are black or brown. That discussion needs to expand and include more about poor people of any color. There are a variety of ways that citizens end up over-policed, and living in or near poverty heads the list.

Doors need to stop coming down in a barrage of screaming police who trash homes in search and seizure operations based solely on the bartered words of a snitch. The cost of societal control, based on systematic betrayal, has been measured before. I'm sure that the first I heard of the word 'informant' was tied to the word 'communist.' Now it is our laws that embrace a snitch culture - our rural post office has a poster that announces there is $10,000 to be had for turning in a marijuana farmer.

In recognition of all this widespread injustice, those Supreme Justices should be openly and consistently ordering lower-court judges to ease up on the prison time given to citizens with darker skin and slimmer bank accounts. Harsh suggestions? No, those are the facts. Harsh reality? Yes.

In his book, Lockdown America, Christian Parenti explains, "In 1980, African Americans made up about 12 percent of the nation's population and over 23 percent of all those arrested on drug charges. Ten years later African Americans were still roughly 12 percent of the total population, but their representation among those busted for narcotics had almost doubled to more than 40 percent, while over 60 percent of all narcotics convictions were (and are) African Americans." I highly recommend reading Lockdown America. Our friends at Prison Legal News would be happy to sell you a copy, too. (

Thirty years into the drug war, with law enforcement alliances and operations continuing to dissipate black, brown and poor white people through disproportionate enforcement - from investigation to prison sentences-we are nonetheless seeing widespread state sentencing reform, especially as it pertains to drug sentencing.

It is with grave concern that November Coalition members write to warn that without drastic reform of the entire gamut of enforcement tactics in the war on drugs, we may face even greater social failure and lose ground. The gamut of control techniques is huge and runs from state assisted betrayal - the use of informants, buy and busts, reverse stings - to the pathetic fact that most criminal judges have been reduced to the level of 'clerk'. Now we face a dire situation if we have gotten the cart before the horse, if by design or accident.

We were laying groundwork, passing sweeping reform in state elections, making progress educating the public about futile drug laws that only increase drug use. Then, suddenly, the economy fell apart.

No one person is in charge of deciding what strategies reformers will take, folks, and I can personally attest to the fact that 'people with money' do not wave it under the leaders' noses and then lead us around by them. When I am exhausted and willing, I've yet to smell money. Though that is the story told in mainstream media, it isn't true. One of the movement's supporters says of the experience, It's like herding a bunch of cats. It doesn't happen, in other words. We are independent thinkers and doers - the entire lot.

Reform leaders have their own particular passions, and money doesn't drive the ones that I work with, and that is just about all of them. They are underpaid and overworked by today's standards, and grumble less these days about it than ever before.

Will a grandmother set aside her focus of imprisonment and the drug war to spend all of her volunteer time on marijuana decriminalization? No, but she will probably attend a hemp education day rally held outside the local Drug Enforcement Agency building in support of ending the drug war. We've been 'all over the place' describing and explaining the issues that surround the drug war; we remain very interested in every aspect, and sympathize with all its victims in every land. We recognize that it's our government that demands the world wage a war on drugs, even if it destroys people.

Good intentioned reformers and reform minded legislators (I count myself in the first category) know that "change will come incrementally, in stages, and probably take us a long time." Or so I've been told when I've worked at break-neck speed. I understand that expression now, as I do pace myself, and people aren't horses. We are experiencing legal reform now, thanks to effective grassroots efforts and professionally run voter-initiatives. We the people have given legislators the message, and we took to heart the words, "When the people lead, the leaders follow."

Now what happens?

Drug Courts, now praised in some state reforms, are problematic in that most do not recognize that relapse is part of recovery, and seldom do people 'clean up' in one fell swoop. Recovery is better understood as a process of time, with some failure mixed in, not unlike all hurdles in life. Treatment centers, already overwhelmed, need more funding immediately, but budgets still reflect a chasm between money allotted for medical treatment of addiction and punishment of the sick. Those conflicting points need to be stressed often.

The federal government has not declared a 'truce on harsh sentencing', and is still more than willing to use local police, local jails, and local substance abuse counselors to wage a reformed war on drugs. With a carrot-on-a-stick approach ("Work with us, and we will give you some of what we took from those people we didn't even indict for a crime and extra outright federal funding), the feds will get local cooperation. While state leaders reform incrementally, save some local money, and plenty on the state end, with the current warehousing of drug law violators hovering at about 25% in most jurisdictions, higher in others, officials will unashamedly take the federal incentives to continue policing local and federal drug laws.

Under these dubious reforms, people will shuffle through drug courts first, then on to prison. We all need to be watchdogs, looking at the budgets, and not automatically assuming and trusting that numbers are going to add up as projected. Insist that your local budget isn't being burdened and corrupted by federal government largesse, especially during this time when both state and federal budgets are in a financial crisis.

Our culture and laws have not made significant distinctions between use, abuse and addiction. That should be done as quickly as possible. A casual user of a soft drug such as marijuana - no, thousands upon thousands of such users - will be 'drug treatment' candidates, or so the judge of the drug court will surely deem. We don't have enough treatment beds now-why are marijuana smokers forced to fill them or go to prison?

If we fail to continue grassroots' organizing and pressure, state reform victories within the next months could read like this in just a few short years: Gentler approach to illegal drug control fails, Republican candidates advocate new drug war! Friends, the entire criminal justice system is already overburdened and failing. Adding another phase of the incarceration program, calling it 'diversion,' is patently ridiculous and self-defeating, leaving the root problems firmly in the ground. When the court orders an indigent person into treatment, probably someone not medically insured, or underinsured, it likely becomes a very impossible, court demanded expense on the defendant. If you can't afford it, you can be sent to prison in this lose/lose scenario.

Illinois, Michigan and Ohio are each opting to close a prison and shorten sentences for drug and other nonviolent prisoners. California won't be renewing at least five contracts held with private prison industries thanks, in part, to the successful voter initiative Proposition 36 of 2000, which paved the way to reforming sentencing laws of the leading state in the national prison boom.

Washington's Governor Locke has been suggesting for months that legislators reduce drug sentences. Recently they did just that, but changes won't go into effect until 2004. Retroactivity is not part of this reform, and general human services are taking a bigger budgetary hit than the prisons. Prisoners will feel the negative effects of scarce money for their basic needs.

Other states, including Washington, are putting off construction of costly new facilities. Louisiana is releasing drug and other non-violent prisoners, and the why of it came to us on the ABC nightly news recently, as one well-known Senator told his interviewer, "Drug sentences were 'fiscally irresponsible' and 'immoral.'"

Speaking about the tough on crime years, Steven Ickes, an assistant director of Oregon's prison system, recently told the New York Times, "My sense is that budget problems are making people ask fundamental questions about whether we can afford to keep on doing what we've been doing."

Entire communities, mostly the poorest, will need to muster and prepare to receive released prisoners back into our regions. Employers with conscience should call state probation officers and ask them to look among those recently released drug war prisoners for someone that might have the qualifications needed in a prospective employee. For church leaders, our president is making money available for services that you can provide to drug abusers and children of prisoners, and you can get some of those tax dollars to provide essential services that people desperately need.

We must hold the battleground taken, signified by the reforms offered. Ordinary people are now called to practice what they have been preaching. You wanted your son or daughter home; now you have to help them get back on their feet so that s/he doesn't give up, violate, and return to prison. Successful reentry also depends on those tireless citizens who have stood with us in the struggle to gain legal reforms and prisoner releases.

We can hold this ground taken by networking with all drug law reformers in our communities. We absolutely must reform drug enforcement laws next. Take a look at the logo on the front page of this paper. Do you see those people holding hands behind the wire? We are going to do just that, and then take our next step.

Federal prisoners must have relief, too. Voter-inspired initiatives for state sentencing reform could be on the November ballots in Florida, Michigan and Ohio if petition drives are successful. The November Coalition proposes that we could have substantial good time increases for federal prisoners of the drug war by November, too. Hence the name. If you can't find a copy of the Petition for Relief of Federal Drug War Injustice, visit today.

While gathering signatures of support in our communities, we must talk honestly about our loved one's experience with state assisted betrayal. We must speak boldly about the immorality of the racial and class motivated enforcement that a few brave political leaders are finally willing to admit are immoral. We of the November Coalition do not simply accept 'less time served." We will only accept justice.

Love and in struggle,

The Razor Wire is a publication of The November Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates drug law reform. Contact information:
282 West Astor - Colville, Washington 99114 - (509) 684-1550